The region's many new business aviation operators desperately need pilots, but the job is very different to working for an airline
Like the region's airlines, the Middle East's business aviation sector is expanding fast, with last November's Dubai air show heralding the arrival of a number of new operators to join established players such as Abu Dhabi's Royal Jet and Falcon Aviation, Saudi Arabia's National Air Services, Bahrain's Bexair and the Dubai-based divisions of ExecuJet and Jet Aviation, who between them manage and maintain many of the region's private aircraft.
Middle Eastern customers placed commitments at the show for more than 100 business aircraft, ranging from the first corporate Airbus A380 to Embraer Phenom 100 and Cessna Mustang very light jets. A combination of demand for private aviation by local businesses and overseas visitors to the region - as well as the attraction of Dubai as a "safe haven" to base foreign-owned jets - has sparked the boom. These days an operator might as easily fly a golfer to play a tournament in Qatar or a rock star to a concert in Dubai as a sheikh to a business meeting in London.
As with the airlines, finding qualified pilots for all these aircraft is a challenge. Not only are there more makes of business jets than there are of airliner - making the pool of qualified pilots on each type smaller - but business aviation pilots are a different breed to their airline cousins. While the latter fly from behind the closed doors of the flightdeck, the former are highly visible to their clients.
Capt Mohammed Saif Al Mazroui, director of flight operations for the Middle East's biggest charter operator, Royal Jet, expands on what - apart from the cockpit technology - makes flying business jets different to airliners: "On airlines, if someone is late, they close the door. Here it's almost as if the guy owns the aircraft, so it's very different to when you are operating to a strict timetable." Pilots can also be flying to a snowbound airport in Siberia one day, to Bali the next. "We need that higher level of experience and captains in particular have a very high workload," he says.
Pilots also have to deal with complicated protocol, such as receiving a head of state onboard and being escorted by fighter jets as they enter a country's airspace, says Mazroui. At times, it simply involves paying extra attention to passengers' comfort. "You don't always focus on economy. It might mean extending a 6h flight to 8h by circling or slowing down so they can sleep, or sticking to a lower flight level to avoid turbulence," he adds. "We don't break the rules - if the pilot's duty time is up they don't fly - but we are flexible within the rules. For an airline the focus is on safety, economy and passengers, in that order, but our priority is safety, passengers, economy."
© Royal Jet
Royal Jet's fleet of 12 aircraft includes five Boeing Business Jets, two Gulfstream G300s and a GIVSP, and two Bombardier Learjet 35s, and the company plans to add another eight aircraft over the next five years. This is based on its own prediction that the Middle East business aviation market in the region will grow by around 40% a year. It has just under 50 pilots and is "adding one almost every week", says Capt Riaz Ahmed, head of training. "We will reach 70 this year and will need another 20 to 30 on top of that," he says.
Minimum requirements for a captain are 5,000h of relevant type rating and 2,500h for a first officer. After that comes an assessment where "we look deep inside the pilot", says Al Mazroui. "We look at his experience, his years at his current employer, whether he has jumped from one company to another and references from other pilots."
The company benchmarks its salary package against Emirates and "we try to be 20% higher", says Al Mazroui. Although standards are high, schedules are not as intensive as with airlines. "We don't push our pilots to the limit," he says.
Royally-owned Falcon Aviation - based at the Bateen military airfield - is also investing many hundreds of millions of dollars to become one of the Gulf's leading business aviation players. Launched in 2006 as a VIP helicopter operator, the company is branching into fixed-wing with orders for 15 aircraft, including Gulfstream G450s, Embraer Legacys, Phenom 300s and a Lineage, and Grob SPns.With five more helicopters on order, Falcon expects to be operating a fleet of 30 aircraft within four years.
The company employs 15 pilots and plans to recruit at least 10 later this year. Although it advertises, many appointments come from word of mouth recommendations, says human resources manager Sharon Creese. "It's a fantastic tool. A lot of our applications are from expats who have worked in the region before, or we approach people who pass the word," she says. Typical pilots are middle-aged with several thousand hours' flying under their belts. "Our clientele are high-net-worth individuals, so pilots have to be very presentable people as well as being experienced and professional," she adds.
Despite Abu Dhabi's appeal, Falcon's general manager Phil Markham admits the parity of the dirham with the weak US dollar has made it difficult to recruit European pilots. Instead, interest is coming from pilots based in North America, South Africa and Australia. Another challenge is competition from Saudi Arabia and - on the helicopter side particularly - Nigeria, where pilots are often prepared to trade lifestyle restrictions for a higher salary.
Mike Berry, managing director for the Middle East at ExecuJet - which employs 35 pilots on its managed business aircraft fleet in Dubai - is candid about the difficulty the sector faces with recruitment, especially from Europe. "It's difficult to perusade people to come and work here, when you can get a nice package without moving too far," he says. One solution could be employing pilots on rotational work patterns, where they live in their home country and work part of the month in the region. "A lot of pilots prefer that because they don't want to move too far from schools, friends and family," he says.
As well as its managed fleet of 22 aircraft, ExecuJet has a maintenance division at Dubai and, here too, has had to scour the world for recruits. South-East Asia has proved fertile ground. "It's difficult to find people for maintenance as well as flight ops. You don't have a pool of candidates sitting around," he says.
Although pilot recruitment is a challenge - and Dubai's rocketing inflation does not help - ExecuJet has the advantage of being an expanding company, both in the Middle East and around the world, says Berry. "Because we are a global business, pilots do have the opportunity to move across aircraft types," he says. "We've had people join us as a first officer on Learjets who are now commanders on bigger aircraft."