Yet another effect of the Colgan conundrum – a shortage of Certified Flight Instructors. Rick Adams looks at how some universities and airlines are attempting to cope with this new challenge.

When Colgan Air 3407 crashed in Buffalo, New York in 2009, it effectively took down the entire traditional pilot training pipeline in the United States with it.

The 1500-hour flight hours requirement implemented in the emotional wake of the crash created a vacuum of young pilots qualified to fill the right seats of regional airlines. In turn, aspiring pilots scrambled to close the gap between the 250 hours gained in acquiring their commercial pilot license (CPL) and the magic 1500 by serving as certified flight instructors (CFIs) at collegiate and private flight schools.

Then the cycle of airline growth returned, air carriers raised salaries … and inhaled just about every available pilot, including many CFIs. Now, in addition to an ongoing pilot shortage, there’s an instructor shortage as well, and that will only exacerbate the pilot shortage further.

“This law initially reduced the flow of CFIs out of the flight training system in the short-run, but created the unintended consequence of creating a worse shortage of qualified pilots because of the temporary reduction in the pilot supply,” Dr. Samuel R. Pavel told CAT magazine. Pavel is President of the University Aviation Association (UAA) and Aviation Management Program Coordinator, Department of Aviation Management and Flight, at Southern Illinois University.

“This situation is not sustainable because of the nature of pilot training and the projected pilot shortage based on mandatory retirement and increased demand for air travel, passenger and cargo,” said Pavel. “There is a structural shortage of flight instructors inherent in the flight training system.”

“The 1500-hour rule blew us out of the water,” said Tyler Tenbrink, manager, Flight Crew Recruitment at Piedmont Airlines. “We have gone to great lengths to attract qualified pilots. Increasing pay, quality of life, better schedules and a host of other incentives to drive people to our airline. We fear that there is not enough supply to keep up with demand and the pipelines are drying up.” Tenbrink is also a board member of the UAA and Flight School Association of America.

“The reality on the ground is that any training provider I have talked with, whether it’s a university or academy or FBO, everybody is short of qualified flight instructors,” confirmed Kent Lovelace, professor and director of Aviation Industry Relations, Department of Aviation at the University of North Dakota’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. “Ultimately, it will limit the number of flight students we can handle.”

CFIs in a Hurry

Lovelace said many flight students at UND are accelerating their flying time, for example by staying on campus during the summer to secure their flight instructor certificate sooner. “There are lots of opportunities out there, and people want to get into the airline system and start moving up the ladders.”

For a student in a four-year degree program, the flight log requirement to fly as an airline first officer is 1000 hours rather than 1500. One carrier is hiring pilots with 968 hours, adding the remaining 32 hours as part of their own new-hire training footprint.

Students at UND and other collegiate programs can earn their CFI in their third, or junior year, and begin instructing to build flight hours. Upon graduation, they can be hired as full-time instructors and handle more students and more hours in the air. Lovelace said, on average, they serve as CFIs for only 13.9 months – about nine months part-time and five months full-time – “and then they’re gone.”

CFIs are punching out of teaching almost immediately when they approach the 1000-hour threshold. The number of days students are waiting to make a request for “institutional authority” (demonstrating they are eligible to make application to a regional carrier) is now about one month … three years ago there was a six-month lag.

Lovelace said, “It’s straining the system. There are fewer flight instructors to handle fewer students.”

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Frasca is providing Level 5 FTDs to the University of North Dakota for Piper Archer and Seminole aircraft, with Garmin G1000 NXI avionics and TruVision visual systems. Image credit: Frasca.

Follow the Money

Piedmont’s Tenbrink wanted to become an airline pilot, “but when I graduated college in 2006 flying jobs were pretty non-existent. I got caught in that lull when they weren’t hiring.”

Moreover, the starting salary for a first officer at some regional airlines at the time was around $16,000. “With $100,000 in student loans, there was no way I was going to be able to start paying on those, so I went in another direction.”

Today, Piedmont starts new pilots at $60,000. And senior captains at major air carriers such as Piedmont parent American Airlines can pull in upwards of $400,000 a year. “It’s a pretty good life,” Tenbrink acknowledged.

As he travels the US to talk with aspiring pilots, Tenbrink said, “The kids all want to fly. They think it’s the coolest job in the world. Getting into college is not difficult; the hard part is the financing. Financing through the federal government has become non-existent for flight training so you have to come up with about 100 grand on your own, and that’s a tough pill for people to swallow.”

One new funding approach is the American Airlines Cadet Academy. The airline effectively vouches for financing through Discover Student Loans to cover the ground school and flight courses, maps, and other materials. Upon graduation, the newly winged aviator is guaranteed an interview with AA’s wholly owned regional carriers – Piedmont, PSA, and Envoy. And the ultimate benefit is that, if hired, there’s a contractual “flow-through” agreement, meaning the young pilot will be offered a job as a first officer at the big airline once appropriate seniority is reached. “Your career is set for life if you want it to be,” Tenbrink told CAT.

American also has a separate program which supplements the salary of a CFI so they can continue teaching at a college and build their flight hours, typically for about eight months. “We want to show that we’re investing in the student and we have some skin in the game,” noted Tenbrink. Once the requisite hours are achieved, the pilots move into a right seat at Piedmont.

American/Piedmont are doing some other innovative programs to fill their quota of about 150 new pilots a year. For former military helicopter pilots with little or no fixed-wing experience, they’re paying $23,000 to help them get the necessary licenses, ratings and hours (750 hours total time). For current (non-flying) airline employees who secured their CPL but are having a hard time building flight hours, Piedmont is offering $30K to live on, perhaps fly for a Part 135 carrier, and return to become a right-seater at the regional.

Piedmont has soared from 300 pilots in 2015 to 729 currently, and their all Embraer-145 aircraft fleet has almost tripled in that time.

Learn, Absorb, Process …

Another cascading consequence of the upward mobility of CFIs is that fewer qualified people are available to train the trainer – i.e. to mentor new CFIs to expand the pool.

US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulation 61.195(h)(2)(iii) requires that a flight instructor hold a CFI certificate for at least 24 months in order to train another pilot to be an instructor. And with almost all new CFIs opting for an airline career as soon as hourly possible, not many are hanging around two years to qualify to teach others to become CFIs.

An Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee (ARAC) last year, chaired by Dr. Tim Brady, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Dean, stated, “This rule inhibits job creation and is outdated, unnecessary and ineffective,” and recommended it be modified to: “Have held a flight instructor certificate for at least 24 months or has completed an FAA-approved standardization course at a part 141 training school that provides instruction on the intricacies of training a flight instructor applicant.”

The rationale offered by the ARAC stated, “The turnover of CFIs across the nation is tremendous and there are very few fulltime/permanent CFIs … instructors are moving fast to regional airlines; our turnover (and the turnover across the training industry) is approaching 90% annually. This turnover is severely limiting the number of flight instructors available that meet the requirement of 61.195 … A shortage of CFIs increases the training time of new flight students thus increasing the time it takes for new pilots to complete their flight training and ATP requirements. This delay further exacerbates the pilot shortage problem.”

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) union strongly dissented to the proposed modification: “The proposal’s rationale is based upon an economic basis, but makes no mention of what safety impacts were considered … Removing the 24-month requirement could result in CFIs providing instructor training to CFI candidates after being instructors for as little as two or three months. It is essential that flight instructors who will provide instruction to new flight instructor candidates have that time to learn, absorb, process, digest, discuss, debate and otherwise become prepared to teach this skill set. The 24-month timeframe leads to experience, knowledge, professionalism, expertise and skill that make an individual a better instructor, which the proposed regulatory change would undermine. Any real or perceived shortage of instructors is an inappropriate justification for reducing instructor qualification, and leads to a reduction in the quality of training and ultimately safety.”

The “perceived shortage of instructors” language is interesting in its parallels to ALPA’s consistent claims for several years that the pilot shortage is not from a lack of qualified personnel but more a shortfall in wages offered by the airlines.

Piedmont Airlines pilot recruitment materials. Starting salaries for first officers are now around $60K. Image credit: Piedmont Airlines.
Piedmont Airlines pilot recruitment materials. Starting salaries for first officers are now around $60K. Image credit: Piedmont Airlines.

Potential Instructors

Critics of the “shortages” dialogue are quick to point out that, as overall certificated pilot numbers have declined in recent decades, the number of active CFI certificates has trended upwards. Since 2000, active flight instructor certificates has grown from 80,931 to 104,382 in 2016.

But where are all these potential instructors? Many are flying for the airlines, and may have little interest in moving into a training role upon retirement. Jason Blair, former executive director of the National Association of Flight Instructors, thinks “the vast majority of these CFI certificate holders are of a senior age and no longer actively engaged in flight training provision, but keep the certificate active instead of losing it through a renewal process such as a flight instructor refresher course that must be completed every two years.” He notes the average age of CFIs has crept up from 44.1 in 2000 to 48.0 in 2016, and estimates 15% or fewer CFIs are signing off students on practical tests across a two-year period. That would put the number of “CFIs actively engaged in training” (a number the FAA does not track) around 17,000 by Blair’s calculations.

In addition to holding the certificate, UND’s Lovelace asks, “Are they willing to work that hard? A full schedule of 10 students, half on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and the others on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday? Teaching demands a lot of energy. You’ve got to constantly be on your game in the classroom and in the airplane. You need to be energetic, motivated, enthusiastic, and do it all day long.”

Of course, there are suggestions that flight schools should simply pay their CFIs more. For example, more than the starting salary of a new FO at a regional. But that ignores a corresponding rise in student loan burden. And especially the underlying passion that young people want desperately to become airline pilots. As well as a lifetime of flying bigger airplanes to more exotic destinations for ever-increasing pay packages.

“Collegiate flight programs are working to stem the flow of CFIs out of their programs by increasing wages and benefits, and modifying training curriculum and schedules to increase the number of flight training hours per CFI,” said Pavel. However, most collegiate programs are located within publicly funded colleges and universities that restrict or delay implementation of needed reforms. Significant change takes time.”  

Published in CAT issue 1/2019