Columnists

February 13, 2015

What They Don’t Teach You in Ground School, Part I: Pushy Corporate Clients

We ask pilots to know everything there is to know about aviation; aircraft performance, aerodynamics, weight, balance, ATC, weather, thousands of pages of rules and regulations, etc. But when it comes to the day-to-day challenges, it is often the social construct of human beings that give pilots heartburn. Facts and figures from performance charts give defined answers, but when clients ask pilots to perform magic and make the numbers work for them, then we’re all at risk. The Client Factor is an insidious decision making influence that they don’t teach you in ground school.

Corporate and Part 135 pilots enter the private world of an echelon that has its own dysfunctions, and it takes a unique talent to deal with their clients’ quirks. Stories abound around behavior like the corporate president who lost his emotional intelligence because a peanut butter sandwich that he had ordered was presumed to be for a child. The caterer thoughtfully cut off the crust. The flight was delayed so that a new peanut butter sandwich could be properly assembled for the corporation president because he just had to have that crust. I’ve seen it. From the front desk of a busy FBO, through the world of corporate aviation, I have hundreds of examples of client behavior that would make a mother wag her finger.

I’ve had clients demand bagels and lox during a quick turn at a one-runway field in the middle of Alabama, a seafood catering tray that cost over $1,000 for one person, and a request to call ahead (yes, midflight) to arrange for a Jaguar rental car at a small airport in Iowa. It would’ve been easier to get a John Deere. Money is good. A lifetime of too much money can warp a perception, and for many pilots, their jobs are on the line if they can’t please their client’s warped view of necessities.

Since I started out as a customer service rep at an FBO, I know the variety of strange requests and the miracles these ground personnel perform. Pilots should always remember to treat these people well—they can make or break your day. These people have connections, know who to call, and will make you look good, or bad. They even know people at other FBOs across the country. One phone call from a well-connected customer service rep can get tickets to a sold-out play at your destination. If you treat them poorly, you’ll be last fueled, last catered and first to be filled up with frustration. Talk nicely and bring an occasional souvenir and they’ll make you look like a pilot God.

Clients have no idea who accomplished their request; they just know that you’re the pilot responsible for their safety, as well as their satisfaction. You’re on the front line. If you can’t fulfill their request, no matter how strange it is, they’ll blame your incompetence. But, they’ll also give you respect if you live up to their expectations. The problem pilots run into is that when you perform magic for clients, they start asking for you to do other things like change the weather—and they take out their frustration on the pilot if it can’t be done. Some things just can’t be done.

I was flying an old Citation I as a contract pilot and we were departing Naples, FL for Phoenix, AZ. Our client, the aircraft owner, arrived and we informed him where we’d be stopping for fuel. He looked at me and said, “Oh, sorry, that won’t work. I’m late and we don’t have time for a stop, so just figure out how to get there non-stop.” I’m still trying to figure that one out. To add insult to injury, this gentleman would only drive a certain color rental car (which I thought I had made clear to the car rental company). When the unsuspecting lineman in Phoenix brought up a rental car that had a color that was somehow offensive, the poor lineman received a barrage of insults fit for an ax murderer. He then turned on me and said his day was ruined because of my inability to fly nonstop, and now the horror of driving a navy blue car…even though it was a BMW.

Clients push and cajole and pilots truly do their best. Professional pilots smile but remain firm about not walking outside the margins of safety to please a pushy client. The client doesn’t even have to be on the airplane. Sometimes just getting to a meeting overrides a pilot’s good decision making sequence. Too many accident reports at the NTSB show pilot error—but upon further digging, you often find that the pilot was just trying to please a client.

Yes, I’ll admit my own guilt. I’ve seen a lead-in light approach that might’ve been wishful thinking, but it eventually led me to the rest of the running rabbit lights.  I have squished golf bags, skis, and fishing poles into crevasses in the airplane not necessarily designed for that use. I have flown air ambulance and put pressure on myself to get the medical team there, even though that snowstorm was a little heavier than forecasted. But, I have also said “no” enough so that I can be here to write these words. Thankfully, the vast majority of corporate clients are professional, respectful and enormously kind. They have strived to make it to the top of their own industry, and being able to step foot on a corporate aircraft is their reward. They appreciate it, and you, because both of you know how hard it is to get there.

Pilot competition is tough and the Client Factor has an insidious ability to lean your decision making. Stand tall. There is an entire professional pilot circle out there that stands by your decisions. We stand together so we can all stand up straight and not lean decisions based on client wishes. If a client thinks you’re an incompetent pilot because you won’t sneak into Aspen at night with fog, then I think you’re the best pilot out there. It means your life is worth more than a taunt about your pilot skills. Make sure other pilots know about the clients that ask you to bend the rules. I know there are pilots who would take a job no matter what the situation because they want to fly so desperately. Desperate pilots don’t stay pilots long. In the short term, they may be in the air, but in the long run, the Client Factor will make a decision for them that they simply can’t live with…

Erika Armstrong has been in aviation for twenty-five years. From the front desk of a busy FBO to the captain’s seat of a commercial airline, she’s experienced everything in between. Her manuscript “A Chick in the Cockpit” was purchased by a publisher and will be out in 2015.  If you have a story or comment, she can be reached at [email protected].



About the Author

Erika Armstrong





 
 

 

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  • Christopher Sauer

    Dear Erika;
    Fabulous. Just fabulous. I am 20 years an FBO manager. Crust on a PBJ.., equals my life being reduced to the missing pint of 1/2 & 1/2. Have a good day. Chris

  • Excellent article Erika. As one who also deals specifically in corporate aviation, I certainly understand the nuances of this side of the industry, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world!

  • Chet Meyerson

    As an airline captain we have it easy! Sure we get some pressure from dispatch to go, but in the end if we say NO, then that’s it! Delayed or canceled. I have the greatest admiration for corporate pilots who know how to say NO. If I were a corporate pilot I would be hated as I would say, “No, is a complete sentence! What part of No don’t you understand, Mr Big Shot?”

  • Christopher Sauer

    It takes a certain breed to pilot the elite. In my travels as FBO guy, the increase in the number of female corporate captains is increasing and that is great to see. I would doubt that their job is any easier than a male corporate pilot. How about it Erika? More than likely, the job is more difficult. Hat’s off to any of you who carry the corporate captain ID.

  • PilotEricB

    I appreciate the story but I think it paints a slightly out-of-scale picture of the typical clientele in corporate/charter flying. From 11 years of corporate flying (9 of which were spent in 135 jet charter) I can assuredly say the good or neutral customers outweigh the pushy/high maintenance customers by a considerable margin. I understand – a customer who accepts a weather/maintenance delay or doesn’t gripe about the catering doesn’t exactly make for a riveting story. Nevertheless, not every customer is like the ones you describe above.

    I have had plenty of customers that have been displeased with weather delays or other logistical challenges. The best way to deal with these problems and defuse angry customers:

    1) Be proactive. A lot of crises can be entirely avoided if the flight crew makes extra phone calls and makes arrangements personally rather than depending on others.
    2) Be honest and don’t assign blame. State what you will do to take ownership of the problem, even if it’s not your fault.
    3) Be creative in coming up with options/alternatives that will still help the customer

    Talk to your customers about the weather before you get airborne. Have a backup plan – maybe even backup transportation. I once had to fly a Big 10 football coach and his wife from CLT to the NYC area. With snow in NYC, there were massive ATC delays. We knew about these before the passengers arrived at the FBO. When they showed up, we were able to offer them the option of waiting to get to their preferred airport, or we could launch immediately, fly them into Stuart, and have a limo waiting for them to take them into the city. Yes, they had a longish car ride into the city, but they arrived safely and were able to be on their way. And best of all – no outraged customer.

    Yes, certain customers have expectations that seem strange or even trivial (like the color of their car or the crust on their sandwich.) It’s not our place to judge. A lot of pilots think their job is simply to get in the cockpit and fly the plane. Once you arrive at the destination, you don’t dump the pax out of the plane and leave them to fend for themselves while you go to the hotel. One essential lesson for new pilots to learn in corporate/charter flying (that makes it different from airline flying) is that your job is a service position that happens to involve aviation, not the other way around. If that dual role doesn’t suit you, there are other opportunities in aviation.