Guest Blog: Filling The Right Seat

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It’s arguably the best time in history to begin a flying career. Never before could a pilot expect to become a jet first officer so rapidly. Sure, it’s a challenge to log the time needed to earn the ATP that’s now required. But demand is so great that as soon as a pilot meets that minimum, he or she will be snatched up by a regional carrier and given that all-important seniority date.

In the May 16, 2018, AVweb Flash, Mary Grady described a consequence of this rapid advancement: Flight schools are having a hard time finding and retaining instructors. The nationwide flight instructor shortage has become endemic. I’m personally bombarded by unsolicited requests to come teach at any number of colleges and private flight schools, cold-emailed from the FAA’s list of certificated instructors.

The good news: Instructor pay and benefits are increasing. But frankly, most CFIs are only passing through at any price, taking the instructional pathway to the career they want. Even a few extra months teaching and they’ll never catch up with their contemporaries on the airline seniority lists. Instructor pay helps, but it does not fix the problem.

The Transportation Department turns to the old standby: “Launch an initiative to assess the level of interest among veterans in becoming pilots.” As a veteran myself I applaud the decades-long availability of benefits to pay for flight training. Even if interest among vets increases dramatically, however, it still doesn’t solve another nagging problem: the lack of experienced flight instructors. Here’s an idea: Why don’t we call on industry to promote hiring of experienced, retiring airline captains into the flight instructor ranks?

In addition to increasing pay to make this attractive, such a plan needs a high-limits instructor liability policy to cover the captains. One of the biggest disincentives for these folks to teach what they’ve learned in a lifetime of flying is that they usually have significant personal assets they put at risk if they instruct. It can be done—insurance at one organization I’m familiar with has very high limits for its instructors, at a reasonable price. Maybe a nationwide insurance pool, with schools and individuals buying into the program, would offset the risk for airline retirees returning to instruction.

Fix pay and liability insurance, and we might be able to attract a lot of airline retirees to instructing. We can fill the right seats with CFIs who have a lifetime of experience to pass to the next generation.

Thomas P. Turner is Executive Director of the American Bonanza Society Air Safety Foundation (www.bonanza.org), and publisher of the free FLYING LESSONS Weekly e-pub at www.mastery-flight-training.com. A career flight instructor, in 2015 Tom was inducted into the National Flight Instructor Hall of Fame.

Comments (13)

I believe your thinking is a little short sighted. There is probably a larger untapped market beyond airline pilots. Think in terms of the aerospace industry as a whole combined with a desired for the later stage baby boomers and gen X'ers that want early retirement but dread the large burden of medical cost. So instead of focus on wages, focus on health insurance, and instead of just airline pilots, what about the pool of engineers, mechanics, etc. that are the backbone of this industry.

Posted by: Rob "daSlob" Schaffer | May 20, 2018 8:34 AM    Report this comment

With all due respect to airline pilots, many if not most would seem to be the least likely of candidates to be impressed with any of your suggested incentives, let alone with the real work of being a CFI. Airline pilots make both a science and recreational activity out of learning how to work their scheduling systems so as to fly as few days a month as possible while making as much money as possible. "That's the human condition", you say? Yes, but that's also reality.

Posted by: John Kliewer | May 20, 2018 10:30 AM    Report this comment

There are plenty of airline pilots that stayed active in the GA world. One problem is that many school owners are intimidated by them and treat them badly which quickly turns them off.

The elephant in the room is that almost all of the good senior instructors have gone. There are few old hands to mentor the new instructors and many of the higher time instructors who are left are F*uckups who got canned, or could not make it in Part 135/121 ops.

The sad part is the airline puppy mills are doing OK what is hurting is the fact that your average joe who wants a Private ticket so he can fly for fun is having a hard time getting instruction

Posted by: DAVID GAGLIARDI | May 20, 2018 3:56 PM    Report this comment

Send your students to New England, where there are plenty of under-employed flight instructors, and there is abundant real-world weather.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | May 20, 2018 6:50 PM    Report this comment

After a superficial google search, my opinion is that about 20,000 full time practicing fight instructors are teaching 140,000 new starts, 35,000 instrument, 32,000 commercial, and about 8,000 CFI, CFII students. The rest of the certificate holders, or about 86,000+ are mostly inactive or part time.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 20, 2018 9:53 PM    Report this comment

Thus, I reason that there are plenty of authorized instructors to cover the market. No shortage.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 20, 2018 10:49 PM    Report this comment

I'm not an ex-airline pilot, but an older CFI/CFII/MEI who would like to teach but can't flight instruct because of liability concerns. I'm not alone; I know of multiple older instructors who were successful in businesses careers and have substantial nest eggs they rely on for retirement, who are not willing to risk their lifetime of savings when they teach. Because of the increased cost of flying and aircraft ownership these days, it shouldn't be surprising that many older pilots (who would like to teach) are relatively high net worth individuals.

The last time I checked, there are $1M coverage CFI liability policies available thru NAFI and SAFE, but these limits are often too low. Umbrella liability policies typically don't cover aviation. Furthermore, as a CFI your liability trail extends for years even after you quit teaching: Imagine you gave a flight review or IPC and that pilot had an accident nearly 2 years later -- the lawyers would still come after the CFI if they have substantial assets.

A number of us have explained this situation to AOPA, but they don't seem to be willing to help.

Posted by: DAVE PASSMORE | May 21, 2018 9:03 AM    Report this comment

I am in total agreement w Dave's comments. The current system only allows for CFI's having virtually no assets. NAFI and SAFE liability limits are just too low ($100,000) to protect the many CFI's with meaningful assets. I am doubtful any group can create a sufficient risk pool of $ for a reasonably priced high limit insurance policy. Too big a target for injury attorneys. It is my opinion that the associations need to lobby the FAA for CFI regulatory relief. If the FAA had reasonable hold harmless regulatory provisions where CFI's were held only to a gross negligence standard, it would give an insurance risk pool a chance to offer higher limits at affordable premiums before injury attorneys gobble it up. After all, the FAA "certify's" instructors, right??

Posted by: Gordon Day | May 21, 2018 10:06 AM    Report this comment

As others have pointed out, it's not the number of available CFIs but rather the ridiculously high liability that instructors face. I'm not sure if I would have become a CFI if I knew exactly what that liability was before I started. And beyond just the liability, there are also different rules at each airport, some of which either actively discourage independent flight instruction or at best just turn a blind eye to their anti-independent flight instruction rules as long as those instructors aren't too well-known. At my airport, the rules technically require individual instructors (who might not even have their own aircraft to instruct in) to pay a yearly airport fee of the same amount that a full-fledged flight school would pay. And often times, those instructors are refused a permit to operate anyway. The unlimited look-back of CFI liability also needs to end; I know of no other industry where an instructor could be held liable for something another person does out of their own stupidity because that instructor spent an hour or two with them a number of years ago.

And finally, I find most students (even the most well-intentioned ones) under-appreciate instructors in some form or another (be it instructional abilities or liability risks or the general responsibility instructors have). I always appreciated my instructors, but I never realized the true scope of their responsibilities were until I became one myself.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | May 21, 2018 10:33 AM    Report this comment

The Victoria Flying Club, based at CYYJ, claims to be training more instructors to keep ahead of loss to airlines. It says the key is to have a couple of "Class 1" instructors as they can train new instructors, under Canadian rules.

Posted by: Keith Sketchley | May 21, 2018 10:52 AM    Report this comment

I am a ground instructor (AGI) and at 64 soon to be 65 years old I have been a certified PPL for a very long time. I have been flying with new pilots (students and certified) as a safety pilot and have learned a great deal about how to reach and teach. In my ground classes I have folks at find the content tough to study and in many cases english is not the first language. That means I have a system that is methodical and small bites. I want to become an instructor CFI-A but the cost of obtaining it is just out of my reach. At this stage in my life and aviation career there isn't any assistance for the training. I and I am sure many like me are out there that could be the next instructor. Any suggestions?

Posted by: Joe Marszal | May 22, 2018 7:58 AM    Report this comment

Use your SS money.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | May 22, 2018 8:51 AM    Report this comment

Wow, as a father of sons going thru pilot training, my local school is dying for instructors, it is so bad that it's almost impossible to get one when you go online at a reasonable time.

Then there's the freakin weather. Once you get a spot, the heat islands here in Georgia create the worst field ifr ever, therefore cancelling the flights. It's hit and miss at best.

This industry is suffering from liability constraints similar to what DOCTORS go through! But yet they have fixed it with really high premiums for malpractice insurance. And of course, with super high patient billing to boot. Good grief. This is like a problem with no solution available!

Posted by: Doug Ryan | May 23, 2018 4:38 PM    Report this comment

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