When we talk about flight training, we typically talk about how many people are trying to learn, earn certificates and ratings, or even how many “dropped out” and didn’t finish. We assume there will be enough flight instructors to train anyone who wants to learn. But this may not always be the case.
Jonathon Freyeand I recently co-authored a white-paper specifically discussing “Flight Training Capacity in the Context of Recent Legislation.” The goal was to provide an examination of the impacts of reduced training capacity and the declining rates of airmen certification. What we found worried us. I then spent some time last week at the Embry-Riddle University hosted National Training Aircraft Symposium in Daytona Beach, a two-day conference of aviation educators (mostly collegiate), training industry organizations, and airline representatives. I came home even more worried.
Our capacity to train pilots relative to the demand that is forecast is in question. It is even more troubling if we consider the potential of proposed rulemaking that the FAA has issued in response to law that was made by Congress requiring additional training, and a minimum of 1500 hours for those in professional pilot positions (airlines, charter, and fractional ownership aircraft operations). We have talked about pilot shortage possibilities for years, and it has been a “cry-wolf” kind of situation, but I think we are going to have some real pilot shortage problems in the near future. The propsed regulations will fundamentally change the types and quantity of training that universities, colleges, local FBOs, and academies, are going to need to provide to graduate or create a pilot qualified for a professional pilot job.
Why should we care? Because these training providers are teaching the largest number of pilots in our system. The professional pilot career is the bulk of where training is received in the United States. Although we still have folks learning to fly for personal business travel, for family travel, or just for fun, these numbers are declining. The reasons for decline are numerous and beyond the scope of what I will discuss here, but the fact is they are real.
There will certainly be those who will say that “there have always been threats of pilot shortages, and we have always figured out a way.” While this may have been the case in the past, it may not hold true for the future. In fact, I know of one airline that as of last week actually said they were completely out of qualified, hirable, resumes in their hiring process. They had zero pilot resumes they could hire from. They had hired all they could. They were considering removing some of their traditional hiring disqualifiers (such as driving record infractions, number of failed checkrides, etc.) so they could get additional pilots into their system. For them, the shortage isn’t coming, it is here.
When we consider pilot shortage issues, we need to think about who will train our next generation of pilots. We need instructors to do this. By most accounts, our industry tells people to gain flight experience as flight instructors so they can get enough hours to go fly for an airline. There is a fundamental problem in the math here. We don’t need a one-to-one ratio of instructors to students. In fact, if we do the math, for every instructor who will gain 800 hours of flight experience (approximately what will be required to move on to a professional pilot job), they will need to work with roughly 16 students. That means that if 16 pilot candidates for a professional pilot career want to move on, only one of them will get a flight instruction job. We have a constriction in the pipeline for pilots here.
Let alone the fact that forcing the “instructor experience path” may push people who may not even want to instruct into the job, just to leave as soon as they can get an airline job. Which has been quickly lately. The result is flight students working with inexperienced instructors and in many cases many of them as they pursue their training while the instructors cycle in and out for other jobs. This may be slowed somewhat if professional pilot jobs require more flight time (up to the 1500 hours proposed), but as soon as they get that time, they will be “sucked up” by the hungry airline that is short on pilots.
We don’t know all the potential effects of the newly proposed rules, but we know they may be profound. Local FBOs and small flight instruction operations that previously could train candidates seeking professional pilot jobs may be left out of the mix in the future. It may even keep 2-year college programs from being competitive in the training environment. This means that a part of their business models may go away, and with that, it is possible that local business may not remain sustainable, causing a further potential reduction in local training capacity.
Our industry needs to continue the discussion about these questions. The pilot training model may be changing significantly in the near future and we need to figure out how to make a new model work. If our training capacity itself is degraded, our ability to create the next generation of pilots will falter.
If you would like to read more of the white paper, you can view it at http://www.nafinet.org/whitepaper.aspx.
–Jason Blair, executive director National Association of Flight Instructors