Low CFI Birthrate & Graying Population Adding to Teacher Shortage

By Scott Spangler on June 5th, 2008

Old CFI Demographers will quickly tell you that a low birthrate combined with an aging population is not the key to a sustainable future for any population. Welcome to the situation that describes the American airmen who hold a current flight instructor certificate.

Birthrate and age are important in flight training because most of the CFIs who teach day in and day out are new and young. There are exceptions, of course, but how many 40-year-old CFIs to you see teaching every day at airports across America?

The CFI birthrate is measured by initial issuance of their teaching certificate. According to FAA data that starts with 1990, the numbers are trending in the same direction as the overall pilot population–down.

Initial CFI issuances peaked in 1991 at 8,164 and bottomed out three years later, at 3,970. In an up and down climb, it peaked again in 2002, at 6,221. Three years later it bottomed out at 3,654. In 2007 it climbed backed to 4,667, and if it follows the trend, this year it will bottom out lower than it did in 2005.

Since 1999, FAA data says the current CFI population has grown from 79,694 to 92,175 in 2007. And it’s getting older. Working in round numbers, each year 15,000 of the total CFI population are between 20 and 29 years old. Of that 15,000, 10,000 are 25 to 29 years old, about the time CFIs get another job and usually stop teaching.

Where the total CFI population has grown is the older age brackets. In 2000, the community’s median age jumped from 35-39 to 40-44. Until 2004 the largest single age group, representing an average of 10,800 current CFIs, was 30-34 years old. In 2005 CFIs 35-39 years old became the single largest group, with the average number of current certificates held remaining the same .

Both of these age groups are well into their aviation careers, which is not teaching the next generation of pilots to fly. And by the time they retire from airline or corporate flying, how many pilots 60 and older will teach full time? (It is interesting to note that the number of 60-64-year-old current CFIs has grown from 4,811 in 1999 to 8,246 in 2007, a 42 percent increase.)

But until the model changes and flight instruction becomes a career, where making a living as a CFI is the rule, not the exception (like Max Trescott: CFI Entrepreneur), we need new, young CFIs to train the next generation of pilots.

Industry can easily get the teachers it needs by building time as a CFI into programs like the University Gateway Program. Undergraduate and postgrad CFI service is part of this university-industry partnership that starts students on their way to a major airline cockpit in their sophomore year.

Programs such as these should help alleviate the collegiate CFI shortage, but what about the rest of aviation? Maybe Wal-Mart has the answer; build a workforce of older CFIs working part time on overlapping schedules, if you can get them back in a flying classroom.  Now it’s time for the rest of general aviation to devise a solution for its part of the problem. Any suggestions? — Scott Spangler 

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4 Responses to “Low CFI Birthrate & Graying Population Adding to Teacher Shortage”

  1. Bill Palmer Says:

    Is this a supply and demand issue?
    There’s no point in having a lot of CFIs if there are not the numbers of students to be able to support them, and we know those numbers are down.
    If there is also a shift in training from local airports to universities that puts the demand for FBO based CFIs even lower.
    It’s great that guys like Max can keep a full schedule and charge $80 an hour at the same time. I doubt if a lot of the young student population can afford that.

  2. geraldz Says:

    Don’t worry, Scott. With the avalanche of furloughs coming soon to an airline near you there will be a resurgence of flight instructors. And with the price of avgas, perhaps more flight schools will purchase light-sport aircraft.

    As you may be aware, anyone working for a part 121 carrier is limited in the number of commercial flying hours per month. This is why I (and other folks who follow the rules) don’t teach “on the side.” My airline specifically forbids any outside flying “for compensation or reward . . . .”

  3. Scott Says:

    The supply and demand forces acting on CFIs and the people they teach to fly is a small part of the larger changes going on in aviation. In its second century, powered flight seems to be dividing into three separte pipelines: military, transportation (airline, corporate, and personal-business), and recreation.

    The military has always had its own self-contained training program, and back it the day it was the leading source of airline pilots.

    When the supply of discharged military trained pilots didn’t meet commercial demands, the collegiate aviation programs stepped up, and they are where pilots seeking a career get their start.

    General avaiation, natrually, has contributed to the carreer pool, but it is where most of the recreational and personal-business flyers earned their wings. These pilots represent the greatest percentage of pilots (based on FAA flight-time figures) and are what give GA its economies of scale.

    They are the supply–and the demand–depending on the goods and services being dicussed, but they have to be considered in the context of the bigger picture. There has not been a shift in training from FBOs to collegiate programs, there has been a separation based on the students’ aviation aspirations. There is still a need for good CFIs at FBOs to training those who want to fly for fun or personal business transportation. (Thanks for the reminder that airline pilots often don’t use their CFI because they don’t want to, but because external forces prohibit it.)

    In the end, no matter where they teach, the CFI shortage is just one part of the larger problem facing aviation today. Solving this problem is not something we can do by focusing on our slice of it at the expense of all others. From ultralight pilots to globe-girdling airlines, aviation is commercial organism fighting for survival in a world of rapidly diminishing resources. Each aspect of flying is an “organ” that contributes to the health of the whole, and a weakness that affects the organ also affects organism.

  4. Aerotrekking Back to Coffin Corner - Jetwhine: Aviation Buzz and Bold Opinion Says:

    [...] has surfaced in many conversations, including those that have followed several past posts, Low CFI Birthrate & Graying Population Adding to Teacher Shortage and Cessna Pilot Centers May be GA’s Last Hope for Reversing Pilot Population Decline.  [...]

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