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.

Comments (7)

I would ask, "What are the candidates failing?" Is there a trend? Basic maneuvers or more advanced?About two years ago is when the ACS started does that have any impact on types of failure. Is there an informal feedback mechanism for the instructors on how their students performed on the checkride to help them better prepare the students? Is there a difference between Ab Initio, 141 and part 61 students? There's more to look at than just instructor inexperience.

Posted by: Stephen Moynihan | May 23, 2018 8:32 AM    Report this comment

As with the military, the CFI shortage or experience level in GA could be helped by engaging retired pilots. The problem for this segment of pilots/CFII's is that flight schools/ military training units want schedule control over the CFII or the insurance co requires permanent employment status. There should be some way for more flexibility on the part of schools & insurance co's.

I'm 78 fly out of a private field & actively instruct in the local area, have 12,000 total , over 7,000 as CFII, all in fighters or GA. I used to have an independent CFII relationship with local flight schools, then all stopped the independent contractor relationship. I'm fortunate that my home base has a flying club & the clients & I work out compatible schedules, resulting in great flying opportunities & a rewarding retirement activity. Train all certificates except ATP & find the few that fail the PT is generally because of checkitis not knowledge or ability.

My suggestion is to get more experienced CFII's by looking at an unused resource & make the system more compatible with the retired community.

Posted by: DAVE YODER | May 23, 2018 9:01 AM    Report this comment

I agree with Mr. Yoder's observations based on his experiences as a retired professional aviator choosing to continue instructing past the traditional retirement age. General Aviation must recognize him and other such individuals as tremendous assets and begin offering some realistic, attractive incentives (rather than disincentives) for them to work with flight schools in solving the "revolving door" problem associated with many CFIs. Knowledge and wisdom associated with exceptional flight instructors are gained through years of experience and are key ingredients in training professional aviators.

Posted by: Bryan C Lightsey | May 23, 2018 10:39 AM    Report this comment

When I started training I tried to find an older instructor, but ended up working with an instructor I found and liked that was working his way to the airline. It was his second career so he was older. Even then I found sometimes I knew things he didn't.

I now fly with a flying club who has several older instructors and a few younger ones. The younger ones though are typically ones who are now flying for a living and are doing the instruction on the side. The issue here is you have less availability schedule wise. I'm about to start my instrument rating with the club.

I agree that the turnover on instructors is reducing pass rates, but I also see that as a society technology reduces our need to retain information. Ask your typical student how many phone numbers do they know if their phone is broke... its probably going to be one or zero. If its zero make sure they memorize at least one in case they ditch in the lake and need to let someone know they are safe, or need to let authorities call family etc.

One other thought (and I write software for a living) is video games and smart phones seem to reduce a persons base spatial awareness based on the few teenagers I have dealt with recently learning to drive in the last few years.

Posted by: Joseph Chambers | May 23, 2018 2:59 PM    Report this comment

There have been significant changes in the past few years. We now are told to use scenario based training, great for some things but absolutely useless for teaching the basics, e.g. how to land. The ACS with about a hundred pages of repetitive information. Students just will not spend the time to understand what will be required of them. Knowledge tests loaded with trick questions or ambiguous language causing more time to be spent learning how to pass the knowledge test and less learning to be aviators.
Student have changed significantly. Everyone wants instant gratification, have lives so full that they are too diluted to spend the time required to learn and refine the necessary skills. Students who want to tell the CFI what they want to do and when. Who don't have any desire to to master the requisite knowledge. Many look at flying as a simple task that is not much more involved than hopping into their upscale auto and heading off on their schedule. Many students look at the CFI not as a resource or source of knowledge but merely another service person like a barista at the local coffee purveyor. They place little value on the aviation and life experience that the CFI brings to them.
Some FSDOs are placing requirements on the DPE that are outside of the scope of the ACS e.g. requiring applicants to perform approaches that they have never flow prior to the practical test. FDSOs not having sufficient DPEs for their area, causing long delays in scheduling practical test. Are these causing the failure rate to increase? I don't think so but, it is not helping with the process.
The last consideration, is the CFIs themselves. Are we sending candidates to the DPE who are not up to the ACS standards? Do CFIs understand the ACS and teach accordingly? Are Part 91 schools allowing the process to go on for so long that students have some skills decaying over time? There are many pieces of this puzzle and obviously, something is wrong.

Posted by: Leo LeBoeuf | May 23, 2018 8:13 PM    Report this comment

I agree with Dave Yoder.. There is a tremendous resource in the retirement community of airlines and military services.. Maybe the FAA can look at a individual's experience level and streamline the process to DPE, CFI/II, and MEI's.. All of which have been mastered to levels deserving such consideration..

Disclosure: I am a 55 year old ATP, B767 CA working for a global Part 121 air carrier..

Posted by: Tom O'Toole | May 24, 2018 2:22 PM    Report this comment

Another factor here could be the 1500 hour rule. Some of the best and brightest students that have lots of options will have decided on a different career path, leaving a slightly less competent population of pilot applicants.

Posted by: Gareth Allen | May 28, 2018 8:34 PM    Report this comment

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