Christopher M. Broyhill, Ph.D., CAM
Here’s a familiar scenario: you’re interviewing for a pilot position at a corporate flight department and you hear the usual spiel about safety from the leadership there. “Safety is our first priority,” they say, “nothing is more important than safety.” They show you their safety management system and point at their IS-BAO registration certificate with pride. Then, later in the interview, you ask why the position you’re being hired to fill is vacant. The answer you receive is something like, “Well, the previous occupant felt like he wasn’t being paid well enough so he left.” The line is delivered with an impatient sigh or an eye-roll or both. Later, it’s time to get to the bottom line in the interview. You ask what the compensation range for the position will be, and you’re given a line like, “we pay based on experience,” and get nothing more out of them (1). But you’re still optimistic. Two weeks later, they tell you an offer is on the way. You wait eagerly for the email and when you finally get it, you open it, only to find the compensation level they’re offering is well below the industry standard. You do the wise thing and defer on the position. But here’s the crucial question: based on what you’ve learned, in spite of all their apparent emphasis on SMS and IS-BAO, do you think that department is operating at the highest level of safety?
I would argue not.
In 2018, I performed survey research on behalf of the NBAA that asked aviation managers how many pilot positions had turned over in their organizations since 2015. Here are some of the results of that research. In the chart on the left, we see the distribution of the types of operators who lost pilots and on the right, we see the number of pilots from each type of operator. In all, nearly 1/3 of the pilot force turned over in the three year period from 2015 – 2018.
Where did those pilots go? The chart below shows the pilot destinations as well as where they came from.
In this survey research, when pilots were asked for their primary reason for leaving their current position, better compensation was the number one answer.
So, you may be reading this and saying to yourself: “Well this is all very interesting, but what does it have to do with safety?” Let me give you a scenario. Let’s assume your department has decent training standards and a good safety culture. The pilot corps has been in place for a few years and all pilots seem to work well with each other. Until this year, compensation hasn’t been great, but it’s at least been reasonable. But now, the company has a new executive and a new compensation professional who thinks he/she knows about aviation compensation (2), and between the two of them, they decide that pilot compensation is fine where it was last year and shouldn’t be adjusted to keep pace with industry norms or averages. What do you think is going to happen then?
Pilots will begin looking for other positions – a pursuit that may distract them from their performance in the cockpit. Isn’t that a safety issue?
Eventually, turnover will occur, and new personnel, unfamiliar with the department’s procedures, will be part of the pilot corps. They same operational consistency that used to be there, won’t be there anymore. And…the more turnover, the less consistency. Isn’t that a safety issue? Look at the turnover statistics above. 254 departments suffered turnover, 254 departments that probably suffered degradations in operation consistency and perhaps even CRM. Isn’t that a safety issue?
More conversations in and out of the cockpit will focus on compensation issues, disrupting or displacing conversations about operational issues. The effect of poor compensation will mutate from an irritation to a distraction. The morale of the pilot corps will begin to deteriorate. Isn’t that a safety issue?
There are numerous other variations and issues I could identify, but you get the picture. The bottom line is that managers and companies who insist on paying substandard wage are generating risk in their flight operations. Depending on level of turnover and turmoil, that level of risk can be higher or lower, but it is present – as it was for every one of the 254 operators surveyed in 2018.
When I did my Ph.D. dissertation in 2016, I measured the impact of leadership in the human resources frame, i.e. the way leaders treat their people, versus safety culture perception. The correlation was high, .505, meaning for every one unit change in human resources performance, safety culture perceptions improved .505 units. There is a direct correlation between how leaders treat their people and the strength of the organization’s safety culture. Compensation is a key element of the human resources equation.
So, I’ll return to my original assertion above. If an organization claims it operates at the highest level of safety but doesn’t pay fairly or adequately, I don’t think it is. I think it’s assuming risk, and sadly, it’s a risk that can easily be mitigated.
If you have compensation questions, don’t randomly pull data from surveys or guess at the answers. Contact me at email@example.com. I’ll get you the answers you need for yourself, your supervisor, or your executive.
Notes: (1) There is ALWAYS a compensation range available for any position that is advertised. (2) HR compensation professionals, as competent as the might be in the corporate arena, rarely understand the nuances of aviation compensation.