Initial Pilot Certification Passing Rates Trending Down

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As an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE), I’ve felt like my pass rate on practical tests has been declining over the last couple of years. It started as a gut feeling, but then I compared my recent numbers with my pass rate from a few years ago and found it was also statistically true. It got me thinking. Have I somehow gotten harder? Or are applicants really failing more frequently? And if so, is it just me, my locale, or something that is happening on a national scale?

So, I took a look at the FAA’s reported national pass rates for FAA certificates on practical tests.

What I found was that pass rates have declined on the national level. If we look at all types of practical tests, the pass rate in 2007 for 43,619 practical tests was 80.1%. In 2017, for 38,210 tests the pass rate was 76.5%. This is an overall drop in passing rate of 3.6%.

Looking more specifically at private and commercial initial pilot certification tests, passing rates are down nearly 5% in both cases from a decade ago. Much of that drop has come in the last two years.

The graphs here show exactly what has been happening in this trend. While there is some variation in the percentage yearly, the general trend in both private and commercial pilot certification is a downward initial passing rate.

When we see a drop like this, it is natural for us to ask why it is occurring. Nothing major has changed in training standards, training requirements or training procedures. One thing that has changed, however, is turnover of instructors in the training sector.

The past couple of years have seen extremely active hiring of instructors into airline jobs. Instructors are spending less time in instructor positions before they move on to employment at other flying jobs. The result of this is that they gain less experience—important experience that makes them better at their job.

For example, an instructor 10 years ago probably wouldn’t be hired by an airline until he or she had more than 2,000 hours of total flight experience. Now, it’s not unusual to see instructors hired at the minimum 1,000 hours for a restricted ATP qualified applicant. That means they have spent 1,000 hours less time providing instruction to students. If they previously instructed 15-20 applicants for ratings and/or certificates before moving on, now they will be instructing more like 4-6 students. The result is that those who are providing instruction are continuously turning over and never really gaining the greater period of experience that makes them better at doing the job of preparing students for pilot certificates. While it may be hard to draw a causal link, I think the connection is obvious. As students work with instructors who have less experience, the pass rate has declined. It seems pretty clear, and it is happening right now in our pilot training efforts.

What are the effects of this reduction in passing rate?

Well, for one, it means that because of the reduced passing rates in 2017, statistically 1,375 more practical tests had to be retaken when compared to better pass rates of a decade ago. This means that more examiners need to take time for retests that could be better dedicated to doing full tests. It also means that examiners’ schedules are more backed up. It means that more customers experienced the increased training cost associated with retests. And it means that instructors must spend more time getting students ready to retest after they failed the first time. There are real costs to all of these events.

Does this mean that our pilot training is any less safe than it was in the past? Or that those pilots are any less safe when they eventually get to an airline and fly passengers commercially? Not necessarily. They still have to meet the same standards to pass; it just means that they aren’t doing it on the first try as often as they were a decade ago. It does mean we have some work to do in the training community though. We shouldn’t be comfortable with declining passing rates.

Perhaps it’s time to look carefully at our training process and see if there is anything we can do to improve the passing rates of instructors who are new at their job, even if they are only going to be instructors for a short period of time in their career. It also means that we may need to evaluate the traditional incentive to be an instructor in the first place—to gain enough time to be able to move on to another pilot job. Is this motive really doing the industry the best service? I can’t help but think that in an ideal world, experienced, high-time pilots would be the ones providing the instruction, not relatively low-time, recently certificated pilots. But to make that happen, the job of instructors would have to be able to offer competitive pay with other pilot jobs and we would need to find a way to transition pilots and their experience from initial certification to service in the airline environment without making them serve as instructors to do so.

Other countries do this in different ways, and there isn’t necessarily one right or wrong way. But it is likely that we need to have a hard discussion in our industry about how we train and prepare pilots, and if our system is due for some changes.

Without evaluation of these considerations, the pass rate reduction we are seeing has the potential to increase, further creating greater costs and delays in pilot training.