Flight instructor pay and benefits are an integral component in creating a flight school faculty that reliably provides an education consistent with the investment made by the students they serve. Unfortunately, flight training is at the bitter end of the professional aviation economic food chain so a CFI’s only hope of making a living wage is advancing several links up the chain, after paying his or her requisite dues.
In labor history, many trades and professions have bargained for better pay, benefits, and working conditions by organizing. Airline pilots were among the first to achieve success in this effort. In the ongoing discussion about the declining pilot population and uneven quality of flight training in America today, several readers have suggested that CFIs might follow suit, inferring that such action might lead to improvement.
Plugging “flight instructor + union” into Google led me to the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers (IAM). It has 720,000 members, but no one could tell me how many CFIs were among its 150,000 aerospace workers. Searching IAM’s news archive revealed that Airline Training Center CFIs had recently negotiated a new contract with the Lufthansa school in Arizona, and work to merge Continental’s ground instructors with their unionized brethren at United was ongoing.
Sifting through decades of Google News for reports of organizing flight instructors returned no joy. It seems clear that organizing under a union’s banner can and has worked at a few training institutions, but joining a union to improve their lot is an idea instructors rarely consider. Why is anybody’s guess. Organizing takes some time and effort, and my estimate is that few CFIs teach long enough to see the process through.
Flight instructors last attempted to organize in the 1990s. Covering it for Flight Training magazine, it was a common topic at flight schools large and small, but I had no recollections of any that acted on it. Assuming that a big collegiate program with enough CFI continuity might have completed the process, I called the University Aviation Association. Its outgoing flight education chairman, Bruce Chase of LeTourneau University, knew of only one union shop: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
At its Daytona Beach campus, ERAU has 160 CFIs on staff, but only the 120 full-timers, all with bachelor’s degrees (70 percent ERAU grads), belong to IAM Local 501, said Flight Department Chairman Ken Byrnes. It’s a collaborative relationship, he said, without rancor, with both parties working to the same educational goal. “There obviously was a reason for their organizing,” he said, “but that was before my time.”
The only news a search unearthed was a 1999 ERAU release announcing the first three-year contract that affected the (80) full-time CFIs. “Over the past several years, Embry-Riddle’s flight instructors had lagged behind changing market conditions affecting compensation,” the release said. “This agreement gives our professional flight instructors a very competitive compensation package and positions our flight program well for the future. We will continue working together to serve our students and exceed their expectations.”
Under the contract, ERAU pays instructors on five levels based on qualifications and experience, Byrnes said. It encourages CFIs to work hard and earn the ratings, such as instrument and multiengine, that move them up the ladder. Still, he said, there is a lot of turnover as the full timers move on to other professional flying positions.
Byrnes added that the contract also formalizes good communication between the CFIs and the school. That may well be the most valuable reward for organizing. When facing the cyclical challenges of aviation—especially today, when the future is nevermore in doubt—collaborative communication among the key players certainly holds a better chance of success than unilateral action, which addresses only half the problem.
Ultimately, organizing flight instructors is not a panacea for them or the industry’s problems, especially at smaller schools with less structured administration and a more tenuous financial situation. Union or not, if both sides are adversarial rather than collaborative, suffering students will go elsewhere—or quit—and the school will ultimately self-destruct. But if they are collaborative and work toward a common goal of the best possible student welfare, as they do at ERAU, then the school will survive and perhaps thrive. – Scott Spangler