Flight instructor pay

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.

–Ian Twombly

16 Responses to “Flight instructor pay”

  1. Great post Ian. Agree completely. This is exactly how I approach billing as well. And I always review my billing process with the student when they first begin lessons so there are no surprises later.

  2. Marc says:

    I only charge for active instruction time.

  3. Warren says:

    What used to gripe my rear was an instructor who would have me crank up the aircraft, then spend 15 minutes doing a brief that should have been done in the office. The practice at this school was to bill dual by the hobbs time only. I finally said, ‘look, I’ll pay you for your time, but I don’t want to pay for the airplane too unless we’re actually flying.’ He agreed, and it worked out much better for both of us. He would spend more productive ground time with me, and get paid for it, and I didn’t have to pay for an idling airplane.

  4. Greg Brown says:

    A friend of mine’s flight school had a “time clock” system for charging instructor time where clients punched in at the beginning of each lesson and punched out at the end. I understand it worked well because instructor, student, and flight school all benefited in that everyone was committed to properly utilize the time. The CFI knew he or she’d better be prepared and focused or client would be upset. Students were better prepared because they could directly save money by doing so. And flight school and CFI billings improved because quantifying instruction charges ceased to be black magic. What do you all think?

  5. Ian,
    Couple of points that I don’t think you fleshed out, but you did mention.
    1. Don’t have overlapping students. When you rush from student to student, neither gets the value they deserve.
    2. I think flight schools are robbing CFIs. The very successful flight schools that I know of don’t dip into the CFIs rate.
    3. Students should fly with more than one CFI. The military does it. The airlines do it. Airline prep flight schools do it.

  6. Ian,
    No matter what a flight instructor charges per hour, or when billing starts or stops, if the clock is running on the instructor’s bill, the student will tend to short-change himself or herself. Having taught now for 38 years, I have come to the rather radical conclusion that the best way to ensure quality instruction is to flat-rate all flight lessons, just as a reputable IA will flat-rate an aircraft annual inspection.
    Starting a year and a half ago, I began blocking three hours per lesson. For most primary students, this works out (on average) to one hour of individualized ground instruction, 1.3 hours of actual flight time, and about 45 minutes of post-flight review and debrief. The exact numbers vary throughout the curriculum, with more ground instruction hours early on, and more flight time further down the road. For such a lesson, the student pays Hobbs time for the airplane, plus a flat $100 for the instructor’s fee. If the student has unanswered questions after a flight, or concerns that need to be addressed before flying, all the required instructor time and attention (within reason) is covered by that $100 fee. Without the clock running, the student is more likely to stick around after the lesson, to make sure everything is made clear and all questions are answered. Under the traditional hourly billing method, the student has a strong financial incentive to make a beeline for the dore before the plane is even fully in the chocks!
    Using the above model, my adjunct instructors are assured of earning $30 per hour (I retain 10% for overhead), and the student is assured of the instructor’s undivided attention during the entire 3-hour instructional period. So far, both my instructors and my students seem to prefer this approach to hourly billing (and thus recognize that even the preflight inspection and postflight fueling/tiedown times are teachable moments).

  7. Kenn Hinick says:

    At the flight school our instructors bill by aircraft hobbs time for flight instruction and it is up to the student to determine how quickly or slowly he wants to go through the checklist as long as he does it properly. Ground training is billed for time spent in the classroom with the instructor instructing. The briefing before the flight, the debriefing after the flight and discussion of what is expected to happen on the next flight is not charged to the student. Yes instructors do not make a lot but many are doing it only to build up the 1500 hrs for that ATP and then on to flying corporate. Others do it because they have a passion to make student pilots aviators. we have the latter here.

  8. Charles F. Thom II says:

    Will mail suggestion, as my long missive disappeared into cyberspace.

  9. Bill Morse says:

    Ian and Everyone:

    For my two cents worth some of your comments seem to defend unethical instructors, but at the expense of the rest of us. I do believe instructors are the worst paid employees of the Aviation system, if you will, and I resent Ian’s remarks regarding instructors working 8 hours and getting paid for 6 as being “the way it is”. That would be fine if the 6 hr pay was worth a days work. Most times it isn’t. And most summer days, it is more like 14 hours to get paid for 6. We have inherited the paranoid pay schedule based on “tach time” not on “value time” and have remained insecure about obtaining a reasonable income for teaching (without cheating anybody). These days, of the 10K or so students pay for a Private ticket, less that a quarter of that is instructor fees (and by your reckoning, only about half of that goes into the CFI’s pocket). While not insignificant, what we make as CFI’s is not the “deal killer” in aviation training. Shoot the aircraft consumes $30 an hour of hydrocarbons! The average CFI’s salary doesn’t even compare with that of a first year Elementary School teacher…..without any benefits! I’m for supporting ethics and Professionalism in Flight Training, but while keeping a capatilistic attitude towards fees….”buyer beware” and “let the market control fees”.

  10. The most difficult aspect of being a flight instructor is the lack of a guaranteed pay. Not knowing if students will get sick, the weather grounding a flight, or maintenance putting your multi-engine program on hold, is a major problem. The truth is; it’s difficult to make a career out of being a flight instructor. Often you can not budget expenses because of the lack of guaranteed revenue even if your schedule is full. I remember days where I would be scheduled for 8 hours of flying and 4 hours of ground only to go home that day with only 2 hours of pay. Combine that with the typical lack of any benefits (health, dental, retirement, etc.) It becomes difficult to look at flight instructing as a career field to work permanently in. What happens? Flight instructors leave and go on to a different type of flying, one that provides a better quality of life. Can we blame them?

    The best thing we can do to improve the quality of instruction for flight students, is to work to retain the best instructors. These instructors will provide the most honest instruction to their students and that will result in the highest value received. Flight instructor turn over rate is one of the largest wastes to a student’s training costs. The new instructor will likely need to evaluate the student’s skills and spend some hours flying before they will feel comfortable signing them off, CYA.

    Flight schools need to start providing an environment where an instructor can make a career. They need to stop looking at every flight instructor as a kid who will be gone in 12 months or 1,000 hours. Many won’t leave if they have a job they can earn a decent living at, be home every night, and get to fly almost everyday. Flight schools need to do a better job interviewing and be more selective with their hirings.

  11. ronald gulick says:

    once your student finish, continues with insturment, and twin time, word of mouth is the best advertisement to keep a good instructor BUSY

  12. Well, I’ve been an active CFI for quite a while and was a former DPE. I can tell you that I always charged for the entire time that the student had me booked. If you don’t do that you will spend a 12 hour day getting paid for 5 or 6. I also never make a different rate for ground vs flight. Doing that sends the message that the flying is what is most important and the ground knowledge is not as important. My rationale is simple. If you don’t want to pay the the time you booked me then don’t book me for all of that time. If I am supervising a student solo, or am required to be at the airport for a students solo then I charge for that time as well. You’d be suprized how effective a lesson can be when the student books you for the amount of time that will be requied without all of this padding that robs CFI’s of their time and opportunities. As far as preflights and preparing goes, if you don’t want me to charge you then don’t book me for that time. When a student has one eye on his lesson and another one on the clock it is not productive time spent. When the student knows that they will get a bill for the time they have booked then they already know the price for that lessons and don’t have that problem.
    There are some exceptions to this for me but not many. It’s funny how there is a double standard when it comes to the topic of billing and the student when you contrast what how you are making a living vs how they make theirs. I would ask “if you go to work do you only get paid for the hours that you are programming actively?” Of course they don’t. They get paid for the time they are required to be there.
    CFI’s who bill only off of the hobbs meter say essentially “this is what counts, the flying part”. The other stuff is not as important so I’m not going to charge you for it and therefore I’m not going to do much of it either.
    The passion for aviation, and thus charging a low rate and not billing for your time, is soon lost when you are still driving a early 90′s car and your customer is pulling in with his new Camry/Lexus (you pick the brand). I want my students to know that they have my undivided attention and that there is no timeclock.

    Those who say you can’t make a living in aviation are either in the wrong location, can’t market themselves or don’t know how to bill for their time. Of all of the CFIs that I know who make their living exclusively as a CFI, all are in a location that has students and they bill for all of their time. After a while you just don’t want to spend 12 hours at the airport and get paid for 5 or 6 when all you need to do is change your billing and scheduling practices.

  13. Emily Dashwood says:

    Charging more for CFI services isn’t often an option; the school sets the rate and the cut and that’s kind of how it is.

    Active instruction includes everything from monitoring the process of making a competent go/no decision (a special emphasis item recently added to the PTS), shadowing the preflight (which should be done anyway, for our own safety as well as that of the student), and fueling the aircraft, to tying it down correctly after the conclusion of the flight and logging Hobbs and tach time in the manner prescribed by the flight school.

    It’s definitely a buzzkill when, as Mike points out, we’re unable to pay our bills and are forced to drive around in a dying car, when our students don’t have those issues. Not to mention, many of us don’t have much opportunity to fly for fun, another buzzkill.

    AOPA has funded so many studies about why GA is dying, the poor quality of flight instruction, etc. It’s simple. The pay is too low. As it is, the flight instructor’s cut isn’t the biggest part of the pie, and seems to be getting less as the aircraft becomes more expensive to operate.

    We set billing expectations early in the process. If our post flight debrief has concluded but we’re still discussing the lesson as I’m ringing up the bill, that’s active instruction. If I’m filling out a logbook, that’s active instruction. If I have to arrange a practice light gun test with the tower and walk the student out to the ramp, that’s active instruction.

    Any time the student is receiving something directly associated with the flight training experience, they should be billed for it. And that includes ground instruction, which is billed at the same rate as flight instruction.

    Attorneys and other professionals often bill in 15-minute increments, even for telephone conversations. Yet, while that appears to be SOP for those who are compensated orders of magnitude more than CFIs, somehow flight instructors should not even bill for the entire lesson time?

    C’mon, Mr. Twombly. You should be an advocate for flight instructors. Suggesting that, “if our services are worth more, we should charge more” smacks of insensitivity, if not worse. In any case, it’s an impractical solution—and one which, once again, puts the burden on already overburdened flight instructors.

  14. Dave Whelan says:

    As an instructor from 91 to 2000 the flight school charged twenty dollars an hour which I kept all of. The plane was booked for an hour and half and usually flown an hour with the rest pre and post. I only charged for flight time. I would charge for ground school if scheduled. At that time instructors had ads in trade a plane willing to instruct for free to build time. I always knew that once you gave away your service it lost its value. I haven’t flown in ten years. Are there instructors still willing to give their time away?

  15. Heidi Kaiser says:

    I think the more the instructor charges the more the student will get out of the lesson. Because you regard y yourself as a professional. You pay approximately 75.00 to 100.0 an hour for a plumber. Why would some one who basically teaches and guards your life in an airplane be regarded at least as high as a plumber in the professional pay range. Instructors pay approximately 50,000 for their education why doesn’t everyone regard them as professionals? In higher income areas I have seen instructors charge 75.00 an hour if and when they have built up a good reputation. I believe it should be the norm. I also believe it upgrades the whole industry. And when someone pays or charges anything less than 35.00 and hour they are responsible for degrading the entire industry. I know one instructor who has an airline job that charges 1500.00 for the entire day. He has students about ten times a year all day. I also know an ex airline pilot that charges 150.00 and hour for all the time he spends with the student. He has a waiting list. Keep it up guys and keep us professional.

  16. Chris R says:

    Question: I am purchasing a plane and have asked my instructor to fly it back with me. I am purchasing his plane ticket to the place we are picking it up and we will have about a 4 hour flight back. Other than food and other expenses, what should I pay him?

Leave a Reply