Podcast: Perspective on the Pilot Shortage, with First Take Aviation’s Shane Braddock

After years of running flight schools at one of the busiest general aviation airports in the world, Shane Braddock, managing partner of First Take Aviation, offers his insight on how the flight training industry is rapidly changing due to the looming pilot shortage and current state of the global economy.

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Rush Transcript

Matthew Orloff:

Good day and welcome to Aviation Week's BCA podcast. I'm your host, Matthew Orloff. And today we're going to be talking with Shane Braddock, who is a partner in First Take Aviation, a flight school based in Los Angeles. Soon to be Van Nuys, one of the busiest general aviation airports in the world. And we're going to be speaking about the pilot shortage and his take on it, any trends that he's noticing that are different within this industry. Shane, thank you so much for joining us today.

Shane Braddock:

Hey Matt, thank you for having me. And we're really excited to be here.

Matthew Orloff:

Oh, likewise. Shane, you've been in this game for a while. You've seen the evolution of the flight training environment over the last few years and how quickly it has changed. Are there any major differences that you are seeing that you can pinpoint for everybody?

Shane Braddock:

Yes. One of the major differences I'd say is the number of customers that are coming to us wanting to get finished with their training quickly, to try to get to whatever their next step or whatever their goal is in flight training. And with a lot of people, we've noticed an uptick in students that are coming to us that want to fly professionally. It makes sense that they would want to get finished as fast as they can to be able to jump into that professional career right now where everybody is hiring, hiring, hiring like crazy, whether it's 121, 135 or pipeline, it doesn't matter. People are hiring like crazy.

Matthew Orloff:

And can you meet the demand? Is it overwhelming for you? What does that look like?

Shane Braddock:

It can be. I would say pre-COVID, there was an acute pilot shortage, right? And we were having a hard time staffing our aircraft with instructors because they were getting sucked up by the airlines so quickly. They were getting their hours really quickly because we were so busy. They were getting sucked up by part 135 operators and then COVID hit. And obviously that stopped that, business slowed down. The amount of hours that instructors are putting in their logbooks slowed down as well. And then obviously right now, summer of 2022, demand is through the roof for aviation services and pilots are getting sucked up again. We are able to manage. We're very, very, very fastly trying to source more aircraft and always, always, always have our ear to the ground for competent, safe, and professional instructors to teach on those aircraft.

Matthew Orloff:

Would you say that instructors are now more available today than they were before pre COVID? Because I know the instructor shortage has been around before this pilot shortage even. That's the real pilot shortage is the lack of instructors. Now that more people are training, are you finding it a little bit easier to recruit instructors and to retain them? Or is it still just as challenging as it was before COVID?

Shane Braddock:

It is just as challenging as it was pre COVID, but we have learned. It was a challenging environment before 2020, but during that time where we were trying to find safe and professional instructors and separating the wheat from the chaff, we definitely learned what we needed to do to attract and retain instructors. A lot of schools out there I don't think learned. I think that they have a harder time keeping and retaining staff, but it all pretty much comes down to the same thing. You need to be able to pay your instructors a decent living wage.

Shane Braddock:

You need to entice them with benefits, things like discounted flights. If they want to take their friends and family, when they're in town, they could take the aircraft for a lot cheaper, but of course paying them a good decent salary and giving them a lot of hours on those aircraft, they can put in their logbooks is pretty much the key to the success of attracting and maintaining a good instructor base. And we do that pretty well. We've done that at the previous companies that I've worked at here in Los Angeles and as well as here at First Take Aviation.

Matthew Orloff:

Well, it seems like you have their best interest in mind. You know what their goals and their dreams are. You know that they want to eventually move on and work for an airline or for a charter operator, what have you. And if I'm not mistaken, as long as you're supporting them and enticing them, then they'll be good back to you. Is that fair to say?

Shane Braddock:

Absolutely.

Matthew Orloff:

Yeah.

Shane Braddock:

Absolutely been my experience, like I mentioned, in the past companies that I've managed here at Van Nuys, as well as at First Take. And also supporting the students as well, because if the students feel supported by the school, then they have a better experience. They'll learn better. Their instruction will sink in better. And then of course the instructors will have an easier time teaching the students. As long as everybody feels supported, then you've got a great operation. And I feel that's what separates First Take Aviation from a lot of the other flight schools that are out there.

Matthew Orloff:

Oh, absolutely. And flight schools that are out there, they can have a certain reputation. Not all flight schools were created equal.

Shane Braddock:

Yeah. That is true. That's very true.

Matthew Orloff:

I can speak from my own experience learning to fly. I myself had to jump around quite a bit before finding one. Same thing with the instructors. With that said, and that's just one of the challenges, is the instructor shortage. And I guess what I want to know is what are the greatest challenges that you're experiencing both as a business or challenges that the industry as a whole is experiencing that basically if the industry sneezes, you're catching a cold?

Shane Braddock:

One of the number ones that everyone is having to deal with, not just us here in Southern California, this is national, is inflation. It's what everybody is having to deal with. Prices of everything are through the roof, whether it is your groceries or your fuel you're putting in your car. It's the same with us. The prices at the pump for 100 low lead for our flight training aircraft, I've never seen it this high. Obviously, that cuts into the business of flight school and that's across the board, whether it's fuel, whether it's oil, whether it's aircraft parts that you're getting shipped. Everything is just more expensive. Everyone is having to deal with that. We're certainly having to deal with that and trying to figure out budget wise, how we can make this inflation work with our current structure of the business.

Shane Braddock:

And the other thing is rate of growth. Like I mentioned, we have a pretty significant uptick in interest in people learning to fly, certainly people learning to fly professionally, wanting to fly professionally to try to make this wave of hiring going on right now. It's a very delicate balance and a delicate dance on how many instructors that you have, how many aircraft that you have, and then how many students you can support in the school and how many students you can put with each instructor and on each aircraft to make sure that it's all pretty much simpatico, that everybody feels like they're getting a great education and they're supported, like I mentioned earlier. That comes down to trying to source aircraft and aircraft right now are very expensive as well. Trying to look out there what's around the United States that could come on board your flight line, that doesn't cost four arms and four legs.

Matthew Orloff:

Oh, absolutely. I must say, of the two problems that you mentioned, the latter of the two seems like a good problem to have. Business is good. The former being inflation, it's crippling to be honest, and I've seen it firsthand myself with the price of fuel. It is just insane. And for those of you who don't know, and who are listening to this outside of California, California, avgas right now, it's not uncommon if you were to get it from an FBO to pay over or really right around $9 per gallon. I myself paid close to $8 a gallon and I didn't have the luxury of having somebody pump gas for me. I had to get it myself and everything. And that is quite the premium.

Shane Braddock:

Yeah. That's what we're paying as well. Obviously, that definitely cuts into the business.

Matthew Orloff:

Oh my gosh. Yeah, absolutely.

Shane Braddock:

We're hoping that comes down.

Matthew Orloff:

Likewise. It's very brutal. But as you said, it's something that everybody's experiencing and hopefully that the second of the two problems, how do you balance this act of the demand with the amount of airplanes you have and the amount of instructors you have and how many students an instructor can take on at any given time and make these instructors still pleased and happy with their job is a very, very careful balancing act as you said. Going off of that thought, if you don't mind me asking, what is the balance that you're finding, if any? Is there a certain amount of students per instructor that an instructor can take on before they get too saturated?

Shane Braddock:

That's a hard question because it depends on how many times, say, an instructor's students come in to fly. For example, right now we have a number of students that are flying full time. They're coming in multiple times a week. Some of the students are coming in multiple times a day and doing a couple of flights a day, including a ground school. It all just depends on how fast an instructor's students are going through the curriculum. It's knowing where students are in their training. It's knowing which instructor has which types of students. Sometimes an instructor can have 15 students before they start to feel overwhelmed. Sometimes if they have students that are coming pretty often, then it's going to be certainly less than 15. You're going to have somewhere in the eight to 10 range. It's just knowing where students are, how many students are with each instructor and gauging it from there.

Matthew Orloff:

Interesting. I wonder myself, how many I would be able to take on. That's impressive. Eight to 10, I'll admit, that's pretty impressive for somebody to be able to do I'd say. Yes, it's very insightful indeed. Shane, where do you see this going really? What do you think the fate of the industry is? Will the pilot shortage ultimately be resolved? Is it going to continue looking like the current state of business for the next 10 years until 2030? I know it's impossible to predict the future, but if you happen to have any insight or prediction or warnings, perhaps, for those who are listening, by all means, I would be really interested to hear what you have to say.

Shane Braddock:

Yeah, absolutely. Those are great questions, tough questions as well. It's hard to predict the future like you said. Being in this for the years that I've been doing it, it's never been a better time to be a pilot. Like I mentioned earlier, it doesn't matter what the operator is, whether they're 120, 191, 135, they are snatching up commercial pilots left, right, and center and pay raises are going up, quality of life is going up. It's never been a better time. And so not being able to predict a future, not knowing if, say, recession is going to come anytime in the next year, couple of years, I still don't see the acute pilot shortage that we're going through right now, subsiding, anytime soon. Even if there were say a slight recession. People want to travel. COVID put, obviously, a big old hamper in international, as well as domestic travel. People want to travel, myself included.

Shane Braddock:

I want to get on an airplane and I want to go somewhere. I think people are willing to do that right now, and they're going to need pilots to get them there. And so I think you're going to have a lot of people that are going to continue coming through the flight training, flight school pipeline. You're going to have people that are going to want to get it done as fast as they can. And that's my advice. To anybody out there that is in flight school right now, anybody that is looking to go through the flight school program from private through instrument, commercial up to CFIs, zero to hero, jump in. Do a discovery flight. See if it's for you. And if it is, try to get it done as fast as you can. Try to find ways that you can cut costs. Meet other students at the flight school.

Shane Braddock:

That's what we do at First Take Aviation. We pair up people that are in the same general area of their study, whether that's instrument rating or commercial and let them hour build. It's not one person in an airplane just flying across country, trying to build up hours. We pair them up so that they can save a little money. Ask your flight school is that something that we can do to cut costs so that you can get through your flight training faster? Because right now you're on a big wave of hiring and not knowing the future. Not exactly sure when that wave is going to end. I don't see it ending anytime in the very near future, but at some point, yeah, we're going to have as many pilots as we need for airplanes and you don't want that wave to pass you by. Just try to get it done as fast as you can. And if it's for you, jump in and do it.

Matthew Orloff:

Shane that is beautifully said. I happen to agree with everything that you have mentioned. As someone who has started training and stopped training and had to relearn training, it really is best to just knock it out because your brain will leak even after a couple days of not being around and fully immersed in this stuff. I would also like to say the great thing about training in Los Angeles is we have great weather to fly in, but it's also weather that you need to be conscientious of because of the coastline. It really gives you a great understanding of weather. It also prepares you for any airspace, as far as ATC communications. If you can fly here, you can fly anywhere. And of course too, there are plenty of people here who are undergoing flight training, who are in the same position as you, as far as experience level goes.

Matthew Orloff:

If you're someone like me who is getting their instrument rating right now, it's very easy amongst the community of student pilots here to find somebody who will be your safety pilot and someone you can bounce ideas off of. You don't need to do the part 141 criteria to knock it out as quickly or as effectively as you can at part 61. I do part 61 in a place like Los Angeles and even the price of fuel will just make you a... Just look at the price of fuel as making you a better pilot, because you're going to be a king on the radio. But anyway, that wraps up our podcast for the day. Thank you so much, Shane, for your insight and discussion here. Join us again in a few weeks for the next edition. And to make sure you don't miss out, you can subscribe to Aviation Week's BCA podcast and find us on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Amazon, Audible, and Spotify. Thank you for listening and have a great day.

Matthew Orloff

Based in Los Angeles, Matthew Orloff covers business aviation for Aviation Week Network.