It seems to me we’re at a bit of a tipping point with the GA ecosystem. There simply aren’t enough instructors around to solve the pilot shortage. And without enough pilots, we certainly won’t have a sufficient supply of instructors.
I know of a half dozen people just at my local FBO—mainly line service, flight attendants, and office personnel—who already work in the aviation sector, see the shortage, and want to be part of the solution.
But they can’t, because they go through instructors like a mouse through cheese. Every time I talk to one of them, my queries about how their training is progressing are met with the same reply: I just lost my instructor, and I’m not sure where the next one is going to come from. Then there’s a multi-week or -month delay while they’re hooked up with a fresh instructor, who flies with them briefly before leaving for a regional airline.
It begs the question: What happens when you run out of commercial pilot certificate holders to turn into CFIs? It’s a chicken-and-egg scenario, but the problem is a serious one, because eventually, it will encourage airlines to find their own solutions, one of which will likely be ab intio. I foresaw this four years ago and wrote about it. Will it solve the airline’s labor needs? Yes. And it will damage general aviation in the process.
So what’s my beef with this method of training? To put it simply, in an era of atrophying pilot skills, ab-initio is going to make a bad problem worse. While it’s a proven way of ensuring a steady supply of labor, ab initio also produces a relatively narrow pilot who is trained from day one to do a single thing: Fly an airliner. These airline programs don’t expose trainees to high Gs, aerobatics, gliders, seaplanes, banner towing, tailwheels, instructing, or any of the other stuff that helps create a well-rounded aviator.
If airlines in the U.S. adopt the ab initio system, the pilots they hire will only experience things that are a) legally required, and b) directly applicable to flying a modern, automated airliner. Nothing else. After all, an airline will only invest what’s necessary to do the job. It’s a business decision. And in an era of cutthroat competition and razor thin profit margins, who could blame them?
The problem is, all those “crap” jobs young fliers complain about (and veterans seem to look back on with a degree of fondness) are vital seasoning for a pilot. He or she is learning to make command decisions, interact with employers and customers, and generally figure out the art of flying. It’s developing that spidey sense, taking a few hard knocks in the industry, and learning to distinguish between safe and legal.
These years don’t pay well where one’s bank account is concerned, but they create a different type of wealth, one that’s often invisible and can prove vital when equipment stops working, weather is worse than forecast, or the holes in your Swiss cheese model start to line up.
Thus far, airline ab initio programs haven’t been a major part of the landscape here in the U.S. because our aviation sector is fairly robust. We are blessed with flying jobs which build the experience, skill, and time necessary for larger, more complex aircraft. But it’s easy to see why it might become an attractive option for airlines. For one thing, that darn pilot shortage. The cost of flying has risen dramatically over the past decade while the benefits (read: money) remain too low for too long. Airlines can cure the shortage by training pilots from zero hours… but at what cost?
Coming up through the ranks used to mean you were almost certain to be exposed to some of those elements. That’s why I believe ab initio would be just one more nail in the coffin of U.S. aviation, one more brick in the road of turning us into Europe. While I like visiting the continent, I do not envy the size or scope of their aviation sector and sincerely hope we don’t go down that path.
My writing here on the AOPA blog is centered on business aviation, but I’m touching on this issue because it’s a problem that will affect everyone who flies. In fact, I recently mentioned it in AOPA Pilot Turbine Edition. It’s getting hard not to, actually.
I was having a Twitter discussion with a fellow instructor about how to improve the situation. We were ticking off reasons that there aren’t more CFIs:
1) Many flight schools have closed, victims of the financial crisis of the last decade.
2) The airlines are vacuuming up all the relatively high-time CFIs
3) It takes longer and costs more to become a CFI than ever before
4) Compensation for CFIs is, on the average, quite low
5) High-time, retired, second-career, experienced instructors tend to be older, have higher net worth, and are concerned about insurance and liability issues
6) A lack of respect for CFIs, who are viewed as fungible, entry-level workers
The long-term solution will require investment in the grade school kids, getting them out to the airport when they’re young. Bringing aviation-centric STEM curriculum into the schools. Starting to equalize the 95-to-5 ratio of men to women in the cockpit. But there are also short-term solutions:
1. Reduce the cost of learning to fly, but do so in a way that doesn’t cut into the CFI’s meager compensation. The best, fastest, and easiest way to do this? Change planes. Ditch the SR22 and replace it with a Champ, Citabria, Cub, or other dirt-simple tailwheel design. It will turn out pilots with better stick-and-rudder skills, and reduce the hourly cost of the airplane by $100 or more. Now take that money and put it in the CFI’s pocket. Or split the savings between the student and his or her instructor.
2. Targeted tort reform to assuage the concerns of the retired professional pilots, post-retirement instructors, and others who have the experience we want in our CFIs.
3. Create an industrywide CFI insurance pool to ensure strong liability insurance is available at reasonable cost.
4. Start seeing instructors for what they truly are: the steel girders which hold the aviation world aloft. The base of the pyramid. The very foundation. The ones who determine just how good an aviator that airline, charter, corporate, military, or private pilot will be when you and your loved ones are aboard.
5. The problem of lack of flight schools will solve itself when the demand is there.
6. In many, perhaps most, places, the CFI training process is appallingly long. I know instructors are important from a safety standpoint, but what they do is neither rocket science or brain surgery, so it shouldn’t take as long to earn an instructor certificate as it does to get a PhD.
Has the workforce imbalance reached the point where it can’t be turned around? That’s a question I can’t answer. But I look at my 3-year-old son and think how incredibly sad it would be to know our generation used the world’s finest general aviation system to it’s fullest… and then watched as the ladder came up behind us.