The airline industry may be mired in its worst crisis, with border restrictions and a collapse in consumer confidence grounding hundreds of aircraft and creating an uncertain future for pilots. However, one part of the air travel market has managed to soar above the turbulence. Several private charter firms continue to report strong demand from high-net-worth individuals and corporate clients who need to travel for business or family reasons, and can afford the secure luxury of their own jet and a crew to fly them directly and discreetly to and from their destination.
One of the stand-out brands in a fragmented sector dominated by brokers and boutique charter providers is Malta-headquartered VistaJet. The all-Bombardier operator dubs itself the “first and only global private aviation company”. Founded in 2004 by entrepreneur Thomas Flohr, VistaJet has grown to a fleet of over 70 aircraft – including the flagship, 7,700nm-range Global 7500 – which it flies under air operator certificates (AOCs) in both the European Union and the USA. The company employs around 1,000 staff of which some 300 are pilots, and 150 cabin crew.
While virtually every airline has been laying off flightcrew, VistaJet plans to recruit in 2021, with chief operating officer Nick van der Meer anticipating taking on up to 30 first officers. The job is attractive – the chance to pilot a modern business jet, as part of a crew of three on bespoke missions all over the world, flying 500 to 800 hours a year. However, van der Meer, who conducts all interviews himself, can afford to be choosy. From hundreds of enquiries for each round of openings, he will draw up a shortlist of around 50, inviting 10 for interview, and offering a job to perhaps six.
So what sort of pilot makes it as far as signing that elusive VistaJet employment contract? Van der Meer is clear about which applications do not get past the first hurdle: “A CV full of mistakes; a covering letter not addressed to the right company, or with names spelled wrong. They would be the first to be weeded out,” he remarks. After that, he says, he is simply looking for candidates with the right airmanship skills and experience of international operations. But, most importantly, he has to be confident they will slot seamlessly into the company culture.
“Flexibility is the key,” he says. “A lot of international pilots will be used to flying a rota that involves the same A-B-A-B city pairs. VistaJet pilots need to be ready to fly anywhere from Alaska to remote parts of Africa. They must be prepared for their mission to change at short notice.” While VistaJet employs a 60-strong operational support team at its head office to sort everything from routing to hotel bookings, onboard meals, and ground transport, pilots have to “think on their feet”, and be prepared to manage an unexpected situation, he says. “They get thrown curve balls every day.”
Recruits arrive at the Malta offices, next to the island’s international airport, for a week-long induction and two weeks of ground school. Depending on their type experience and assignment, they then travel to a simulator centre in Amsterdam, Dubai or near London where VistaJet’s own instructors, or those from training partner CAE, put them through their paces to bring them up to the standards required by both the regulators and VistaJet’s own guidelines. After a two-week break, the new arrivals then begin line training on the VistaJet fleet.
While van der Meer has occasionally taken on more seasoned aviators, most recruits will have between 1,000 and 2,000 hours on their log and have a “stable” resume that indicates that they have not “jumped around too much” in their career. After joining in the right-hand seat, first officers can expect to graduate to command after three to five years – or roughly 3,000 hours on the Challenger fleet and 4,500 hours on the Globals. “We prefer to promote in-house,” says van der Meer. “But it is not automatic. VistaJet pilots have to earn promotion.”
Escorting a Hollywood star and her family, or a captain of industry and his top team to Geneva or Johannesburg in the ultimate comfort might seem worlds apart from the life of an airline pilot, flying a packed passenger jet on a multi-stop schedule. In some ways, of course, the responsibilities are similar – putting safety above all, following company operating procedures, and working as part of a team. Beyond that, differences kick in. “It’s a cliché, but we are a VistaJet family,” asserts van der Meer. “Every day, that pilot is out there representing and living the VistaJet brand.”
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