Christopher M. Broyhill, Ph.D., CAM

This installment In my continuing series on business aviation compensation focuses on two positions, captain and senior captain. I’ve elected to discuss both positions in one article because of the way the two positions have interacted when I’ve done compensation analyses in the past.

The position of Captain is perhaps the most ubiquitous one in our industry. No matter how large a flight operation may be, it will always have at least one captain to fly its aircraft. The job description and duties for this position are well understood, hence pricing the captain position, as a function of jet class and region, is very straightforward. The data tends to be uniformly collected and presented.

When it comes to the position of senior captain, however, the data can be inconsistent. The main reason for the inconsistency in the data is due to the lack of consistency in the way the “title” of senior captain is awarded and how the employees with that title are paid. In some organizations, a senior captain is a separate pay grade, above captain. With that higher pay grade, there may be higher short term bonus percentages and other compensation enhancements. In other organizations, a senior captain isn’t a separate grade at all. A senior captain is merely a captain who has been in the organization, in the same grade, for a longer period of time than some of his or her peers. Due to merit increases and time of service in the organization, the senior captain in this instance makes more than some of his/her peers do, but the numbers aren’t uniform.

In many compensation analyses I’ve performed, the compensation levels between the captain and senior captain positions have overlapped, due not only to the inconsistency of the data but also because the two positions may be priced differently depending on jet class and/or region. While the data presented below comprise averages of all jet classes and regions in the U.S., we’ll still see some overlap between the two positions. First, we’ll look at the positions individually and then compare the data between the two of them.

From 2015 to 2019, average captain base salary increased from $113,146 to $141,456, a gain of nearly 25%. During the same period, 75th percentile captain base salary increased from $143,222 to $165,575. Note that while 75th percentile salary decreased somewhat from 2015 to 2017, the overall gain over the five-year period was higher than that of the average range at 28.3%.

The trends for senior captain base salary differed somewhat from captain. From 2015 to 2019, average senior captain base salary increased from $134,637 to $161,350, a gain of about 20%, 5% less than captain. But, during the same period, 75th percentile senior captain base salary increased from $144,638 to $187,088, an increase of 29.4%, approximately 1% higher than captain.

From 2015 to 2019, average captain total cash compensation increased from $122,142 to $154,374, a gain of about 26.4%. During the same period, 75th percentile captain total cash compensation increased from $149,172 to $182,881, a gain of about 22.6%.

From 2015 to 2019, average total cash compensation for senior captain increased from $148,450 to $181,213, a gain of about 22%. During the same period, 75th percentile total cash compensation for senior captain increased from $163,886 to $216,141, a gain of almost 32%. As with base salary, the increase over time for total cash comp for senior captains was less than captains in the average range, but greater in the 75th percentile range. In this case, the increase was 9 percent greater.

Here we see the overlap between the captain and senior captain positions that I mentioned above. In the base salary regime, senior captain average salary and captain 75th percentile salary overlap for the entire period. At the beginning of the period, in 2015, 75th percentile base salary for both positions was almost identical. When jet classes and regional correction factors are taken into account, the overlap is exacerbated because typically, captains demand a higher regional correction than senior captains do.

The overlap in the total cash compensation regime is similar to the overlap in the base salary one. Again, the 75th percentile of captain compensation overlies the average for senior captains. What this illustrates is that while there should be four strata between the two positions and two compensation levels, the reality is that there are only three. Average senior captains are typically paid at similar levels to captains at the 75th percentile – at lease where national averages are concerned. Again, when jet classes and regional compensation factors are included in the analysis, the strata become more co-mingled.

Let me close this article with a note about the current COVID-19 crisis and it’s perceived effect on compensation. There are many who believe pilot compensation levels will decrease as a result of the airline industry’s troubles and associated pilot furloughs. As someone who has lived in the compensation world for several years and become intimate with the data, I contend that belief is profoundly wrong. First of all, there’s no data (yet) to support lower compensation levels. Any data collected this year will reflect pre-COVID levels. The next round of data collection will be next year, about this time, and we’ll see the effects then. Anyone who is opining about lower comp levels now is speculating. There is no data to support that position. Next year, when the data is collected, then and only then, will we see the effects, if any, of the COVID-19 crisis on compensation levels. Even if there is some reduction of compensation in the meantime, the law of averages will drive a flattening of the increase rate, not a negation or elimination of it. During this timeframe, it is essential for business aviation leaders and HR personnel to keep their eyes on the ball from a compensation perspective and not be tempted to capitalize on the crisis in an attempt to drive compensation levels down. The COVID-19 crisis and its aftermath have created a bubble, a hiatus if you will. Business aviation is already recovering. With the demand for more controlled conditions by wealthy travelers, I believe the industry will enter an unprecedented boom period. These conditions will once again increase the demand for business aviation pilots and the pilots will remember which organizations acted with foresight and integrity and which ones did not. Business aviation leaders, hiring managers, and compensation personnel would do well to keep this in mind.