3 Ways to Maintain Professional Distance in Business Aviation

Author By Kim DiMetro

Professionals in business aviation—like people in many other industries—thrive on developing long-standing, personal relationships. One reason, as many of us are aware, is that business aviation certainly is a “who you know” type of industry.

Yet, it’s important to understand that, despite the tight-knit circles that pilots, flight attendants, maintenance professionals and even aviation industry vendors develop, it’s another story when it comes to fostering relationships with senior executives or aircraft owners (i.e., our customers).

The general rule of thumb is that we are hired to perform a job, not to be the boss’s friend.

It’s tricky to know where to draw the line between having personal and professional relationships with our customers, but it’s always a safe approach to try and maintain professional distance.

Have you ever been working a flight and focused on a task, when an executive traveler approaches you to ask:“What do you think about…?”

Is it your nature to answer quickly, without thinking? After all, the ‘boss’ just asked you a question! Or do you think to yourself: “What is he/she really asking me?” or “Am I the best person to answer this question?”

Chances are, your response could be more valuable if you’re given more time to consider the potential consequences.

Let’s explore how to maintain professional distance and why it could be helpful while interacting with your parent company.

What Does it Mean to Maintain Professional Distance?

Quite simply, the phrase professional distance refers to the’arm’s length’ detachment that flight department members must keep with customers (and even colleagues) to avoid the appearance of impropriety. It’s a metaphorical space that you must stay out of while fulfilling your professional duties. If not, you just might end up being alienated or, worse, terminated.

Not maintaining a professional distance within the flight department and with our customers can be a slippery slope—especially since it’s our job to travel alongside our customers in a very contained space.

But since most of our customers must maintain an arm’s length relationship with their colleagues at headquarters, it’s almost a given to assume that they expect the same behavior from their pilots, flight attendants and schedulers.

Personal vs. Professional Relationships—Know the Difference

Understanding the distinction between a personal and professional relationship is key. It may seem obvious, but do we keep these differences in mind when interacting with our colleagues and/or company executives?

  • Personal relationships focus on friendships and/or fulfilling an individual’s need for socialization.
  • Professional relationships are solely work-related, with a purpose of meeting each person’s need for success and achievement in the workplace. Typically, there’s an imbalance of power in a professional relationship. Those in leadership positions must keep a certain distance from those whom they are responsible to lead.

Ultimately, the flight department provides a refined service to corporate: we help create more usable time.

Is the flight department expected to deliver high levels of service? You bet!

But remember, like other service departments within the company, we are service providers. The only difference between a chief pilot and an accounting or HR manager is that, as a pilot, you are in much closer proximity to senior executives, and for longer durations.

People in all roles must maintain very high levels of professionalism.

An authoritative, hierarchal structure is important to the corporate world, so we must remember this while working within the flight department and with our customers.

Do not make the mistake of thinking your customers are your friends. This is not a family and the aircraft cabin is not a living room; it’s an airborne office featuring the highest conceivable service and productivity levels.

How to Maintain Professional Distance

So now that we’ve defined our topic, let’s discuss three ways you can keep an arm’s length relationship with your customers while providing exceptional service.

1. Keep it simple and to-the-point. It’s always OK to communicate when the higher-ranking executive traveler speaks with you first, but it’s a good rule of thumb to stick to the expected briefings and essential ‘need to knows.’

Don’t try to strike up a casual conversation, ask prying questions or act like a peer or a member of their inner circle. Conversations should be courteous and simple, not about your weekend, your pet or how the kids are doing.

Examples of safe, simple topics:

  • “High levels of solar radiation will interfere with our Wi-Fi connectivity today. Please know that this is beyond our control.”
  • “We are anticipating strong turbulence during the first 18 minutes of our trip. Please keep your seatbelt fastened.”
  • “Strong tailwinds at altitude will shorten our en route time. Please plan on four hours, 15 minutes—gear up to gear down.”

2.  Avoid controversial topics. In general, most of us want to be friendly, honest and direct in the things that we say and do. However, there are situations in which polite and noncontroversial subjects are the only choice. At the workplace (and even at social gatherings) it’s a great time to avoid taboo topics such as religion, politics, finances and the sharing of personal information.

Examples of topics to avoid:

  • “Who do you think will run in the 2016 election?”
  • “Did you hear [insert name] just left the flight department?”
  • “What do you think about our stock price?”

3. Practice your professional response. In business aviation, it’s important to remember where our duties fall within the chain of command.

The next time you are asked a question by an executive, ask yourself: “Does this question fall within my realm of knowledge, or, by answering, would I be speculating?” It’s critically important that all flight department members speak with ‘one voice’ and not engage in debate.

Examples of professional responses:

  • “That’s a great question, Mr. XX. “I don’t know the answer, but will be sure to get you an answer by [insert hour or day].”
  •  “That’s a great point. I’ll pass it on to the Director/Chief Pilot.”
  • “Thanks for your interest in that topic. Let me research the best answer at the conclusion of the flight. I will have a definitive answer for you when you board tomorrow or I can email the response to you late tonight. Which would you prefer?”

Maintaining a professional distance is vital to an individual’s objectivity and time management. It’s the norm in corporations and one that should be supported by every individual who interacts with his or her parent company.

Everybody in the flight department — from maintenance to scheduling, and flight crews to administrative support — is responsible for keeping their professional distance when interacting with corporate executives.

So the next time one of the executives boards the aircraft, remember that your interaction with them is a reflection of the professional business aviation team you represent.

Your turn
What experiences have you had when it comes to maintaining a professional distance? Is this a practice you consciously work on with your staff? We welcome any suggestions and insights regarding your experiences.

Please add your comments below. We’d love to hear from you!

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If your team could benefit from training on how to better manage interpersonal communications with corporate, please send us a quick email for a no-obligation discussion.