Backwards Hierarchy

May 9, 2012 by Bruce Landsberg

In the May Issue of AOPA Pilot, my column was about the “reverse structure” of career aviation and how the most inexperienced pilots often had the most demanding jobs. Flight instructors are either revered or vilified depending on one’s station in life.

To briefly recap, in order to get a flying job in aviation, the traditional route has been to become a CFI, suffer poor wages and few, if any, benefits, and hope to acquire enough hours to get a “real flying job” with a regional airline or perhaps something else that may be less than remunerative such as Part 135, freight, cargo etc. I have great respect for people at that tier because they often fly multiple short legs in high density and sometimes at very low pay in hopes of getting to a major air carrier or corporate jet job. In some cases the equipment can be charitably called “well used.” While there are rules in place to address fatigue, and they are getting better, it can be a very tough environment.

My premise was what would happen if we reversed the hierarchy putting CFIs at the top, regional and 135s in the middle, and international long hauls at the bottom (i.e., recognize that teaching flight to the next generation of pilots—regardless of what they might fly—was as important as the business of air commerce in a widebody)?

There were some predictably interesting responses:

A couple of senior CFIs agreed that they should be far better compensated and should be the most experienced pilots of all since they were teaching the next generation. One felt that “newbies” shouldn’t be CFIs because they couldn’t impart much wisdom – my response is that under proper guidance and mentorship, that is how most professions bring new people up. Doctors, lawyers, public safety officers, etc., all have a farm team system to develop talent. In aviation this is often lacking.

One regional airline pilot missed the point completely and thought I was “ragging” on the regionals. He mentioned that they often flew advanced jet equipment and had taken over much of the trunk carrier business. I agree and also think that as a group they work harder for the money in a more difficult flying environment.

A senior airline captain acknowledged that it was easier on the long hauls despite the physiologically and psychologically numbing aspects (my terms) of being aloft for 8- 14 hours and then having to rouse yourself for a non-destructive landing. Typically one might get to do five or so landings a month. He also noted that the jobs lower in hierarchy, especially instructing in trainers, were “physically brutal.” The older bodies just couldn’t take it: the heat, the cold, the unusual attitudes, and the constantly incompetent maneuverings where a slow response could ruin an afternoon and a career in an instant.

What do you think?

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • M J lazar

    Why is it either one or the other? I think high quality CFIs should be very well paid – just like any other highly qualified professional. I was luckiy enough to be trained by a part time CFI who had a well paying full time job. He was an independent CFI and charged what he felt he was worth. Unfortunately the system has to change and the new hour requirements to fly the right seat will only make it harder. Maybe we should concentrate on the teaching and selection of CFIs.

  • Scott Woodland

    I think this hits home the most
    “One felt that “newbies” shouldn’t be CFIs because they couldn’t impart much wisdom – my response is that under proper guidance and mentorship, that is how most professions bring new people up. Doctors, lawyers, public safety officers, etc., all have a farm team system to develop talent”

    As an engineer, I had to work under a licensed engineer for several years after graduation before I coudl become licensed. I know we have to work a lot with our CFIs to get to be a CFI (I’m in that process now), but if new CFIs aren’t being mentored and watched then we are doing them and their students a diservice. My CFI, who helped me finish my licensing after a long haitus and then encouraged me to go right to work on my intrument rating, is there mentoring now as I work on preparing for Comm, and CFI, and has made a commitment to work with me as I start to teach.
    Hopefullly that is happening everywhere, but I fear it isn’t. It is where we need to go though. Oh, and higher pay for more experience wouldn’t hurt either.

  • Rebecca Gibson

    I agree with Scott. CFI’s need a lot more mentoring than they are getting. A “newbie” CFI may have an advantage when it comes to age and enthusiasm (maybe) but a lack of experience makes a huge difference.
    If I were designing the system, I would have newly minted Commercial pilots start as First Officers, being mentored and learning on the job, work their way through the ranks (preferably with better working conditions at the Regional level…and yeah, the more demanding work should still be done when you’re young), and working as CFI’s only after years of experience.

  • Jim

    Bruce (and others),

    I believe Canada has a tiered system of CFI certification; and I don’t know if the different levels have different responsibilities or privileges. But perhaps they should. There is much to be said for allowing a “300-hour wonder” to instruct beginners; anyone who has taught a subject recognizes that one only truly begins to understand a topic when one begins to teach it. As a forty-year veteran of classrooms at high school and college level, I can verify that.
    BUT, (and that is a big but), there is also a place for the “grizzled veteran” who has been around and done a good bit, and can tell me what it’s like to be in a thunderstorm and get through it. We have all read “Stick and Rudder” and “Fate is the Hunter”, but it is different to hear it from the other seat, especially as the lightning is flashing about in the sky.
    After about 2,000 hours of dual given, and dozens of successful trainees, I am confident of my ability to teach someone how to fly. But I have not been through that mill of night icing, or 12-hour fatigue, or holding in turbulence, enough to tell some future USAir captain what to expect.
    I do think I earn the pay I charge private clients, and I know I give the flight school customers more value than I get paid for; but I am willing to “fly for fun” and the pay is a good side effect. I have another job and a pension to feed & house me, so this is gravy. How do we resolve this conundrum? If I charged every student the fee that my credentials and experience warrant, I would find my schedule empty; if I had to feed myself and my wife (let alone kids) on what I can make as a CFII, we would need food stamps.
    Maybe the requirements for CFI need revision; maybe the pay is not the only metric. I don’t know. But you are right about one thing: something is out of whack here. I hope there is an answer.

  • Charles F. Thom II

    Experience and formal training is everything. If long haul pilots have gone through the “Whole process”, they are best, assuming good simulator checks. The middle group can have some really good people, but MUST pass the the rigorous simulator checks, especially initially. The Flight Instructors, though having paid their dues, still must understand that major airlines hire Potential Captains, not hours inflight, expertise in aviation knowledge, or students passed. Cockpit Leadership, CRM, ADM and Common Sense are the keys. I have seen some Captains with average skills, who were exceptionally good at supervising, mentoring, and “Getting the job done right”. I have also seen the opposite: Good stick/Poor leadership. From a 20000 hour military/GA/ Airline Capt.

  • Charlie Rush

    Interesting concept. Funny, it seems like a hundred years ago when we couldn’t afford a Sunday paper, I was saying “why doesn’t the system allow for me to get paid the big bucks now, when I need it most?” Somehow we survived an aviation career with some interesting twist and turns. After acquiring a modicum of experience I believe the past and current system is probably the best. With continuing improvements and mentoring, professional pilots from CFI’s to the most Senior ATPs the system works. Among the many things I have loved and respected in our profession is the requirement for continuing education, i.e. recurrents, checkrides, ground schools for new aircraft, etc. and the need to be physically checked periodically. Is a long haul pilot flying 11 hous plus, seeing 2 sunsets and landing a 300,000 lb aircraft with over 200 passengers onboard an “easy” job? We hope he does’t chase stars, forget anti-ice, misjudge flare altitudes or hesitate in an emergency diversion over the poles. The CFI, the “Check Flyer” (I know) the Charter or Company pilot looking for a bigger better job are learning and/or honing skills for the opportunity to get their dream job. I believe in apprenticeship. I’ve never believed in holding back someone that is so outstanding with the “you need to pay your dues” attitude but I have used the concept to see if someone is really worthy to jump over other good people. The FAA and AOPA (ASI) are trying very hard to eliminate accidents making good tools available, it is up to various companies to weed out bad traits and instill good ones. Over the years I have interacted with many people who thought they were better than they really were. We never get paid enough, but as a rule the pay scale and experience scale works.
    Charlie Rush

  • Gordon A. Ewald

    Bruce, i have been a CFI, CFII, MEI and master CFI for more than a decade, and have more than 5,000 hrs. of dual flight instruction given. I’ll adress flight instruction only. All new CFIs should, no MUST, receive mentoring from an experienced CFI! When I began instructing at age 51, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing even after passing my CFI Practical Test on my initial attempt! Regarding pay, I charge more for my independent instructing than the local flight school charges and have plenty of takers. I wish that I had had benefit of a mentor in my early years of flight instructing…I needed one!

  • Avi Weiss

    Meant to get back to you on this when I read article in magazine but slipped my mind until I read “Leading Edge” blog posting.

    I think the question being asked is an interesting “what if” experiment, but ultimately not the optimal one to gain insight to the crux of the issue of lack of adequate pay and quality flight instruction. In my thinking, the question to ask would be: “WHAT are the forces that led to this inverse-reasoned pay scale and can they be CHANGED / ADDRESSED”? The pay and reverence scales didn’t get to where they are at through random happenstance; they were driven there by market, regulatory, and actuarial forces. Let’s look at each individually.

    Market: While much discussion could be had on how pilot skill and experience should translate in pay scale, in the end, the driving force of pay will come down to how many net-profit dollars are available for a given rendered service. Flight instruction typically has a one-to-one mapping between service and revenue source: One plane and instructor to one student, who is the only source of revenue for the flight. There is NOTHING stopping flight instructors from setting their hourly rate at A380 captain rates, but whether the student can afford those rates is another question. Given how much students already feel the financial pinch during training, my guess is that meaningful increases for instructors are not in the offing unless an equivalent reduction in hourly costs on trainers can be had. Conversely, while the cost per seat-mile on an A380 is orders of magnitude greater than an instructor-laden C172, the revenue per seat-mile is also much greater as well, thus providing additional revenue margin to pay for said piloting skills.

    Regulatory: Given the hour requirements for ATP and even SIC ratings, a basic requirement to fly for any 121 operation, the only flying job open to aspiring professional pilots is instructing, regardless of their interest, or ability, to be a competent instructor. Indeed, many instructors are not only not interested in teaching, but they are often resentful they have to do such “scut” work before getting a “real” flying job… and that attitude is often reflected in their instruction (or lack thereof). And with the Colgan-driven legislation to increase the hour requirements even further, that will simply push that mentality and the situation deeper into “flying behind the power curve”.

    Actuarial: Even when FAA-mandated hour requirements are met, insurance companies will add their own additional hour requirements, driven by the well-intentioned but misguided notion that number of hours is equivalent to quality of hours, a myth repeatedly debunked. I’d rather fly with a mature pilot who has been slogging through low winter IMC at night in single pilot operation in a marginally IFR equipped C414 for 500 hours, than a newly minted 121 captain whose sole professional experience is 1500 turbine hours flying from Phoenix to LAX in summertime.

    While there have been numerous efforts to jumpstart pilot starts and GA growth and participation, they have fallen short because they fail to adequately and meaningfully address the biggest issue facing GA: exorbitant costs. As it turns out, its a tough problem to solve owing to a confluence of issues: lack of economies of scale, combined with high costs associated with entry, consumables, and regulatory compliance, work to maintain the status quo of flying as a mainly “affluent” luxury, as opposed to a affordable, practical hobby. Throw on some sensationalistic fears about “little plane safety”, the never-ending quest of the non-flying public to shutdown GA ground resources and airspace access, and it’s little wonder that the pilot population continues to dwindle, and certainly no wonder as to how the inverted pay-scale came to be. Until we can make meaningful in-roads on these issues, GA pay scale and pilot population growth will continue to languish.

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Excellent comments – all. The diversity of opinion is good. For better or worse, I now will have a new column in AOPA pilot that will appear 3-4 times per year addressing other than safety issues.

    You are giving me some excellent material as we look to preserve the future of GA. This is a big challenge – not impossible but seriously big to use today’s jargon!

    I’ll look to you all as a sounding board – many thanks.

  • bill brennan

    Ok folks here it goes, I’ve had a CFII since 1975 4400hr plus instructing, yes I think CFI’s should be at the top. I had a great airline career, but instructing taught me how to be a good pilot. What is the thinking about military pilots, and college graduates, some are good, some not so much, how about demonstrated ability as a pilot, you either have it or you don’t, you are committed or your not. There is no gray area. A lot of good CFI’s have left the profession because they just could not make a living at it.

  • Mark McCormick

    1) Let’s see… How to implement this socialist utopia where the CFI is on top and the widebody pilots are on the bottom? Transfer payments routed through AOPA?

    2) Before you decide that international flying is the easiest segment of aviation I suggest that you read AC 91-70A, Oceanic and International Procedures.

    Capt Mark McCormick
    ORD 777