Monday, May 16, 2011

Rumors of my demise ...

The last few weeks have been hectic and have offered precious little time for writing blog posts. A trip to SoCal, some pressing house projects, and a busy teaching schedule all conspired to keep me otherwise occupied. Nevertheless, I've been reading, flying and teaching and have been making mental notes about blog-worthy topics.

CFI Punching Bag

Two of the current hot topics in GA are the shrinking number of pilots and the effectiveness of flight training. The newly revised Flight Instructors Model Code of Conduct is the latest installment in the "what's wrong with flight training" discussion. AOPA started banging this drum at one of their conventions and has been repeatedly mentioning it in virtually all of its publications and emails.

Like it or not, we live in an age where public discourse and debate often involve a peculiar use of language and a reliance on repetition to manufacture consent. Whether you call it double-speak, framis, or baffle-gab, we are bombarded with repetitive slogans designed to appeal to emotion rather than intellect. Using logic and reasoning requires us to get our thoughts in order, assemble the facts that are known, consider competing claims, and simultaneously hold conflicting ideas in our minds so that we may evaluate them: In short, it's hard work. The fact that someone saw the need to create a model code of conduct for flight instructors (there's one for mechanics and others, too) would indicate that there are problems within the flight instruction community. Just what those problems are depends on one's perspective.

The code addresses instructor responsibilities, training and proficiency, security, environmental issues, using technology, and promoting aviation instruction. Just a few of the stated benefits of adopting this model include improved pilot training, personal responsibility, instructor contributions to society at large, self-regulation as an alternative to regulations, and promoting recognition of instruction as a highly respected and rewarding profession. The code encourages instructors to be respectful of the risks and dangers of flying, act like professionals, manage stress and fatigue, conduct their flights like airline pilots, and not have sex with their students. The opposite of this sounds like pretty average behavior for 17 to 22 year olds and though I don't have the data to back this up, this is likely the average age range for the majority of active aviation instructors.

What the Market will Bear

The most important aspects of aviation safety start with flight instruction, yet CFIs are enduring low pay and long hours. Regulations allow CFIs to give up to 8 hours of flight instruction per 24 hour period, 7 days a week, 365 days a year and that's what many instructors do just to make ends meet. By the time an instructor has finished teaching his or her second flight lesson of the day, the instructor's ability to provide quality instruction has likely been exhausted. Income levels that encourage instructors to teach three or more lesson per day do not contribute to high-quality learning experiences or professional behavior. The mere existence of a model code of conduct is not going to change the situation.

Most pilots become instructors because they dream of a better flying job and to get that dream job, a young pilot needs to log flight time. So many instructors are a young, motivated group at the bottom of the aviation food chain desperate to provide low-cost labor in exchange for flight time. This is an aviation tradition that the FAA has long supported if not enabled outright.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with pilots who do a stint as an instructor so that they can move on, but let's not cloak it in high flautin' talk about professionalism, high levels of proficiency and customer service. This is a business relationship between employers and employees, plain and simple. The profit margins in aviation are so razor thin there is no way to pay instructors like professionals. The mere existence of a model code of conduct is not going to change the situation. One benefit of the current flight training model is that it separates the wheat from the chaff because by the time an instructor is ready to move on to an airline job, they will have already been acclimated to long hours and low pay.

Easy Target

Flight instructors are the most active pilots in the GA community, they fly more hours than the average GA pilot, and they are crucial to training the next generation of pilots. The impact of flight instruction on the pilot population is unmistakable, but there are many reasons why student pilots decide to drop out. AOPA says that the cost of flight training, aircraft rental, and aviation fuel are not important factors. I find this claim to be utterly fantastic and unsupported: The folks they are sampling in their research must travel in different circles than the pilots I talk to.

While AOPA and others are busy trying to "fix" the flight training model so that fewer pilots drop out, little is being done to improve the average flight instructor's day-to-day life. Quite the opposite, from where I sit the solutions being put forth simply perpetuate the status quo with regard to flight instructors' working conditions.

Flight instruction, like all aviation endeavors, is a tough business. Learning to fly is a difficult, complicated, and expensive proposition. Those who stick with it, whether we're instructors or weekend flyers, do so because we love aviation. I'm all for making the flight training experience as rewarding and efficient as possible. I strive to do my best as an instructor because I enjoy teaching, mentoring other instructors, and helping pilots reach their flying goals. Being a CFI is one of the most rewarding things I've ever done, in spite of the hardships that come with living at the bottom of the food chain. From my perspective the model code of conduct is, at its best, a distraction and, at its worst, insulting. The efforts of AOPA and the folks who authored the Flight Instructor's Model Code of conduct may be based on good intentions, but good intentions can also lead to a decidedly undesirable destination.


E.A. said...

I am a pretty new pilot and having just finished up my PPL training I have to say that the cost of aviation IS a major factor in people not finishing. I love flying and I almost didn't make it to the end because I felt like I was hemoraging money.

MY CFI was brand spanking new with only 50 hours of instruction time when I started with him and he did an excellent job.

I feel instructors do get a bad wrap because I don't think they are to blame a good percentage of the time when a student doesn't finish.

Captain K said...

I think the biggest factor is money. People will say when they find out I am a pilot..."Wow that's pretty cool! How much an hour does it cost to learn how to fly?" I'm sure everyone knows the response that they get after you tell them the US Average cost...

AOPA is a great organization. They do fantastic things for aviation and I'm proud to be a member. I just think they need to realize that everyone isn't lawyers and doctors...but then again I guess lawyers and doctors are the ones paying the big donations to AOPA that help folks like me continue to enjoy the privilege to fly.

John Ewing said...

Interesting to hear a least a few others think the cost of learning to fly is a much bigger factor than AOPA's research indicated.

Regarding the assertion that it's affluent members of AOPA who are keeping GA going for the rest of us, that assumes facts not in evidence.

Remember the short lived and incredibly ill-advised AOPA Wine of the Month Club? How about the AOPA credit card? Perhaps I'm the only one getting regular solicitations to purchase life insurance? Or the fact that assistance with medical certification issues, which used to be part of the basic membership, is now an additional charge equal to the cost of a basic membership?

It is my belief that the average Joe/Jane AOPA members are the ones supporting the organization. It's not clear to me that AOPA is adequately representing the concerns of their average member. I do believe that NAFI is a much stronger advocate for the average CFI.

David Cheung said...

If I had to list the top five things that made me stop flying for 10 years after finishing my instrument rating, they would be:

1. Cost of staying current
2. Cost of fuel
3. Cost of rental
4. Cost of staying current (did I mention that already?)
5. Difficulty in gaining Higher certification

Recurring theme? The only thing that keeps me flying nowadays is my love of flying, time, and a good source of income, otherwise I'd be choosing a much smarter way to spend my hard earned dollars.

Ron said...

Thank YOU for sticking up for instructors! It is so disheartening to see AOPA and other
GA organizations continually dumping on CFIs when they are the hardest working, lowest paid people in aviation. A baggage loader makes more than a flight instructor.

The idea that cost is not a major factor in people's decision about whether to pursue or complete flight training is ridiculous. It's DOUBLY so when it comes from those in the aviation world who ought to know better.

If cost wasn't a factor, I'd have a helicopter add-on, a multi-engine sea plane rating, and more. Cost is THE factor.

Ben said...

Flight instructors do work hard and they need the pay and support from the flight schools, AOPA and FSANA, to help them turn out pilots that are the safest, at the lowest cost possible while each student has lots of fun.

I have been flying since 1973, hold a CFI,CFII and CFIM certificates. I recently started a marketing/simulator company, 3 Degrees Aviation and speak to many flight schools. Many do not understand the real value of their flight instructors. They are treated as a commodity as opposed to an important asset that deserves recognition for their contributions.

The flight instructor should be paid and given additional incentives based on experience, upsells, where appropriate, time in a simulator and many other ways that are available as potential income sources to them and the flight school. In addition, they should be given ongoing training in flying, customer service and sales that add useful and productive skill sets, just as other companies do for their employees.

The cost of flight training can be reduced through management of a flight schools resources, including the use of a simulator, testing of "curriculum products" for the given market and proper segmentation and marketing practices that yield dollars for the flight school and increased dollars for the instructor.

Ryan Short said...

Good article. I agree with your sentiments about the Code of Conduct. It's easy to sign onto a nice piece of paper, it's another matter to be able to consistently achieve a high standard of training. I know of instructors who probably exceed the Code but would never sign it, and others who would sign it in a heartbeat and thump their chest, and are lousy. If we want to have a positive effect, there needs to be more incentive for longevity and quality in the CFI.