Flight Instructors: What’s in Short Supply is a Reason to Teach

By Scott Spangler on March 5th, 2008

flight-training-river-lgWhen the airlines start hiring, it doesn’t take long for flight schools large and small to start wailing about the shortage of certificated flight instructors. As FAA airmen certificate data proves, this is utter nonsense.

More pilots hold current flight instructor certificates today than any year in the past decade. And here’s something to think about: As the number of active airmen has declined, the number of CFIs has increased.

In 1997 there were 616,342 pilots, and 78,102 of them, 12 percent, also held a teaching certificate. In 2006, the most current data, there were 597,109 pilots and 91,343 CFIs. So, a 3 percent decline in the pilot population resulted in a 17 percent increase in the number of current flight instructors.

Over the same period, the number of student pilot certificates started at 96,101, peaked at 97,736 in 1998, slid to 84,866 in 2006. This begs the question: Can there be a shortage when CFIs outnumber students?

Obviously, we have more than enough qualified teachers. But few, nobody really knows the number, teach for a living.

Nearly 600 teachers of flight have earned a Master Instructor designation from the the National Association of Flight Instructors (NAFI). Working with the semi-educated guesstimate that one in 10 active instructors earns this designation, there are roughly 6,000 active CFIs. That means the other 85,000 CFIs are keeping their hard-earned tickets current. I’m guessing again, but in today’s world the only thing that would get them back in a flying classroom every day would be a furlough or layoff.

The question is why?

Having witnessed previous “shortages,” all the current wailing and wringing of hands proves is that aviation never learns. Flight schools and industry pundits readily describe flight instructing as a dues-paying, steppingstone job that pays food stamp wages. And then they are surprised when their teachers pursue a right seat position that pays just a bit more than the poverty level. When this happens, as they always have before, everyone talks about CFI retention through better wages and benefits…and here we are again, talking about the shortage of flight instructors.

But CFI pay and benefits never seem to change, even in a tight market.

What’s ironic is that flight schools created the shortage they now face. The seeds for aviation’s new operating model, call it Aviation 2.0, were sown in the 1990s, when aviation degree programs started offering a direct path to the airline cockpit that bypassed the CFI steppingstone. Such programs have thinned the herd of bright, passionate young men and women following the traditional aviation career path, the dues-paying new CFIs that made Aviation 1.0 possible.

Compounding this ironic twist is the chronic financial turmoil wracking the airline industry. Given its uncertain future, many bright young men and women are applying the talents to more rewarding careers on the ground.

So, yes, in one regard there is a shortage of new flight instructors and–as the declining population indicates–a shortage of new pilots period. If there is one challenge Aviation 2.0 must meet to have a future, we must give people solid reasons for taking to the sky whether they be a teacher or a student.

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13 Responses to “Flight Instructors: What’s in Short Supply is a Reason to Teach”

  1. Matt Thurber Says:

    Scott, there’s gotta be more to this story, and it has to do with the CFI shortage and why there doesn’t need to be one.

    How and why is Max able to carve out a living teaching flying? Maybe the answer would be interesting and useful for your readers.

    I don’t know if Max is an independent CFI or works at one of the schools at Palo Alto, but it may interest you to know that many CFIs who fly at that airport do quite well.

    At West Valley Flying Club at PAO, where I used to be a member, instructors were all independent and therefore could charge whatever they wanted.

    The newbies started out at $25 to $30 and the really good ones who could teach effectively and efficiently were charging $60 or more and flying like crazy and banking tons of moolah. And the club> took not one dime of their money, except they had to be members.

    Bottom line, the solution to the CFI shortage is dead simple. If all schools would simply allow CFIs to earn the full amount that the school charges, CFIs would make it a career or at least stick around longer.

    The schools should simply charge what they need to make the aircraft pay for itself, then let the CFIs charge appropriate fees or pay the CFI the full amount charged for.

    If the market doesn’t bear the cost of aircraft rental at high enough rates to make it profitable, then the schools need to figure out how to do so by adopting LSAs, figuring out how to do maintenance more efficiently (been there, done that, whole ‘nother long story but it can be done) or leave the business to youngsters who aren’t burdened with “that’s the way we always do it.”

    This is so simple. I can’t understand why more schools haven’t figured it out.

    Matt

  2. Scott Spangler Says:

    Matt,

    Yes, many independent CFIs make a good living because they charge what their time is worth. I know one NAFI Master CFI who was so busy he rasied his hourly rate to $100–and his business increased.

    The shortage exists primarily at schools still operating on Aviation 1.0, where you pay CFIs didley and tell ‘em to suck it up because they’re paying their dues.

    Flight training operations, like West Valley, that recognize the value of teachers and enable them to make a living wage will continue to prosper in Aviation 2.0 because they are not stuck in the past, where all that mattered was the price. People today are more interested in quality and efficient use of their time, and they are willing to pay for it.

    You’re right, it is simple, but not when you live by yesterday’s values.

    Scott

  3. Max Trescott Says:

    I agree with Scott’s data. I see a large number of CFI’s at FIRC’s (flight instructor refresher clinics) who are not actively teaching, but choose to keep their CFI rating by attending these weekend long clinics every two years. I’m sure some are airline guys who retain their ticket just in case they need to “fall back” on it if the airlines lays them off. Everywhere I speak, I encourage the “gray haired” pilots in the room to get their CFI, as that’s the kind of experience that student pilots can benefit from.

    Interestingly, change in CFI compensation is occurring. I received a postcard a few days ago offering “starting salary of $45,000 – $56,000 per year as a Flight Instructor” which is probably a livable wage in Bakersfield, CA. It came from http://www.ifta.aero, in case anyone wants to apply. Note that the same qualifications would get you a job that pays less than $20,000 per year in the right seat of a regional jet. I hear that many of those right seat guys work a second job–no surprise.

    As for West Valley, the independent flight instrutor model works very well, and it attracts the very best instructors. There are 60 instructors there, and for many of them it’s their only job. Virtually everyone is there because they like teaching, not because they’re building time for the airlines. A few do move on to the airlines–but a number of them give that up and come back after they’ve experienced it.

  4. Rob Mark Says:

    At my local airport – KPWK, Chicago Executive – there are a few schools that will let me use their airplanes to teach, but want to keep a huge chunk of the revenue.

    One that stands out heard about my experience – not my experiences mind you – and offered me a solid $15 an hour. I laughed and he raised it to $18.

    Obviously we got no where and the guy later told me that he can find people to fly for free so he doesn’t need to pay well.

    I don’t think that’s even Aviation 1.0. Sounds more like a Beta to me.

    For me at least, the problem is finding an owner with an airplane at a reasonable rate that is willing to simply make money on the airplane.

    At our end of the world, that’s not so easy.

    Rob Mark

  5. Ian Says:

    Interesting take Scott. From purely a numbers perspective, you’re on to something. But as Rob, Max, and Matt have said, it’s more than that. I try to stay active and teach regularly, but a local flight school won’t let me. They say they don’t have time for independent CFIs. Another required that I work the desk for eight hours a month. And a third wanted me to go through a 40-hour training program that consisted of watching the other CFIs play video games, among other interesting things.

    Flight schools have always (well, at least my concept of always) been behind the power curve when it comes to common business sense, and I don’t expect that will change anytime soon. So, as you suggest, maybe we should change the dialogue the other direction.

  6. Scott Spangler Says:

    Yes, there is much more to the story, but it doesn’t all fit in one blog post.

    Flight school relations with independent CFIs is a separate story with long IRS-related chapters about their working relationships. One example is that schools can only mandate specific hours and duties for employees, not independent contractors.

    A student of the flight training industry, you’re correct that it is behind the curve. The good news is that the few newcomers to the industry have more modern business sense. Unfortunately, they are still in the minority.

    But schools are really the least of our problem. Getting people interested in learning to fly is the real challenge. And you’re right, we do need to change the dialogue. Over the past several decades, the industry efforts to entice people to fly, Learn to Fly, Be-A-Pilot, prove that what we’ve been doing has had little lasting effect.

    Scott

  7. Mike C Says:

    A bit of discussion on that around here yesterday. I generally concur with Scott’s message, although I think I would have approached it differently and in fewer words (but then, all of us old print writers have our own ideas about how to communicate on the Web).

    The missing link in his piece–and I’m not sure where to find it–is the airline take on all of this.

    The regionals, especially, should be shaking in their boots–are they, or are they clueless?

    I’m hearing about regional carriers that can’t fill new-hire classes, but with some having already lowered their minimums to 250 hours–how much lower can you go?

    Aggressive recruiting CFIs from Part 61 schools (I know first hand that it’s happening) might fill a classroom seat today…but what about the five or 10 students that CFI “should” have taught before moving on? The best analogy I can come up with is that they’re rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

  8. Rob Mark Says:

    I think another important aspect of the freelance side of instructing is related to what we deal with today at flight schools.

    Most instructors want to fly, they don’t want to sell services. Max Trescott obviously understands that part of the equation.

    And Max, how do you cope with the liability insurance issue as an independent or do you have yourself named to the policies?

    Rob

  9. Max Trescott Says:

    Ian, for the schools that “don’t have time” for independent CFI’s, perhaps you can show them that you bring value to the school by bringing students they aren’t gettting (either through a great website of yours, recruitment of potential pilots from your friends and organizations to which you belong, etc). Or teach free safety seminars there that bring potential new clients in the door. Figure out what THEIR pain points are and how to solve them and they’ll probably be glad to let you teach.

    At the flight schools I teach (all of which use mostly independents), the CFI’s are all named on the flight school’s insurance. Some instructors also choose to buy CFI insurance so they’re covered when they fly with owners.

  10. Wally Wallace Says:

    I know that I’m jumping into this thread a bit late …

    There are a lot of good comments and thoughts here, many that have run through my mind in recent months. Flight schools have long been “flight time factories” for newly minted pilots. They don’t care so much about the pay, they just need the flight time to be hired somewhere else. That has never produced longevity as an instructor.

    Today’s environment is different in that the newly minted pilot can be hired by a regional with almost no experience beyond certification. So, flight schools are beginning to seek more experienced pilots to fill the position of CFI. That is not always a smooth transition for the professional pilot that hasn’t taught weather or aero in many years. But the test will be in keeping the experienced pilots in a teaching position. As pointed out by several writers so far, more expensive CFI’s often attract more customers. Certainly, it has a lot to do with their ability, but often it has more to do with their experience.

    Just as we see with West Valley, the schools that attract be best instructors with pay and benefits will like-wise attract the best customers and keep those instructors.

    It will be interesting to see if the US aviation industry follows Europe in the adoption of mult-crew training to place pilots in the cockpits of heavy 121 aircraft with minimum experience, but more training.

  11. Ron Says:

    There are several reasons that the ratio of instructors to the overall pilot population has grown over the years.

    For one thing, it’s a lot easier to get your CFI certificate than it used to be. You can get the double-I and multi instructor , too, and do it in less than 2 weeks. I’m not saying this is necessarily a good program, but it can be done. Also, there are a lot of college programs now which turn out instructors en mass.

    Instructing has also become a more interesting profession of late. In 1997 there was not much new stuff out there. Now we have Columbias, Cirruses, Diamonds, glass panels, better training tools, and a wide range of experimental aircraft out there. Instructing also seems to be an ideal second career for those who are retired but still want to stay in aviation.

    Finally, I believe with online FIRCs and other such tools, it’s easier for instructors to renew their certificates, even if they don’t use them.

    I think the ratio of Master CFIs to non-Masters is a lot lower than 1 in 10. It’s probably more like 1 in 100, but I’m just guessing of course.

    $100/hr rates as an instructor can be obtained. You simply need to branch out into areas where the demand exceeds the supply of instructors. The 250 hour wonders probably aren’t going to be teaching in the Cessna/Columbia 400, SR22, or TwinStar. Likewise, someone has to teach the aerobatics, tailwheels, and check out pilots in the Pitts, Extra, Eagle, and other fun airplanes. Once you have a reputation for solid instructional capabilities and the hours to get on the owner’s aircraft insurance, word will spread.

    As for the schools, that’s a “sticky wicket”, as the Brits say. I know they provide insurance coverage, office space, supplies, and do the necessary advertising and such to get people in the door. They’re entitled to something, I think. But I do agree that they take much to big a chunk of the pie. Perhaps as an instructor grows in hours and experience, the chunk should get smaller. They bring more to the table, so they should get more compensation as a result.

  12. Mike C Says:

    It just hit me like a ton of plotters. Here’s why the number of instructors has been going up, up, up–until very recently, aspiring commercial pilots *had* to have an instructor’s ticket to build the time necessary to land in the right seat of a commuter (corporate jet, charter operator).

    With many college aviation programs no longer requiring students to earn a CFI–and some no longer *offering* instructor training–this number now will trend downward, perhaps dramatically. With minimums as low as 200 or 250 hours, instructing is no longer required. Only a sustained decrease in hiring, and the accompanying increase in hiring minimums, will reverse this.

    I agree with the comments above that many of the CFIs at FIRCs want that certificate current, but they’re not instructing (at least not regularly)–if they were, they probably wouldn’t be at a FIRC. How do you bring these teachers into active instruction? Some are prohibited by their employers; others are concerned about potential liability. Others may just not have the time or need the income…

  13. Scott Spangler Says:

    I’ve been watching the pilot numbers since 1989 (when we launched Flight Training magazine), and it’s been quite a roller coaster ride.

    You’re right, the number of CFIs bottomed out because a growing number of pilots didn’t it to get an airline job. But it bottomed, give or take, in 2000, and the number of CFIs has been climbing since then, as I pointed out in my post.

    What I really can’t put my finger on is why the number of CFIs is increasing. There are just as many direct-to-the-airline training programs as there was before, probably more. So it seems logical that pilots are earning a CFI, even though they don’t have to. And then they are not teaching.

    One guess for this might be that collegiate programs are getting so expensive that aspiring airline pilots are returning to the traditional CFI time-building path. Another, and this one is out there, is that the baby boomers are starting to retire from airline cockpits and they are looking at part-time retirement jobs as CFIs?

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