Where are the instructors?

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

  • larry

    I can’t agree with you, as the reality is that professional pilot wages, benefits, and working conditions are still trending worse than anyother time in history. These factors would have to reverse and get much better before there would be a true pilot shortage. As you pointed out, people are still more than willing to work in this industry under the existing poor pilot wage/benefits, so companies will not pay what a pilot is truely worth – because they don’t need to.

  • David McVinnie

    Your comments about finding experienced instructors is valid. Problem is the commercially bound pilots with no instructional experience will flood the instructor pool and drive the pay scale of all instructors into the toilet. FBOs will be able to hire at below minimum wage because aspiring airline captains will work for free just to build time.

  • Rob

    I can say, with some degree of confidence, thet there is no shortage, nor will there be a shortage…these symposiums are tantamount to firms that speculate in oil, predicting price increases in the future, to get people to buy more oil now, which raises the price of oil…will there be a shortage of instructors? Yes…the number of instructors who can afford 15-20 dollars a flight hour, while schools bill 60 an hour for their expertise, will drop. One thing flight training had going for it, was that you used to have to take a paycut to go to the regionals…..that’s not necessarily the case anymore…it’s become a pay raise…while there will always be those who go to the airlines no matter what, the instructors who were content instructing find themselves applying to be flying bus drivers because quite frankly oatmeal and ramen noodles get old after a couple days, and they are on an oatmeal and ramen noodle budget for periods of time that are astounding…we affectionately call it paying dues….but the dues today, are nOthing like the dues the ole timers paid back in the day…

  • Nate

    If the minimum requirements for air transport crew goes up, won’t that mean a glut of CFI’s that can’t move on, at least short term? I would think that the ATP requirement would maroon a lot of commercial/CFI “time builders” in instruction or Part 135 flying until they can meet the ATP mins.

    Add to this a military training system that is regularly spitting out pilots as the service downsizes post-Iraq and switching to more unmanned platforms.

    Over the horizon, I could maybe see some concern, but for the next couple of years I don’t see it.

  • Shannon Forrest

    One thing that has not been considered is the rapid pace of automation development. I instruct full time for a part 142 school and can tell you that automation levels on the newest fly by wire business jets can render at least one pilot obsolete. I never, ever thought I would say this. We saw this when the 747 and DC-10 lost flight engineers in favor of the automation. Look at the push towards UAVs. I also manage the CRM program and can tell you, I’m in favor of two pilots. However, when the CEO is looking at budget and the biggest cost besides fuel is salary, there’s going to be a strong push towards one pilot. That cuts the need in half. Additional concern is that we’re training systems managers not pilots.

  • Fred

    I think that over time, professional pilot training — like so many other industries — will become a global industry. Before long, I expect to see world-class academies springing up in China and elsewhere around the world. A globalized industry will provide world-class pilot training at a fraction of the current cost in the US — resulting, eventually, in a glug of pilots!

  • Douglas

    I would like to see my airline allow me to continue to flight instruct when I am off.

    If I could, I would love to continue to instruct as I truly enjoy it and students will benefit from my charter and airline background.