Flight Instructor Pay & The Future of Flight Training

by Jim Hanson

I have received feedback from a reader on my recent article on “Student Starts and Pilot Retention.” I’m always glad to receive feedback—either brickbats or bouquets. It not only means that people are reading the article, but it also means that they care enough about the subject to voice their opinion. That interchange of ideas is dialogue. It’s how we arrive at a consensus—how we get on the same page to solve problems. Here’s an excerpt from that letter:

I came across your article about recruiting and retaining pilots. My son is a flight instructor and as a result of his experiences, I would like to stick in my opinion.

He has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Aviation Management and an Associate of Arts Degree in Flight, both with honors, and is a CFII. He likes to teach, but spent most of the last two years looking for a job in aviation. He was working part time as a truck driver (about 10-15 hours per week at $10 per hour) in order to pay school loans and have a few dollars to spend. He kept up his skills by volunteering with the CAP. About a month ago, he got a full-time job as a flight instructor at an FBO. He now makes less per week full-time than he did part-time as a truck driver.

If we want to keep flight instructors, we need to pay them a living wage, not minimum wage, and not just when the Hobbs meter is running. The rules for paying flight instructors need to be simplified so that it is clear both to the instructors and the flight schools what is expected of them. The current rules are so complicated, that the FBOs are not motivated to follow them and young people are afraid to file complaints lest they have no job in aviation at all.

FBOs and flight schools should make money, but not at the expense of their flight instructors.

As for my son, he is now considering a full-time job driving a truck so that he can support himself without parental help. This would be a waste.

Pay the instructors enough to live on and maybe some of them will continue to instruct and not just look at flight instruction as a steppingstone to their next job.

The reader brings up several important points.

Paying flight instructors has always been a problem in aviation. The problem is not limited to the flight instructors—or with the FBOs. It also involves pilots who won’t pay for quality instruction.

It has long been an axiom of the service industry that a business needs to charge three (3) times what they pay their employees to cover expenses and make a profit. People pay $75 an hour or more for the serviceman who takes care of their car, their computer, or their copy machine. That means that the employee would make about $25 an hour for each hour of chargeable time—good work—IF you can get it.

If an instructor could bill out 2000 hours of instruction a year, and receive $25 an hour, that would be $50,000—not a bad wage for someone just starting out in the industry. The reality is, there’s weather delays, student scheduling issues, and transition time between students, so it is extremely rare for an instructor to bill more than 100 hours a month, or 1200 hours a year. Flight instruction is, unfortunately, a “full-time, part-time job.”

Unfortunately, students won’t pay $75 an hour for instruction – $50 an hour seems to be pushing the upper limit. Students seem to figure that since flying is fun, the flight instructor should not have to charge the student. This is, of course, backward thinking. Students should seek out the very best flight instruction—the difference in cost between mediocre and the very best is negligible. This is not the place to scrimp when learning to fly.

Let’s look at the math in the example above. If the FBO is charging $50 an hour for flight instruction, and the instructor is extremely busy and flies 100 hours a month—that is $60,000 a year in flight instruction fees. If the FBO pays the instructor 1/3 of that figure, it comes to $20,000 a year; as the reader mentions, not much to live on.

The FBO doesn’t get rich, either. Because the instructor is an employee, the FBO must pay Social Security/Medicare—or 7.65% of that $20,000. He must also pay unemployment insurance, workers compensation insurance, and if he has any assets, legal insurance to protect himself. He must also pay overtime if applicable, sick leave, and days off. He will have to comply with the multitude of state and federal bureaucratic rules, and pay the accountants and attorneys to assure that compliance. He will have to absorb bad debt. He will certainly have to pay overhead, rent, cleaning, utilities, bank fees, credit card fees, and airport fees. He will soon have to provide health care insurance—a black cloud threatening many low-margin industries.

Recall that this is based on the unlikely production of 100 hours a month of billable time. A more likely scenario is 60 hours. The bottom line is, there is no money in the business for either the FBO or the instructor. Want proof? How many large FBOs have you seen that even offer flight instruction?

Flight instruction is increasingly becoming something accomplished either at high-end schools like universities, or at ad-hoc and informal part-time operations at small airports. It’s easy to say that “we should just pay the instructors more,” but to do so, the rate would have to rise as well to somewhere around that $75 an hour figure. That’s an increase of $25 an hour, or about $500 on a private pilot course. We already have people lamenting the cost of learning to fly. It makes a bad situation worse.

What To Do About It?

• At my FBO, about 30 years ago, I looked at the situation and concluded that there’s no profit in flight instruction for me, at least if I have any conscience about how my flight instructors will live. There just isn’t enough money to split between the instructor, the FBO, and our increasingly demanding “silent partner”—the government. I had a number of airplanes for sale, and I wanted to put them to work. My solution: I gathered the flight instructors together and told them,“I’m going to GIVE you the space for flight instruction at NO CHARGE. I’m not going to even charge you for utilities, or garbage disposal. I’ll even provide the airplanes for you to lease. It won’t cost you anything to be in business, and I’m going to let you keep everything…I won’t take a dime! You’ll work your own hours—come and go as you please. All I ask is that you run your flight training like a business, and give the customer good value.” That arrangement has worked out well. Flight instructors, when they get to keep the money they make, treat the customers well. They are here on time, and have a vested interest in keeping the customer pleased. When flight instructors do leave, they usually take a pay cut to go to work for the airlines. In the meantime, my airplanes turn props. That’s good business!

• We need to change the way we give flight instruction. As mentioned throughout the article, the FAA is far behind the industry it is charged with regulating. For over 70 years, the FAA has based flight instruction on “maneuvers,” not practicality. Rather than spending a lot of time on airwork, we should be spending more time on the things that continue to cause mishaps. The FAA, pilots, and the industry also need to recognize that for flight instructors to make a living wage, “reform” is needed. It is a sad indictment of our system that we have airplanes that have been paid for, and we still can’t make a profit due to FAA regulations.

• The FAA is partially at fault by encouraging flight instructors to take the job because it gives some compensation, while letting the instructor have something else of value—the ability to log time. If FAA were to lower the total time requirements for ratings, for example, and substitute it by requiring more relevant study and experience, there would be fewer flight instructors, and those that continued would be people who want to teach. That could be the basis for a future column: 1) Are we perpetuating poor performance in the aviation industry by paying flight instructors to log time, while making a minimal wage? 2) Would we increase safety and provide a better career path by providing fewer hours, but more relevant experience in our training?

• Many foreign airlines do not have their new pilots go through the flight instructor route; they provide ab initio training. The pilot is groomed from the start to be an airline pilot.

• Increasingly, we see pilots becoming flight instructors not as young people on the way up to “something better,” but as older people that just want to continue to fly and to fill the need for dedicated instructors. At many smaller airports, these are the only instructors available. More pilots should be encouraged to become flight instructors.

• Flight instructors and FBOs need to charge what they need to charge, but if they are going to charge that price, they need to make sure that the customer gets the value they pay for.

• Flight instructors need not be ashamed to charge for their “ground time,” but they also need to be able to justify that time to the student. If an instructor is spending time on behalf of the student, the student should be expected to pay for it, including pre and post-flight briefings, logbook entries, and time spent in the aircraft without the engine running. Think about it; like doctors, lawyers, and every other professional, the only thing that instructors have to sell is their time and knowledge.

• Flight instructors and FBOs need to make a concerted effort to show customers that they are receiving value for their dollar; the central theme of this entire series.

It is only when the consumer realizes the value of quality instruction will the compensation increase. After all, it is the marketplace that determines the true worth of goods or services.

Tips For FBOs

1. If you are going to hire a flight instructor, make sure that the instructor is paid a living wage. Let the instructor know that while you will do whatever you can to attract business, there may be times when there is no business. You can help the flight instructor by providing the opportunity to make some money when there is no flight instruction scheduled.

2. An alternative to making the instructor an employee is to permit the instructor to run the flight school as a separate business—with all that a business entails—tax filings, insurance, taxes, promotion, etc. You need to be supportive of the instruction business. If you own aircraft, you can lease them to the instructor(s), and provide space for their business. What does the fixed base operator get out of it? Airplane lease payments, maintenance revenue, and fuel sales.

3. If you do not employ the instructor, you can involve him/her in planning the flight instruction side of the business. Work with them to develop a business plan; show them what they need to do to achieve their revenue goals. Show them the effect of even an additional 10% of additional business—most of it goes directly to the bottom line because the high fixed cost of doing business is already paid for. You will be doing the instructor a favor.

4. Impress upon your instructors the need to account for all billable time. We all “teach as we have been taught.” It is too easy for an instructor to not bill for the time spent on the ground with a student. That is lost revenue, either for the FBO, the instructor, or both.

5. Impress upon your instructors that along with charging the customer when acting on their behalf, that you actually deliver the product that you are charging for. Tell students when they begin the course that they will be charged for some ground time, and that any time they don’t feel they have received value for the time, they should take it up with the instructor, or the chief instructor.

6. Whether as an employee or an independent contractor, impress upon your instructor the need to treat the customer with appreciation. It is the basis of your business, and that of the instructor. You both have a vested interest in customer satisfaction.

7. Never be a price apologist. Charge what you need to charge. If a potential customer states that they “can find the same product for a better price,” it becomes your duty to tell the customer why your product (flight instruction) is better than the competition. Maybe it is the fact that you have better airplanes, backup airplanes, better instructors, more experienced instructors, better curriculum, or a better safety record. You’ve set your price—now defend it. Assure the customer that you will provide value for the money. After all, everybody is looking for value. What do you have to lose by maintaining price integrity? If a potential customer won’t pay the price that you need to stay in business, why would you provide the service at a loss?

8. Recognize that no matter how much you pay your flight instructors, they will at some point likely leave for better jobs. In the meantime, put your instructors to good use, teach them about the business, help them advance by giving them opportunities to further their aviation education, wish them well when they leave, and be proud of their accomplishments, as they will be proud of you. Do this right, and you will have a friend for life.

Tips For Flight Instructors

1. Recognize that there isn’t enough money in the business for the FBO to make a reasonable profit and to provide a lifetime career as a flight instructor. Unless you are the FBO and the owner of the flight school, you will likely have to move on to attain your goals in aviation.

2. Recognize that the FBO is giving you something other than money in your entry-level job. In order to be considered for most aviation jobs, you need experience, and you are getting that experience and making money right away. You could simply go out and buy that experience—a minimum of 500 hours after getting your ratings, at an average cost of approximately $100 per hour, that’s $50,000 for the next 500 hours, or you could make money and spend the next 500 hours getting that experience for FREE. Does that make you feel better about working as a flight instructor for a year?

3. Recognize that the FBO is giving you your start in aviation. Learn from the FBO – help the FBO to succeed. Success for both of you is intertwined.

4. Recognize going into your career that you will likely have to relocate to get the job you want. I’ve heard from a number of pilots over the years that “I can’t find a job,” yet thousands of other pilots do seem to find a job. What the unsuccessful job seekers don’t mention is that the job that they want may not be available in the local area. If you want to instruct instrument and multi-engine students, with an eye toward moving up to corporate or airline jobs, your local FBO may not be able to meet your needs; you may have to relocate. Jobs are available. The good thing about aviation is that it is one of the few industries that allow you to live almost anywhere.

5. Communicate your desires to the FBO. Do you need more ratings? This may be a way for the FBO to reward you on a non-cash basis. Do you need extra money? The FBO may be able to supplement your instruction income by paying you for other skills, like computer skills, bookkeeping, or groundskeeping. Do you need experience in cross-country flying? You may be able to ferry aircraft. Do you need experience on larger aircraft? Though not required, you may be able to fly along on charter or corporate flights, often getting to fly the aircraft on deadhead legs. Do you need an aircraft for personal travel? The FBO may be able to give you one; another non-cash bonus.

6. Be the best employee that you can be for the FBO. Remember that when you do apply for that big job, that you will need a letter of recommendation, and that there will be a background check. Though I’ve been blessed with some of the very best flight instructors, not all flight instructors get glowing reviews. I am proud to say, though, that I let prospective employers know when they are getting a really valuable employee; those that perform better than asked.

7. By being the best flight instructor around, you will be exposed to a lot of interesting people—your students, other instructors, pilot examiners, corporate pilots, and others in the aviation industry. You never know who may be in a position to take notice of your expertise and help you to land the job of your dreams. As my father used to say, “It’s not just who you know, it’s who knows you!”

8. If employee status isn’t making it for you, ask your FBO about letting you run your own flight instruction business with the assistance of the FBO. Business owners like someone with initiative. A good FBO will consider it. If they do not, there are plenty of others that will. Senior or part-time instructors also take note.

9. Recognize that flight instructing may be the start of a career on the way up to charter, corporate, or airline flying, or it may be something you would like to do part-time after another career. It is an important element of the aviation business. You are needed.

We need to recognize that unless the FAA changes certification requirements—a process that seems to take 10 years—this is what we are going to have to live with as flight instructors. The good news is that flight instructors have survived—if not thrived—under this same system since before Mr. Taylor and Mr. Piper built the first Cub over 80 years ago. Flight instructors have always been a clever, innovative, and industrious bunch, and it is these same qualities that stand them in good stead when they move on to jobs in the rest of the aviation world.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Hanson has long been the FBO at Albert Lea, Minnesota. He has 30,000 hours and 48 years of experience in the business, and is a CFI with Airplane, Instrument, Multi-engine, and Glider instructor ratings. If you would like to weigh in on a topic, send a letter to the editor, or contact the author directly at his airport office: 507-373-0608, or e-mail jimhanson@deskmedia.com

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