Friday, November 26, 2010

Blame Game

When I heard that AOPA was researching why 70 to 80% of people who start flight training end up quitting and that they were to release the results at their trade show in Long Beach, I wondered what was up. At the heart of this debate are two basic claims: The pilot population is shrinking and 70 to 80% of those who start flight training end up dropping out without ever earning a pilot's certificate. An additional claim is that an 80% drop-out rate is unreasonable, but it's not clear that any of these claims are supported by the new "research." Still a public debate of these issues is reasonable and since I wasn't in Long Beach, I'll observe that it seems AOPA has an agenda and they went in search of evidence to support that agenda.

A few weeks before pilots began gathering for the AOPA Summit, press releases informed us of the high drop out rate for student pilots. Those who know me heard my prediction: The AOPA study would blame the high drop out rate on shoddy instruction offered by inept and unmotivated flight instructors because ... wait for it ... CFIs are easy targets. Largely powerless, underpaid, and seldom recognized, being a professional flight instructor isn't a career path for the faint-of-heart.

In point of fact, shoddy flight training is exactly how some people have summarized what was presented in Long Beach. I won't go into the issues of time-building CFIs and pilots who just don't have the interest or ability to be effective instructors, but if you watch the entire 30 minute on-line video of the AOPA presentation you'll hear that flight instructors (and the conditions under which they work) were only two of the contributing factors identified in these opinion polls. Paradoxically, the opinion polls (which is what this research really is) indicate that people seem to think that:
The flight training industry is, in fact, well aligned; doing the important things well.
Furthermore, the industry is reportedly providing good value, good instructor support, effective instruction, and good information sharing. One thing that seems to have been glossed over is that the poll revealed that 40% of people who actually solo and become student pilots never continue to earn a pilot certificate. The 70 to 80% failure rate that keeps being reported includes those who drop out before soloing (never become official student pilots) as well as those that never earn a pilot certificate.

I'm not an expert on research surveys nor on the techniques used to gather such data, but if we want to truly understand the state of flight training there seems to be a bunch of useful data that is missing. Early in the presentation, Mark Benson, chairman of an opinion research firm called APCO Insight, explained that they didn't want to do a conventional customer service survey into the flight training problem. Unfortunately, the polling methods don't seem to have been published and so we don't know how their procedures might compare with, say, this NASA study.

Some questions I'd like to see answered include the following. What percentage of private pilots pass their check ride on the first attempt? How many hours of flight time does the average pilot have when they take their check ride and how are those hours distributed across the age range of the pilots? How many times on average does a student pilot change instructors and was the change voluntary or involuntary? How many pilots begin flight training with no intention of ever soloing or earning a certificate? How many pilots who hold a current medical certificate are flying at least 25 hour a year? How many flight instructors recommend three or more candidates per year? How many instructors train under 14 CFR part 61 versus part 141? In short, some measurable evidence about the overall effectiveness and health of flight training rather than just soliciting the opinions and perceptions of those trained by said instructors.

Back in 2008, I offered some ideas on the shrinking pilot population along with some modest suggestions on making the process of learning to fly a bit easier based on thousands of hours of dual instruction I have given to all types of pilots. I just took for granted the assertion that the pilot population was indeed shrinking, but FAA data covering the years from 1999 to 2009 seems to show a stable pilot population. This is remarkable considering the unemployment rate of the last few years. Could it be that AOPA is assuming a premise that isn't supported by facts?

Chart from FAA data on pilots, 1999 through 2009

When considering whether or not a 70-80% drop-out rate for students is reasonable, we have to consider the skills a person must acquire to pass a check ride. Based on my teaching experience, I'd estimate that about 20% of the population is simply not equipped to be pilot-in-command. First are medical certification issues that preclude someone from getting a third class medical certificate, though these folks may still be able to fly under sport pilot rules (don't get me started on sport pilot and aircraft regulations).

Then there more complicated issues. Flying involves high workload moments that require a combination of skills involving language, listening, spatial awareness, visualization, motor planning, prioritizing, and multi-tasking. Flying an airplane can be a lot like riding a mountain bike while simultaneously playing chess: Most people can do a subset of these tasks, but fewer people are able to do all of them.

Consider what is sometimes called "reaction to flight." A person may be afraid of flying or they may become motion sick or anxious. No matter how hard they try, these may be insurmountable problems. This doesn't make them bad or defective people, it just means they aren't cut out to be pilots. Heck, as a young adult I dreamed of being another Adolph Herseth, but wishing doesn't make it so. Occasionally a flight instructor has to sit down with a student and have the difficult conversation. It's not something that I look forward to, but it is an important part of the job.

Without the basic skills and abilities, there is no amount of training, simulator experience, advanced avionics, customer service, instructor charisma, or good will that will keep these people from dropping out or get them through a check ride. This gets to the crux of the problem with AOPA's initiative: A better process, better customer focus, and happier customers will not guarantee that more people will end up earning a pilot certificate. More money may end up being spent, but that's another goal that is not necessarily aligned with helping GA grown. And as one seasoned instructor I know quipped "General aviation doesn't need any more substandard pilots."

It seems reasonable to assume that attempts to increase the pilot population would likely increase AOPA's membership and perhaps that is one of their goals. Frankly, some if this "research" seems to border on truthiness.  Don't get me wrong, AOPA has done some great things for GA and the Air Safety Foundation is probably the most valuable resource available to pilots and instructors. While AOPA works on their initiatives, dedicated flight instructors will continue to do the hard work on the front lines, giving instruction, helping students solve problems, helping them succeed, endorsing their logbooks and, occasionally, having the difficult conversations that must be had.


tweihs said...

With less financing available and rising rental costs, starting with an examination of costs might be more apropos. If it were $10/hr to get an instructor and a quality aircraft, I suspect supply/demand would be dramatically different.

My ticket took a couple years and I had a number of instructors, but the delay for me was cost and time (in grad school while training), not instructor quality.

GreenPilot said...

interesting perspective. I've seen firsthand 10-12 student pilots drop out at my branch alone. issues ran the gamut, but overall we had a lot of people who simply ran out of cash.

great writing. keep it up.

Ron said...

Wow, thank you for being the one person out there who doesn't blame CFIs first and last. It's difficult enough being a professional instructor; being blamed for the student dropout rate, falling pilot population, and the general demise of civilization just makes a tough job even harder.

I suspect the dropout rate has been high for a long time. There are many reasons. But chief among them, in my experience, is the cost.

John Ewing said...

Some good observations about the cost factor.

AOPA has yet to publish the details on the polling methods used and we can only draw conclusions about the cost issue based on the few details revealed in the Summit presentation.

I get the impression that conclusions about cost were likely skewed by the very population they were sampling: People who had the wherewithal to start training in the first place.

Possessing robust financial reserves doesn't automatically confer the basic abilities and the motivation to earn a pilot's certificate. Conversely, there are likely many people out there with the necessary abilities and motivation who simply can't afford to learn to fly.

Of course, it's always the instructor's fault (irony intended).

Level 7,000 said...

As many have written before I agree in the fact that money is problem number one. Thanks insurance companies and our litigious society. Second unlike the military or even some 141 flight school I see that a problem we face is the fact that we try and try and try again to train someone that may not have the specific skill set to complete a private pilot certificate, let a-lone a instrument. Those are my top two reasons and I have been in and out of CFIing for the past six years.

Hamish said...

In my days as an engineering student (at a rather good university far far away and a long time ago), something like 75% of all first year engineering students dropped out by — or failed at — the end of that first year. Few people thought this was a bad thing, just reality: most people who wanted to become engineers (or who were attracted to the fact that engineering was a hell of a lot easier to get into than medicine…) just weren't cut out to be engineers for one reason or another (often to do with poor maths skills or an inability to mix abstract and concrete techniques), and that first year was a reality check on skills and perseverance. The students who survived that first year typically graduated, and the drop out rate from second year on was low. I can't help feeling that the high drop out rate in flight training (if, indeed, it actually exists) is similarly not necessarily a Bad Thing — it just reflects that flying's not for everyone.

But frankly, as people are saying here, it's probably also mainly about cost — when people I've taken flying and who seem to be interested in learning to fly ask me for an honest estimate of how much they'd spend on becoming a private pilot around here they're usually either shocked or have their prejudices about flying being only for the rich confirmed. Hence the very few students I've sent your way in the last few years, John :-).

craigamorton said...

Next time you're out on the highway, count how many BMWs, Mercedes and Lexus you see. Anyone who can afford $40K and up for a car can afford $10K for a PPL. The real issue is VALUE not COST. There are literally millions of people in the U.S. who can afford to learn to fly, but aren't doing it for some reason. We need to demonstrate the value; that the average person can do it; that it's safe; that the benefits are well worth the cost. CFIs: your customers are out there with cash in hand - you must go get them.

John Ewing said...


There may indeed be people out there who can afford expensive cars, who can afford to learn to fly, and who are able to learn to fly, but "millions?" Given that the current pilot population has hovered at just over 0.5 million for the last 10 years, this would seem to assume facts not in evidence.

Flying (and learning to fly) is an expensive proposition and to try to gloss over this with talk of "value" seems disingenuous.

craigamorton said...

Okay then here are some facts, John. I just checked Wikipedia and there are more than 13 million people in the U.S. each earning at least $100K per year. I submit that anyone who makes that kind of money can afford flying lessons. I know I managed when I was making a hell of a lot less. So yes, there are MILLIONS of people who can afford flying. The cost issue is a red herring. You're trying desperately to avoid the real question: Why aren't all of the people who CAN afford my product not buying it?

John Ewing said...


I believe the census statistics you are citing are actually household incomes, not individual incomes, but leaving the argument about the cost of learning to fly stand on it's own merits, let's explore just a few of the numerous reasons that millions of people aren't learning to fly or continuing to fly.

Perceived as dangerous
Complicated systems
Complicated procedures
Noisy, uncomfortable, cramped

This is not unlike sailing and/or owning a boat. Millions of people could afford it, but few do. Efforts to "market" to these people, to make these problems seem nonexistent, could increase the number of people interested in flying.

Sidestepping the claim "anyone can learn to fly," it's not clear that these folks would stick with flying anyway. As with many pursuits, there's the dream and then there's the reality. Aviation is a tough business and a demanding pursuit. In my experience, the people who stick with it do so because they love it. Those who don't, move on.

Captain K said...

It took me about 18 months to get my ticket. Money was a big factor, but at the same time weather, and my work schedule also limited my availability to fly. There were about two times that I felt like quitting. Once was at about the 12hour mark when I didn't think I was going to solo and the second time was when I was at the 30 hour mark. I thought I had to be "perfect" in order to get my ticket and put more pressure on myself than I needed too. When really, I just had to use safe judgment and understand the fundamentals. Once I realized that the next thing I knew I was taking my checkride and passed.

The main reason I didn't drop out is because of the support I had from my fellow pilots. They were there to encourage me and push me forward. We as pilots need to always encourage fellow student pilots. It's out duty to keep GA alive.

FightingFalconInstructor said...

I own a Part 141 Flight School and in 8 years I have had only one out of over a houndred students enrolled in Part 141 fail to finish. I eliminated alot of the factors by: 1. Having students get a medical before they start, still do although the rules have changed so you don't have to. 2. Tell them how much it will cost and get all or most of the money upfront, so they don't start unless they have the money to finish; 3. Make sure they have the time in their schedule to fly 3-4 times a week. So I turn away the people who probably would not finish anyway. It's all about time and money. The one guy who quit was 21 years old and got thru all the flying but did not want to study for the ground eval on the checkride.