Are CFIs the Lynchpins in Keeping Aviation Alive?

By Robert Mark on March 21st, 2011

Let’s be serious. When we fly on the airlines, we’re a captive audience. They can do pretty much whatever they’d like to us and we have to put up with it. But most of the time we also fly on the airlines because we must … for work, even for that much needed vacation. Sure we moan some, and in the end some of the airlines have actually learned a few things about how to treat their customers.

Not in flight training though. When people consider learning to fly, they can choose any place they’d like to train, or even whether they want to learn to fly at all. And thousands are saying no to flying.

mentor Sitting at Chicago O’Hare yesterday, preparing to head to an NBAA conference in San Diego, I had an opportunity to catch up on a little back reading that I began over breakfast at Wolfgang Pucks in Terminal 3. I actually walked out of that place a few months back because the food was cold and the waitress surly. But I was hungry and the choices are few at ORD so I decided to give them another try while I read.

The publication in question – Mentor – is the voice of the National Flight Instructors Association (NAFI), a group of which I am a member. I also belong to the competing group Society of Flight Educators (SAFE). This particular issue focused on customer service as a flight-training business tool to solve the never ending problem of flight schools still being run like clubs, a major reason for the decline in people learning to fly. Customers treated poorly simply vote with their feet never to be seen again.

But there’s another reason flight training is sinking and it’s an issue no one seems to talk much about. It’s myopia. For the non-medical among you, myopia is a disease of the eye that forces the viewer’s focus to repeatedly narrow in on things right in front of their face to the exclusion of many important things around them. In this case, our industry is missing or ignoring the real role of flight instructors.

As true flight-training service providers CFIs are a customer of the company that employs them. But instructors are also a part of the problem because they either still don’t recognize, or don’t care about their role in the overall survival of this industry. Many believe the instructor’s needs as customers have never been heard, much less addressed. So if we treat our instructors like crap, should we be surprised that they don’t focus on the real paying customers as they walk through the door?

Instructors are the gatekeepers of knowledge. Without them, our flight training system doesn’t work. But flight instructors are also more than anything else, pilots. They always have and always will be, for the most part, men and women who would rather fly the aircraft themselves than watch a student stumble through turns about a point or short-field landings.

Most instructors don’t see themselves as teachers then, except for the very short term. The question is why?

The standard defense always ends with money, but it’s much  more than that. Even if CFIs were paid $50 an hour they’d still leave eventually, because there is no career progression for young instructors who would like to move into more complex aircraft. Without some hope, without some well-focused career direction, CFIs will never view teaching as anything more than a stopping off point.

The real crime here is that few see this as their problem, not FAA, not the manufacturers, not even the airlines who need a steady stream of pilots as well.

We need to provide  a reason for instructors to earn a CFI rating. That means alliances with large organizations, airlines and corporate flight departments for starters than can provide a few next steps in the career ladder for young pilots. In Europe and the Middle East, some airlines have already developed career programs for zero-time pilots because they see the value to all of a solid career progression plan.

We’re blessed here in the states with a GA system that offers our instructors many other options. But until we consider the needs of our customer/instructors, for the career progression they demand, we’re doomed to watch this spiral of lost instructors and more lost customers continue because the people we need the most, the flight training gatekeepers are not really in the loop.

But we’re clearly running out of time.

And BTW, my choice as a customer is to never going back to Wolfgang Pucks at ORD. The food was cold … again.

Rob Mark

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10 Responses to “Are CFIs the Lynchpins in Keeping Aviation Alive?”

  1. Are CFIs the Lynchpins in Keeping Aviation Alive? – Jetwhine … | Share My Aircraft News Says:

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  2. Tracy Says:

    Rob, I think you’re close, but not quite there. The ‘system’ is not going to change until the airlines figure out that they don’t have a source of pilots to fly their planes. Then they’ll resort to ab initio programs to ensure that the pipeline stays filled. My guess is that they will go to the large schools and work out programs with them – some airlines are already working with UND and ERAU that way. They’ll just expand the programs. Then what will a CFI have to look forward to? What will they have to do to break into that pipeline?

    Now the entry level airline jobs will require an ATP with it’s required 1500 hrs of experience CFIs will be teaching that much longer.

    CFIs have to start viewing their positions as professional pilot positions and start acting accordingly. Treating the CFI position as a necessary evil to endure until something better comes along does a disservice to all of aviation. Prospective students can see the attitude as soon as they walk through a flight school door. If the student has the desire to take flight training anyway, what kind of training do they receive? They often get the bare minimum needed to pass the checkride on a good day. I attended a FAASTeam CFI workshop last week and was totally amazed at the comments by the DPEs in attendance. (http://www.aroundthepattern.com/training/a-cfi-workshop/)

    If the intent is to be a professional pilot, then start by being a professional instructor. Professionalism is an attitude, not a position.

  3. @williamAirways Says:

    Hi Rob,

    I’m curious. How do you propose individual CFIs form alliances with airlines and corporate flight departments? Also, you mentioned that time is running out. I’m not sure what measure you’re using to establish this. I’m in agreement that there is an issue in flight training, but I don’t think there is a real solution here. I have my suspicions but have no hard evidence to substantiate the gut feeling.

    I just got myself a new student because she felt that the flight school provided her zero guidance toward her pilot certificate. She was able to sense this after the first flight, and left after the third and was referred to me. It blows my mind how these flight schools can sustain themselves. She is not the only student who found me after having a dissatisfied experience with a flight school.

    I think the issue of pilot growth and what you alluded to as the impending pilot shortage of the airlines is a lot more complicated than just at the CFI level. But this discussion could go on for hours, and I’m really primarily interested in your thoughts on my initial inquiry.

    Thanks in advance for a reply.

  4. Rudolph Says:

    CFIs are not customers of flight schools any more than university professors are customers of their university. They might have been customers of the school at one point, and when they go for their MEI they might be again, but as a CFI they are employees of the school.

    The problems are as follows:
    1) Too few retired airline pilots love aviation enough at that point to go back to GA and teach full-time. Many have had that love beaten out of them over decades of working to advance to the left seat, then the right seat of something bigger, then the left seat, . . .
    2) Without a significant number of extremely experienced CFIs to mentor the newer ones we are stuck in a perpetual cycle that is almost the blind leading the blind. In my initial training, I was taught to do things that directly contradicted the POH of the aircraft by instructors whose only reason was “that is the way I was taught” (300 flight hours ago). When I was adding on a new category/ class to my certificate, I was fortunate to find a 25k hour retired airline CFI. It is just unfortunate that he is so busy with students I can’t fly with him as much as I would like.
    3) We need flight schools to take responsibility for the aircraft they rent to students. I’m not talking about just obeying the FARs, I’m talking about I’ve told the school about the same crack multiple times and this is the fifth time they have stop-drilled it. Just replace the stupid sheet of metal, it’s obviously fatigued beyond its service limit! Maintain the aircraft like you are the one who flys in it day in and day out. Maintain it like you care about it.
    4) If schools actually do what I have outlined in 1-3 above, they will have to charge students more for instruction. That will mean that the pool of potential students shrinks and the costs of training escalate. More students start and then drop out.

    How to reverse the trend? I don’t know, start training in used but impeccably maintained VFR-only Piper Cubs and Tri-Pacers? They would be cheaper than new Light Sport aircraft with the latest non-certified non-standardized glass panels.

  5. Robert Mark Says:

    Thank you Tracy.

    Good point about the link to the airlines. My airline contacts don’t see too much of that coordination happening yet though except a bit on the regional side. No one really wants those jobs anymore because of the schedules and the pay.

    CFI’s acting like professional pilots? I like that idea.

    But I think FAA needs to stand up in this discussion and realize that a part of teaching new CFIs to take on the role of teacher means they need some guidance in what it means to be a professional pilot.

    And how does someone who has only been an instructor for two years themselves push that concept when most likely they’d chew off their own leg to get away from instructing?

  6. Robert Mark Says:

    To William …I don’t think CFIs can pull off the alliances alone. It will take a large organization — an AOPA, an NBAA, even an ATA — to realize the need to work together for the common outcome. I just don’t think they’ve connected the dots yet.

    Very few of the airlines seem to realize or care about the coming shortage. That’s probably because the majors — at least for now — don’t have trouble finding pilots. They simply raid the regional or charter departments.

    But the regionals is also another story. They will soon be finding only people who can afford flight training which has little correlation with their ability.

    I’m lousy at math, so the time note is my own gut feeling.

    I can’t imagine how we’re ever going to sustain the industry growth predictions I’ve read with an ever decreasing pilot population and the horrible attitude many wannabe professional pilots seem to have adopted. Many who might have thought of flying as a career have said no, so we take another hit there.

    Maybe not this year, but eventually we’ll run out of bodies. And we need people that are more than simply warm bodies.

    Before the recession hit, regionals would take almost anyone with a pilot’s license. The Buffalo crash reminds us of where that kind of standard will lead us.

  7. Robert Mark Says:

    Rudolph raises some good points, but let me clarify my CFI as a customer note.

    I still believe every employee of every company IS a customer, or should be, in the sense that the business needs to consider how that employee’s welfare affects the overall success of the company.

    At Southwest Airlines, THE most important people to the company are the employees, not the actual retail customers.

    The Southwest philosophy is that treating and training employees well … means they’ll treat customers astoundingly. Eventually that shakes out for a positive bottom line to stockholders.

    But to your comment about fix the damn airplane, I couldn’t agree more.

    What I recently learned in conversations with FAA in Chicago though is that because of the shortage of inspectors due to budget cuts – they say – oversight of flight schools is a pretty low priority.

    Retail flight school customers don’t know good from bad … at least until they take the first plunge as you mentioned.

    Think about this in the context of the conversation we’re all having though. Does this sound like an industry that can sustain itself this way?

    No doubt cost is an issue. But worst of all, people are already paying considerable amounts of money and getting lousy training in return.

    I don’t know if you work for a regular flight school, but charging $75 an hour for an instructor is not unusual in big cities. But what do they pay the instructor?

    One heck of a lot less … and there is no career progression. What a losing proposition here too, don’t you think?

  8. @williamAirways Says:

    Thank you for your response Rob. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir here but so as long as pilots are willing to accept a job that pays crap, the regional airlines will not increase their pay scale or make the job more attractive. In addition, the inefficiencies at the regional airlines running inefficient airplanes cost money. That money has to come from somewhere. We’ve seen in the past that it was easy to get it from pilots because the options are:

    1. Take a pay cut, and you may still have a job.
    2. Don’t give us the pay cut, we go out of business, and you can go find yourself another job at the bottom of some other airline’s seniority list.

    Pretty crappy situation to be in.

    In fixing the career path and attract those who aspire to become airline/charter pilots, you have to start at the top. The airlines MUST:

    1. Pay better.
    2. Provide a better quality of life.
    3. Treat their flight crews with a lot more respect.

    That’s how this career will start looking more attractive. Until the job becomes more attractive, we’re not going to attract pilots under the airline career banner.

    With respect to the “flight schools’ planes must be pretty and clean” perspective, yes, everyone loves new. I don’t know anyone who prefers a junker. The truth is, flight schools have overhead. They need to make money. They HAVE TO make money. They have bills. They have employees. When you have to rent airplanes from your training fleet out to people for purposes other than flight training, you’re inviting a world of people who don’t give a crap about your airplane and will treat it as a rental. Why is it that car rental agencies cycle out their vehicles every year? They know that people beat the living crap out of their vehicles. It’s human nature to treat something that don’t belong to you like crap. Heck, I know people that treat what they own like crap. What chance does a rented equipment have in their hands?

    So unless a flight school can sustain 24/7 flight training and keep those planes up in the air and out of the renters’ hands, those planes will be subject to a much higher abuse rate. The flight schools can’t sustain repairs to cosmetics, additional maintenance, and/or annual upgrades to the latest/greatest. It can’t be done. And that’s why these airplanes look the way they do. What flight school can afford a brand new fleet of airplanes? What they can do is get the most bang for their buck. And they do this not because they want to. They do this because they HAVE TO.

    This means new students will be introduced to some of the best airworthy junkers out there. But, unless someone *cough* Cessna *cough* Piper *cough* Diamond *cough* steps up to make airplanes more affordable, we’ll be stuck with the junkers at the flight schools. And those students will have to make do, just like the rest of us when we got our certificates.

    I think we in the aviation community must realize one fact, and this one fact is something that “we” seem to have a real problem with. And this fact is, aviation is just ONE facet of the millions of things that people can do with their lives. Don’t forget, there are MANY things in life that don’t cost as much in time, dedication, effort, money, skills, risks, etc. that one can be involved with other than aviation. “WE” seem to think it’s the best thing since sliced bread and nothing else tops it. The truth is, the public don’t care. They care only about that status quo; what can they do with that dollar that will provide the maximum amount of pleasure at the least amount of work with the minimum risk to life. Those few who venture into our community and make it through training are truly unique. Is it a wonder why this country’s total pilot population accounts for less than 1% of the total population? One has to ask why we represent such a tiny fraction. Could it be that there’s more to life than flying an airplane? Business or pleasure?

    To address alliances concept, I don’t think AOPA, NBAA, or ATA care about individual flight instructors and their aspiring futures. These organizations have their own interests, and are excellent at generalization. An alliance requires a personal touch; one of which I would hate to see AOPA get their shady hands on. AOPA only care about the flight instructors in so much as to make them additional members. They best stick to their wine clubs and eBay web sites to raise money for themselves.

    Getting back to the original blog post, I think ultimately, CFIs have to take it upon themselves to be professionals. It comes down to free will. Do we as CFIs have the will to be professionals? Do we have the will to treat our students as customers? Or will we cut corners and just “get ‘er done” and train to the test only, until something better comes along?

  9. Sue Says:

    Rob,

    Regarding your article and comment: As true flight training service providers CFIs are a customer of the company that employs them. But instructors are also part of the problem because they either still dont recognize, or dont care about their role in the overall survival of this industry, there is a way to solve this.

    I currently am a flight instructor in the San Francisco Bay Area. The majority of the operations are Flying Clubs requiring the CFIs to be independent contractors. Nothing could be better for the industry. We get walk in business but much of our client base is self generated either from people we know/referrals, networking, or marketing/websites. This necessitates the CFIs to be highly motivated to find and retain business by putting their best foot forward and really providing great instruction. The average rate charged by the CFIs is $60.to $80. p/h for the entire lesson. Most of the CFIs are career CFIs, love what they do, and take their profession as instructor/educator very seriously. Very few have desires to go on to an airline career. They come from a variety of backgrounds, just starting their careers or other careers and occupations including a few having already flown for the airlines.

    For years this industry has under promoted and under advertised the thrill, adventure, and benefits of aviation and learning to fly. The focus has oftentimes been the cheapest price which then comes directly out of the CFIs pocket. (It is not all about price). With dedicated instructors who can actually make a living at teaching flying, I propose that this is the way (CFIs as independent contractors) to change this industry for the better, starting with the people who teach the pilots.

  10. Chris Findley Says:

    Great and timely article. I wholeheartedly agree that what we face in the flight training business is a systemic problem, and a problem on several levels. And you indentified a number of them.

    In a recent issue of Plane & Pilot there’s an interview with Michael Goulian who runs a successful flight school called “Executive Flyers” In that interview he makes the comment, “In reality, their (the CFI’s) flying skills need to be average, but their interpersonal skills need to be exceptional…you don’t need to be Charles Lindbergh to teach somebody to fly…We look for people who are passionate about what they do and put hear and soul into things.” (P&P 3/11, p57)

    Professionalism for sure.

    Retention of quality instructors (and pilots in general such as airline/corporate types) has to be couched in the ability to earn an adequate living -no one is expecting to get rich, but when McDonald’s pays better than most flight schools, you can’t be surprised at a high turnover rate and the desire to be in another situation (ie. moving up the ladder).

    I’d suggest, as I think your article shows, that we’re in great need of a paradigm shift in aviation -on many levels. This type of shift is always difficult if not downright painful. But a “reinvention” of the system, I believe, is certainly what we need.

    In any case, thanks for the article. I hope that many of us CFI’s will indeed discover the synergy of sharing thoughts and ideas of what the future of flight training and aviation could be.

    Chris
    blog.myflightcoach.com

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