Guest Blog: ATP Tests Grind to a Halt

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Based on my data sources, since August 1, 2014, we have not administered a single ATP knowledge test that would allow a pilot to then go on to take the ATP multi-engine practical test and become ATP qualified for service in an airline. Yup. None. For two whole months and I expect this trend to continue for a third month.

This is a significant change from historic numbers when we typically saw an average of over 500 knowledge tests given per month (between 2002 and 2013). Why is this important? Because it is not possible to become an ATP pilot without first taking the knowledge test. If we aren't making new ATP pilots, well, then we simply aren't making any more pilots capable of being employed to fly airliners.

Many pilots knew this deadline was coming and took the ATP knowledge test ahead of the August 1 date. These pilots have 24 calendar months from the date they took the test to get an ATP practical test done. This is going to represent a big bubble of potential ATP candidates who may become qualified for a practical test, but many of them took the test hoping they could meet the required flight minimums before the knowledge test will expire. As an industry, we have to look at this only as a unique data outlier.

Although I don't have 2014 numbers of tests yet, I do expect a significant surge of last minute tests taken trying to beat the deadline will be represented in the data in the June/July months of 2014. The reality is once this bubble of previous test takers gets through the certification process, we are going to see an equally large drought bubble in our system.

This change is the result of the changes in regulations for ATP pilot training that became effective on August 1, 2014 after many years of wrangling and negotiating between Congress, special interest groups, the FAA, and the aviation industry as a whole. The how and why are, in my opinion, now irrelevant. What is relevant is what we are going to do now.

Specifically related to the FAA knowledge test for an ATP multi-engine pilot, the changes fundamentally restructured the process by which a pilot becomes qualified to take the ATP knowledge test. Historically, the FAA had two tests, one for Part 121 and one for Part 135 operations that both covered ATP-related questions, with the Part 121 test focusing more on larger and multi-engine aircraft and the Part 135 test focusing more on charter-type flying and smaller aircraft.

The tests are now specifically broken down into multi-engine ATP and single-engine ATP," a change I agree with. The multi APT however, now has a caveat. To be eligible to take the test, an applicant must have first completed an ATP Certification Training Program (ATP CTP) (More information can be found about this requirement here.) This is now a prerequisite for even sitting down to take an ATP multi-engine knowledge test.

What's the problem with taking a course before taking the test you might ask? It actually sounds like a pretty good idea on paper. The problem is that as of the writing of this article there are only three approved providers of such a course (Embry-Riddle University, ABX Air Inc (partnered with Sporty's) and AeroSim, which just announced its program this week. As far as I know, none have started courses yet for students. I know they will do so soon, but even another month or two is going to put us behind even further in our pilot creation process. Let alone the fact that just these providers alone are unlikely to be able to put out the numbers of ATP CTP course graduates great enough to serve our pilot needs.

We have a problem, folks. Our ATP knowledge test process has come to a grinding halt and we are going backwards every month. Somewhere between 500 and 700 qualified candidates who would previously have entered into the potential employment pool for the airlines aren't doing that now. I'm not going to get into discussion of pilot shortages in this blog. That's is a long topic with highly polarized and politically motivated positions on either side. This is just simple math. We can't and aren't making ATP-qualified pilots. I know that more providers are in the process of approval with the FAA, but even a couple more isn't going to be enough.

To get this pipeline going again we need to get the FAA to expedite the approval process of those who have submitted applications for ATP CTP training programs, we need to get more providers into the process of developing programs, and we need to coordinate these efforts with training providers who can get their pilot training students into them, through them, and on to successfully taking ATP tests again. If we don't, the halt in our training process is going to hit us hard in the upcoming years.

Jason Blair is an active FAA Designated Pilot Examiner and CFI who consults on aviation training and regulatory efforts for general aviation companies.

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Comments (22)

I wonder how many of those ATP candidates went on to get a 121 or 135 job, as opposed to just getting it to get it. I suspect there will be fewer ATP candidates who are in it just for the rating and not a job, going forward.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | October 10, 2014 8:11 AM    Report this comment

I think the author is missing the big picture. Very few are still interested in pursuing a career in the airlines. Until the airlines and pilot unions fix the problem of pay and quality of life, people are simply not going to be interested in doing the job. There was already a decline of interest prior to the implementation of the new ATP requirement rules. The increase in numbers in 2013 was the result of existing commercial pilots already working for the regional airlines pushing to get their pilots legal by August 2014. A handful of those simply couldn't gain enough hours before the deadline and were kicked to the curb. I know many people who took the ATP written just to beat the deadline and get their ATP certificates not for a future career, but to say that they have an ATP.

Why would anyone want to invest $150,000 to start a career in the regional airlines making starting $20,000-ish with possible 4-year pay cap, no stability, no movement, and incessant abuses from airline management and lack of union support? You're away from home all the time. You're getting nuked by cosmic radiation at a rate higher than terrestrial workers. All it takes for someone interested in an airline career to do their due diligence and realize that the airline career sucks. But there will be a handful of dreamers with large bank accounts that will pursue it. But by the time they get to the regional airlines, the hiring would have all be said and done, and the regional airline landscape that we see today would have drastically changed. Envoy is hanging by a thread, and their companions at other regional airlines are ready to kill them off by offering cheaper flying for the majors/legacies.

So the ATP rule change is simply the final nail in the coffin. All it did was make would be ATPs realize even more that the career is truly a waste of time and money to pursue; the cost in time and money outweighs the benefits. I suspect we'll be seeing a fundamental change in the structure of legacy/major and regional airlines in the near future. Those pilots in the regional airlines will likely be there for life as the legacy/major will not move them and sacrifice their cash cow. There will be a trickling inflow of pilots into the regional airlines; just enough to keep the gears moving. But you won't be seeing past year numbers of ATPs. Not by a long shot.

Posted by: Amy Zucco | October 10, 2014 8:50 AM    Report this comment

"Will Drones Take Your Job" and "ATP Tests Grind to a Halt" - good sequel. I've been interested in the pilot population decline for several years. The decline is consistently getting worse. It needs to be stopped and then pushed back up.

In trying to solve this problem I promote interest by facilitating to our local youth a monthly year-round aviation education program highlighted by a week-long summer camp. All free. The hope is that some of the participants will continue as recreational pilots and in turn allow some to become professionals. However, the proverbial "carrot on a stick" is offering more disincentives than rewards. The new ATP requirements are indeed aggressively increasing the dilemma. I agree with you, we have a problem.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 10, 2014 9:20 AM    Report this comment


You may be training the next generation of vital key-punch operators! ;-)


Posted by: Tom Yarsley | October 10, 2014 9:52 AM    Report this comment

YARS, I just may be doing that. it makes for a better aeronautical intellect.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 10, 2014 10:17 AM    Report this comment

Raf, don't forget to remind those youngsters they need to hold a bit of "right arrow key" on takeoff !

Posted by: A Richie | October 10, 2014 12:36 PM    Report this comment

A. Richie, that's a good one. Thanks. Amy, you are correct. Presently, I would not recommend to anyone a career in aviation as a commercial pilot nor as an aviation news writer. Sorry Paul.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 10, 2014 12:49 PM    Report this comment

Another little nasty that was done by the FAA with the new ATP requirements. Current single engine airplane and helicopter ATPs will have to take the written again if they want to pursue the Multi ATP. More nonsense from the feds.

Many pilots with ATPs other than multi engine who have much experience flying the line are being treated like 1500 hour new ATP candidates. Will any of this improve safety? Not one little bit.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | October 10, 2014 1:22 PM    Report this comment

Aviation as a career is an interesting one. It used to be (or so I'm told - I was too young at the time) that an aviation career meant working through the private, instrument, and commercial, then getting your CFI and doing instructing and some work as a traffic reporter/banner tower/freight runs/charter operations to build time, and finally getting hired on at a regional or major. But with autonomy and 1500-hour rules, many of those intermediate jobs are either no longer in existence, or could be done autonomously, which really leaves just the flight instructing bit left to build time. This is not the same as some other industries that simply lost manual labor jobs, as it also affects the upper end of the career (121/135) with fewer qualified pilots available.

In that sense, going back to the previous blog, a true pilot shortage may lead to at least semi-autonomous flight with the elimination of the copilot as the airlines see a cost-benefit ratio tip toward autonomy. And if the flying public start to accept single-human airline service, they might eventually accept zero-human airline service.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | October 10, 2014 1:28 PM    Report this comment


"Semi-autonomous flight" is like being "somewhat pregnant." There's no such thing!

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | October 10, 2014 1:36 PM    Report this comment

Jason, getting back to you. Yeah, we're toast!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 10, 2014 2:09 PM    Report this comment

There is more involved than just the airlines. Nearly all business aviation jobs flying corporate jets require an ATP. This is going to make the process of filing those slots much harder also, and will take some of those pilots out of the regional to major airline path.

Also, is there an exemption I have not heard about for military pilots?

This whole thing was basically massive overkill for a minor issue involving one accident, thought up by congressmen who want to make headlines, not progress!

Posted by: James Hiatt | October 10, 2014 2:43 PM    Report this comment

Thomas Yarsley, we already have semi-autonomous flight. It's called the FMS and auto-pilot. Program, engage, news paper spread over flight instruments.

Posted by: Amy Zucco | October 10, 2014 3:09 PM    Report this comment

"Semi-autonomous" meaning, replace the human co-pilot with an electronic one, leaving just one human up front on the flight deck.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | October 10, 2014 3:22 PM    Report this comment

Anyone who pays for the ATP written CTP course out of their own pocket is a fool. Whenever the airlines run out of pilots that already have their written done,they will incorporate the CTP program into their 121 initial training.

Many years ago, most pilots got their Instrument Rating only when they began flying DC-3s for the airlines. This will be no different.

Posted by: Scott Beadle | October 10, 2014 4:35 PM    Report this comment

I fully agree with Scott. Paying for your own training to get a flying job is nuts. It will be years if not a generation or two before the major airlines are affected by this. James also makes a valid point on Pt 135 and corporate operators. It will be interesting how they handle the alleged "shortage" that I as a PT 135 pilot have yet to see.

Amazing how the FAA can come up with rules that they themselves are unable to reasonably support, just like getting an ADS-B installation approved.

Posted by: matthew wagner | October 10, 2014 5:18 PM    Report this comment

I for one agree with the 1500 hour rule. I had to build 1200 total/200 multi to get my first 135 job. For what it's worth, I was a much better pilot after instructing a couple years - I may be wrong but the idea that advanced training replaces experience doesn't fly for me. As for building time at our local airport, I'd love to see a hungry flight instructor or two to come do some flying - we certainly have people coming in who are interested.

As for the remainder of the ATP rule, I assume it will hurt the airline pilot population, and maybe will raise the starting salary for those wanting to get into the profession. Glad I got my written done before the deadline.

Posted by: Josh Johnson | October 10, 2014 7:42 PM    Report this comment

Gary and Amy:

If we're going to have a rational debate about the merits of autonomous machines, we need to acknowledge the very definition of one. Otherwise, it becomes a case of "have you stopped beating your wife?"

If you understood what an autonomous flight control system is, you would not have used the oxymoronic term "semi-autonomous." By definition, an autonomous system is unsupervised and it has no provision for real-time human intervention. None. No human pilot with whom to share duties or responsibilities. Thus, there's no such thing as "semi-autonomous." It's either autonomous, or it's not. Neither an autopilot nor an FMS qualify.

Lots of pilots seem not to understand this. Many of them seem not to WANT to understand, or at the least, they refuse to acknowledge this. As I've said before, an autonomous system is NOT an autopilot on steroids. It's fundamentally different BECAUSE it is unsupervised and it has no provision for real-time human intervention.

This isn't just some butt-hole (me) being a nit-picker. It's fundamental to the proposition.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | October 11, 2014 10:54 AM    Report this comment

Let me add a counter point to Amy......who dumps a huge pile of crap on an airline career....unusual considering how the airline industry coddles lady pilots.....not PC , but true

I retired 10 years ago.....flew everything from 737s to a330 jumbo 29',500 hours....set 11 world speed records...just got FAA Master Pilot award..started with little airline as a corporate pilot hire...not mil pilot but a vet....

Great great job......actually I never thought it was a job....I could not believe get l got big bucks to do this.

I didn't t like the commuting and the early get ups....learned to manage my sleep and a new book commuting.....

Made $300,000 my last 3 Years.....same as the Delta guys are now...

Yea lost some of my pension......but had so much time off I had a fun second career in real estate and am a multi millionaire....

Like lots of my peers.

One wife.....3 kids....plenty of time with thm...they are world traveled and all highly educated...and my son is a pilot and loves it.

Yes....2 commuter crews screwed up and made the Congress alpa hotels over react...

Bottom line.....great great you really have to earn it..

Stop wining kids........I still 70 still love it..I am a T6 IP...just won Oshkosh....

Flying isn't just a is a life long love.......

It is worth the effort you put into it.....

Best wishes to all......


Posted by: Joe Graham | October 12, 2014 11:58 AM    Report this comment

Raf said,
" ...with an average of $198,000 or low $142,000 operating a G650 under Part 91. I found it interesting."

I remember hearing Rush Limbaugh say that he pays his personal flight crews about 3 times the going salary just because he likes them and wants to keep them there are some cherry jobs out there if you can find them! I say more power to'em if you can be so generous, I would love to be in a position to do that for my employees.

Posted by: A Richie | October 12, 2014 12:01 PM    Report this comment

Joe Graham, you entered the career at the pinnacle. It's not even a comparison. If you had to start over today, you'd be making crap, getting pissed on by unions and management, and starting at a fabulous salary in the neighborhood of $20,000 at a regional airline with little movement and quite possibly a lifer at the regionals. And to down play your cut in pension and justify it as needing to find a second job...I don't even know what to say to that except, you shouldn't have to find that second job. So don't compare your well timed entry into the career as a means to encourage newbies to enter this pathetic career as an airline pilot. Times have changed. The golden years that you enjoyed are GONE. But I will agree with you that the airlines do coddle my gender, which I disagree with, but many females have fully taken advantage of this and moved past their male counterparts. Personally, as much as this favors my gender, it's unfair, and is yet another attribute to the hot mess the airline career really is. I feel bad for all those men who paid their dues and then some only to be passed up by someone who happens to have marginal flying skills and a nice rack.

Rafael Sierra, thanks for the link! That's some great information, and quite interesting indeed!

Posted by: Amy Zucco | October 14, 2014 8:58 AM    Report this comment

Becoming a airline pilot now days is the absolute worst decision you will ever make. Waste your life in rundown hotels around nothing, never see your family, work all the holidays and weekends. Eat poorly and be exposed to insane amounts of radiation ending your life a good 15 years early. Don't fool yourself or anybody else. The actual percent of pilots that get to the top are less than 5% of all pilots. A lot has to do with connections and being at the right place at the right time. This "job" not career will ruin your life and your family's lives. The oshkosh guy is completely clueless as to what the industry is like now days. He was in the golden era and has ZERO idea of what it is really like. He is disillusioned.

Posted by: Sarah Monday | October 14, 2014 3:35 PM    Report this comment

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