As part of AOPA’s Flight Training Retention Initiative, the association and researchers looked at the idea of what constitutes a great flight training experience. Not surprisingly, many people who were surveyed felt like they were treated less than fairly by their flight instructor or flight school. The sentiment is common for a variety of reasons, but chief among them is value. There are many aspects of the value equation, to use the executive cliche du jour, but one of the most misunderstood is instructor billing and pay.
Chances are your school charges somewhere between $30 and $60 an hour for the flight instructor’s time. There are certainly places that charge more, but they are exceptions. Again, using averages, your instructor probably only sees about half of that amount. Where things start to go crazy is in how instructors bill time. There are two common scenarios. Either the student is billed for the entire time he has booked the instructor, say two hours, or time is billed for active instruction time. Even here there are variations. Some instructors bill for time the student is preflighting. The justification is that he is supervising.
So what’s fair? My billing preference was always to charge for only that time I actually spent with a student. So if the lesson was booked for two hours, but he or she had soloed, I would bill only for the briefing, debriefing, and flight. With a presolo student, I was actively shadowing the preflight, so I would bill for that as well. While I think that is fair for the student, it often meant being at the airport for eight hours and only getting paid for about six. Such is the life of a CFI working as an independent contractor.
Even though I didn’t make as much, I never billed for the full two-hour block. And here’s why: I think it’s robbery. Charging a student for two hours of instruction, but only providing an hour and a half just isn’t ethical, as far as I’m concerned. The rationale often given for this practice is that the student has blocked the full two hours, so he or she should be charged for the full two hours. Except in the majority of cases, the CFI is making money on two students at once, or making money while sipping coffee and gossiping with other instructors. It’s like paying $10 for a sandwich and only getting two-thirds of it.
None of this takes away from the fact that I think instructors are underpaid. But to make up that money by charging a student while he or she preflights is just not the way to do it. Flight instructors: If your services are worth more, charge more. And students: If a flight instructor does this, don’t just up and leave. Have a conversation about it. And remember, 10 minutes here and there means nothing if the instructor is doing good work.