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Building a Strong Relationship Between Hangar and Headquarters
Based at a hangar often miles from corporate offices and uniquely focused on transportation, the flight department often appears separate from the company it serves. In fact, however, the flight department touches almost every aspect of the company’s business, and communication between aviation and corporate professionals is essential to the success of both.
“An aviation department that is keeping its head down and ‘staying off the radar’ is actually doing a disservice to the department and the company,” said Jeff Agur, managing director of fleet planning and aircraft acquisitions for the VanAllen Group. “The best way to gain trust – and avoid land mines – is through frequent communication.”
Partnering With Corporate Staff
To manage the aircraft effectively and protect the company from risk, flight department managers need to work with many of the company’s corporate departments, including finance, legal, human resources (HR), security and executive administration. “Those people play an important role in the success or failure of the flight department,” said Agur. “The aviation managers I know who have a great rapport with this group embrace them and go ‘downtown’ regularly.”
Financial management is an area that obviously requires close collaboration between the hangar and headquarters. It’s important for the director of aviation to understand the company’s cash position and growth prospects in order to decide the right asset mix and staffing level for the flight department.
“In the financial area, a challenge we hear from many managers is the company expecting the flight department to make tax decisions simply because the airplane is involved,” said Mike Nichols, NBAA vice president, operations, education & economics. “That puts aviation professionals in the awkward position of making tax recommendations, for example: about personal use, when they are not CPAs or tax attorneys. A strong working relationship between the hangar and the finance department will ensure the flight department collects the necessary information for the tax professionals to make those decisions.”
Questions of who should be subject to overtime pay and how to comply with workplace safety regulations are among the many issues that the company’s HR team and aviation professionals can address together. Decisions about Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) reporting also require two-way cooperation. A publicly traded company, who will have lawyers and accountants trained in Sarbanes-Oxley compliance, should work with aviation staff in preparing an SEC proxy. The same with public relations: aviation directors should make sure the company’s PR team has clear messaging on how business aviation contributes to the company’s goals.
Be Proactive; Pick Up the Phone
With each of these corporate functions, “communicating is as helpful to them as it is to you,” emphasized Scott Moore, chief pilot for Virginia-based Luck Stone Corporation, but corporate staff may not initiate the communication. “Don’t wait for anyone to come to you. Be proactive. People are there to help, and building those partnerships is essential.”
Don Henderson, director of aviation for KeyCorp, a financial services company based in Cleveland, OH, firmly believes in being proactive. “The onus is on the flight department to establish the relationship,” said Henderson. “In aviation, we teach people to take all these precautions so they don’t get into a stall and need to use their superior skills. The same is true here: the moment you need to communicate with corporate staff, it’s too late to start a relationship.”
Moore and Henderson point to two simple strategies for building relationships with corporate staff: going “downtown” to meet with them and inviting them to the hangar to see how the flight department works.
“I make it a point to get over to the corporate office once a week,” said Moore, who’s office is located on Luck Stone’s company airfield, about nine miles from the headquarters. “On days when we’re not flying, I schedule two to three meetings a day at the corporate office.”
At some point, every corporate group should get an invitation to visit the flight department, Henderson recommends. For example, invite financial staff for a meeting at the hangar to discuss fuel planning.
“We need to demystify what we do as aviation professionals,” said Henderson. “Invite people from corporate out and you’ll have a lot of advocates saying, ‘I’ve been there, I’ve seen what they do. They don’t just fly airplanes; they run it like a business.’”
The same applies to executives. Moore likes to have a 30-second elevator speech on an aviation topic prepared for when executives are getting on or off the airplane “Then, if you have a window, you can create productive time,” said Moore.
Know Why You Exist
Having a strong rapport with company executives is imperative to ensuring the flight department is aligned with the strategic direction of the company. “You should know why you exist,” said Henderson. “Every flight department has goals, but you probably have one or two top reasons for being there.”
Companies rely on business aviation for a variety of reasons. At Luck Stone, the airplane is used for taking sales associates to meetings and bringing customers to visit the company’s construction stone studios. KeyCorp’s airplane is often used to bring clients to meetings.
“We’re not about flying airplanes, we’re about building trust with clients,” said Henderson. “I encourage my flight crews to think of themselves as bankers. I tell them to say ‘Thanks for doing business with us’ to the clients we fly.”
Knowing why the flight department exists is the first step in establishing guidelines for who can use the airplane and when. An “aircraft usage policy” is a foundation for effective communication with non-aviation personnel.
“You have to understand what your company wants to be and what your CEO’s leadership style is,” said Henderson. “Then, match the aircraft usage policy to that.”
An aircraft usage policy is a document created with input from executives, as well as the flight department, and is sometimes reviewed by the company’s board. It details approval processes for who can use the aircraft and how to deal with multiple requests, sometimes called a “bumping policy.” It can also include limits on expense sharing, charter and personal use.
It’s the aviation director’s job to make sure the aircraft usage policy is aligned with company policy and to update it frequently, especially when a company’s leadership team or aircraft fleet changes.
“An aircraft usage policy is vitally important to establish,” said Agur. “It ensures that the company’s ‘boundaries’ are set between the users and the service providers. More importantly, it helps describe the mission of the flight department. Without ground rules, the flight department runs the risk of learning the boundaries the hard way.”