How much for a CFI?

June 8, 2011 by Bruce Landsberg
  • Last week I posed a question on Air Safety Institute’s Facebook page (yes, we have one) asking how much a CFI should be paid. The answers were fascinating. Here are a few:
  • They should have a salary if at a school, not paid by the hour. They could start in the 30’s.
  • Professional CFI’s should be paid what they are worth, 50K minimum.
  • $60 per hour would have prohibited me from being able to afford flight school. Maybe in another geographical location, but not where I live.
  • This is an industry dying for reform. Young pilots are taken advantage of because their need to fly pushes them to work for poverty wages. Good flight instructors deserve good pay.
  • Demand for flight training is very price elastic–even raising CFI rates a little bit could have a noticeable effect on business. While making CFI pay commensurate with experience is an interesting idea, I’m not sure it’s practical. It creates an impression that the more experienced instructors are “better” than new ones. If I were a typical student faced with the choice of paying higher rates for a more senior instructor, it might make me think that paying less for the new guy is a bad, unsafe idea. If I’m price sensitive, that would discourage me from taking up flying altogether.
  • I will add that compared to other job choices of the same responsibility level of a CFI, it’s an (even vastly) underpaid profession. The problem with CFI pay, and regional airline pilot pay for that matter, is that the market cannot and will not support much of an increase.
  • Interesting debate that mirrors the wider debate about the value that we put on all kinds of education/educators.

There were many more comments but the general consensus seems to be that the CFI,  not the school,  should be receiving somewhere between $50-60 an hour and not necessarily as an hourly employee.

I overheard one flight school owner trying to sell a young CFI on the tremendous advantage of being a contractor – that all his  expenses could be written off on his taxes. For most CFIs the deduction value is somewhat limited and the lack of benefits isn’t always a plus. As a CFI contractor years ago, however, I do have fond memories of getting the company fruitcake every Christmas from the flight school.

This is part of a much larger conversation relative to the value equation of GA training. So, are we getting the instruction we deserve? More importantly, what should change?

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Thomas Boyle

    There are 2 problems here. One is the problem of underpaid airline pilots (including the underpaid flight instructors who want to be airline pilots some day). The other is the problem of low-quality, low-priced flight instructors undermining high-quality, high-priced flight instructors.

    First, on the “underpaid” pilot problem. Unfortunately, there’s no problem here – just as there isn’t an “underpaid musicians” or an “underpaid poets” problem either. There are more people who want to fly for a living than the world really needs. The world responds by cutting pay for pilots until enough people decide they aren’t willing to live on beans, and go do something else. That’s what I did – you think I wouldn’t prefer to fly, than drive a desk? Those are the decisions we have to make. If the supply of pilots falls too far as a result (unlikely) then pilot pay will rise to attract more people to the profession. Until then, if you want to be paid well, don’t be a pilot. Or a musician, or a poet.

    On the problem of low-price, low-quality flight instructors, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. What does help is for high-priced, high-quality instructors to think about the way they communicate, and about the students they target.

    As a student pilot, you can choose someone with relatively low hours and low interest in what they’re doing, or you can choose someone who is an experienced pilot and teacher. Obviously, the latter is better. However, the latter is also more expensive. Different instructors will appeal to students with different needs.

    I have seen schools set up their facility, equipment, branding, marketing – and faculty – to communicate that they are good, high-quality, but expensive training programs. They appeal to relatively high-income (or high net worth) customers who feel that high quality equipment and training is worth the significant additional cost. These schools know that this is a niche market within a niche market, and they target it specifically.

    On the other hand, I have seen instructors who have low hours, and who communicate the message that “I’m doing this for the hours, so I’m available cheap,” – and that works for students who are cash-poor but time-rich, and who can take more of the burden of learning on themselves. Those students tend to be the enthusiasts who are willing to accept the low-paid lifestyle of the professional pilot, who are willing to make do. Forcing cheap instructors out of the market is not going to help them.

    Where the trouble arises is where a high-priced, high-quality instructor tries to compete for students who don’t need, and/or can’t pay for that. That’s the high-priced instructor’s fault, not the low-priced instructor’s fault. The high-priced instructor is targeting the wrong customer.

  • Patrick

    Personally, as a CFI, I would love to get paid more for what I do, however to add more trouble to the topic- I’m a rotorcraft CFI meaning that I teach people how to fly helicopters. Helicopter pilots are paid better once in the industry than fixed wing (for the most part), but it’s hard to keep that in mind when you’re a student because the minimum cost from Private through CFII is at least 85,000 up to the much more common 100,000 dollar range. When I became a student with my current employer, if that price was any more than what it was I probably wouldn’t have become a pilot. The cost is a huge undertaking and a flight school will pass that cost onto the students rather than losing out on their profits themselves. If we got paid here (say $50 an hour) that would most likly increase the cost to our students to upwards of $150,000 for the entire program, and that would make it a huge deal-breaker for potential students. Alot of these students are working a job or two already, have families and the stress of flying, studying, and their tests to worry about, I would feel bad if I was charging them any more than they are already charged.

  • David Yost

    Interesting discussion. My guess is that it’s not strictly the cost per hour of the CFI that makes flight training so expensive, but also the additional cost of renting the airplane. Compare this with golf instruction. You buy a set of clubs and accessories for $50 – 350 and you have all the gear you need. Then you can pay an instructor to teach you how to use those clubs. You’ll pay $70-80 per hour for individual instruction. Compare this with what flight instructors earn, then ask yourself how many people have died because they were incompetant golfers.

  • John Pettit

    What the market will bear and what you can accept to maintain your lifestyle and progess in the industry determines the “price” of flight instruction or anything else for that matter. I have to charge what is worth my time and cover my costs. I like to fly and I like to instruct. That factor adds value to the experience.
    No way to get rich in the flight instruction business.

  • John Henry

    Thomas Boyle said it all. I would only add that part of the compensation of a flight instructor is the free hours of loggable flight time. Add that to the cash pay and you will see they are earning a pretty decent wage.

  • Jeff Millard

    How much for how much? Thomas Boyle’s point about musicians and poets reminds us the human / intangible value question is age old. I was once whining about low pay of CFI’s to an EMT friend who shared this little value proposition. Her partner brought a guy back to life: No breathing, no heartbeat, dead for 20minutes until the paramedic revived him…for $12.30 in earnings (no tip I imagine). Putting the proper value of that and keeping people from dying in the first place aside for the moment let me run some real numbers.

    The average total time of ASEL graduates is still around 70hrs when the minimum required is 40. My average is 45 hrs. So what is it worth to NOT pay for those additional 25hrs? If the plane costs $120/hr that is $3,000 in savings there and, at $50 for the CFI, another $1,250. Divide that back over 45 hours and you get $95/per hour you could ADD to the CFI’s NET pay. Yep. Charging $145 per hour for instruction, but finishing them at 45 hours is the same cost to the student as paying $50 per hour for instruction and finishing them in 70 hours. Of course if you can sell THAT you are better off in Real Estate.

  • Deanna King

    If I want steak, I do not expect the restaurant to sell it to me for the price of a hamburger. If I can only afford hamburgers then I buy hamburgers. As a flight school owner I am under no obligation what so ever to under price myself or any of my flight instructors because someone wants steak and only wants to pay hamburger prices. There’s a hamburger joint down the street, go there.

    Serioulsy though, we’ve wrestled with this question alot. Do we charge the going rate of all the other flight schools or, do we price based on experience and what we need to stay in business; so that we can continue to make pilots, who purchase airplanes, who visit mechanics, who buy insurance who buy airplanes ,who buy hangars and tie downs and who buy fuel. Because we sell value and not price, the customer has a choice. If they want the most experienced CFI then they’ll pay for that. If they are okay with a less experienced but supervised CFI then that’s ok too.

    Our philosophy is this. As a flight instructor you are a professional. Whether you have experience or not you shall be paid based on that commensurate level of experience. If you are less expereinced, then you shall be supervised to insure quality, you shall also participate in professional self development, join professional aviation organizations, add more ratings and certificates to increase your level of experience and marketability. Our flight instructors are also financially incented to sell,bring in more business and market themselves. They are also expected to sign a two year contract to uphold training continuity. So we expect alot but we compensate well both financially and in perks.

    We’re still in business.

  • Mark E. Jones

    I charge the same amount for instruction as my 172 burns in fuel per hour… tends to keep my ego in check and the chiselers at bay.

  • Rodney Hall

    I think this is just part of a larger picture. Why is it so expensive? If we break down the costs of flying the instructor cost, even if you pay 40-50hr is one of the smaller items. Lets look at some things we can change such as lobbying for tort reform to lower insurance costs, changing regulations or finding alternate fuels to lower fuel costs, changing the way airplane certification and parts are handled to reduce the cost of airplanes and replacement parts. Maybe setting up or changing regulations to make it less expensive for a new company to make parts for airplanes.
    A few examples would be that a marine band radio cost approx 200 dollars but the same aviation band radio is over $1000 from the same manufacturer and all they have to do is change the frequency band. Parts for certificated aircraft, even those nonessential for flight, are excruciatingly expensive. If a student breaks a part or a seat wears out potentially thousands in cost. These costs have to be absorbed along with insurance and fuel by the school. If we can reduce the costs of these items by reducing the regulatory requirements and influencing the costs of insurance through legislative means the costs will go down reducing the schools overhead, reducing the costs for instruction, allowing instructors a larger part of the funds available. It may be hard and take awhile but could be accomplished.

  • Eric L

    A national school at ADS charges $85/ hr for a CFI but only pays them $20-30.
    I have a price list from another school at ADS from 2000. A C-172 was $66-$88/hr. A CFI was $25-35/hr. Its now $155/hr for the plane and $35-50 for the CFI. Should I pay $200 for an hour in a plane with a CFI or the same amount will get me an all day paintball adventure?

  • Herb Ludgewait

    What is everyone crying about? If you don’t like the pay, and aren,t instructing for the love of it, get out. You aren’t doing yourself or your studens any good. I’m sick of watching CFI”s riding the Hobbs to build time or milk the student’s pocket book. The studentis the reason for instruction, not the instructor.

  • john proctor

    Deanna King makes sense! But Rodney Hall hits the nail on the head. Over regulated AND Over torted is an understatement. What ever happened to being responsible for your actions?? Herb Ludgewait, although very noble, doesn’t put the bacon on the table. Good instructors need to eat too!!

  • L Weaver

    As I see it, the biggest obstacle and decline of aviation in the U.S. Is due to excessive cost and regulation. Thank you, Mr. Hall, for pointing out the obvious.

  • Herb Ludgewait

    Hey, John-Nothing noble about it-Treat students right, and live on what you can make or find a different job. Students don’t need to be a sacrifice to instructer’s “needs”-And we wonder why flight training is in trouble!

  • Earl Kessler

    Another rule of thumb to keep up with inflation and cost of living would be to charge whatever the first class stamp costs for VFR training. If the stamp costs 44 cents, my fee is $44 per hour.

  • Alan Kittelman

    Bruce——Thanks for a good article on flight instruction——-I am from a family of educators and none of them were paid what they were worth——Education is a labor of love———-That is why I went into business so I would be the chief pilot for my company and I have enjoyed every moment of that time—–Now that I am retired I am really enjoying what love to do——FLY——–BTW—-I reall enjoyed meeting Craig in Santa Rosa——-Alan

  • Mark McCormick

    The basic problem that has been alluded to is that CFI’s are paid in two different systems: cash and flight time. They need to realize that airline pay is so low now that the flight time they accrue has very little value. I am not saying that they should be paid a low wage, just the opposite. The individuals who say “take it or leave it” should be recognized as the bottom feeders that they are. Question for Bruce: does the FAA count of 94000 instructors only include unexpired certificates? 94000 instructors for 15000 PPL certificates issued in 2010. Not a good ratio.