We are still holding at only one fatal GA accident so far this year. You guys and gals, our Arizona aviation community, are doing a great job of flying safe. Let’s keep that trend going! Make 2018 the safest year ever.
Initial Pilot Certification Passing Rates Trending Down
I read an article concerning Flight Instructors (CFI’s and CFII’S), and the concern that their pass rates on practical tests have been declining over the last couple of years. It started out as a gut feeling, but when the author of this article compared his recent numbers with his pass rate from a few years ago, he found it was also statistically true. It got him 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, the article’s author took a look at the FAA’s reported national pass rates for FAA certificates on practical tests.
What he found was that pass rates have declined on the national level. Looking 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%. (Personally. I don’t think that that figure is a big deal.)
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. While there is some variation in the percentage yearly, the general trend in both private and commercial pilot certification is a downward passing rate. (Again, I don’t think that percentage is a big deal.)
As an instructor, when we see a statistic 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. It also 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 failure rates we are seeing has the potential to increase, further creating greater costs and delays in pilot training.
Why does a private pilot check ride cost a student almost 10% of the total cost of earning the ticket? Think about that: 60 hours at $130.00/HR for the airplane/$7800.00; 40 hours instruction at $45.00hr/$1800.00; plus about $500.00 misc stuff, which comes out to about $10,100.00. The average cost of a check ride nowadays is $700.00 plus 2 hours of aircraft rental (at $130.00/HR), for a total cost of $960.00 or just under 10% of the total cost of learning to fly.
How about the less demanding recreational pilot check ride? 40 hours at $130.00/HR is $5200.00, 30 hours instruction at $45.00/HR is $1350.00 plus about $500.00 misc stuff which comes out to about $7,050.00. The average cost of a check ride nowadays is $700.00 plus 2 hours of aircraft rental (at $130.00/HR), for a total cost of $960.00 or about 13% of the total cost of learning to fly.
So why are check rides so expensive nowadays? What is a fair hourly rate for a check ride? How long should a recreational or private pilot check ride take? (I remember when examiners were limited to two check rides a day: Now-a-days, I’ve seen check rides taking 2 days!!)
Are DPE’s expected to have some level of failures? Does the FAA look askance at a DPE who never fails anyone? How about a DPE with a high failure rate?
More food for thought – A student pilot only needs a score of 70% to pass the FAA written test, but should they bungle one area during the oral, a 90% or better score, they fail…
And again, they only need a score of 70% to pass the FAA written test, but should they bungle 1 part of 1 area of operation (like a short field landing) out of the 12 areas of operation during the flight portion, a 92% pass figure, they still fail… and in actuality, since each area of operation has several parts, should the student only fail 1 of maybe 72 items, for a mathematical score of 98%, they still fail!!!
Scheduling a student for a check ride in anticipation of completing the training by a certain date is speculative at best. Locking in a date that far ahead with the DPE ties him up for that date, and then if things go awry with the training process, i.e., weather, scheduling issues, mechanicals, work, life, etc, and the student is not ready, the examiner is screwed out of earning money that day. On the other hand, waiting until the student actually completes the training and gets a recommendation, results in the student sitting around for a month or two waiting on the check ride, having to spend more money trying to stay fresh and ready for the ride. All the while his proficiency and knowledge skills slip away, potentially resulting in the failure on the check ride, and contributing to the whole gist of this article in the first place. And then we wonder why the number of student pilots completing the training is decreasing! Hmmmmm…….
Please, I am NOT bashing DPE’s! GEEZ, I used to be one! They all do a great job under the thumb (policy and direction) of the FAA; they all try to be as fair as possible; and they are very overworked here in Arizona. Just try to schedule a check ride and the examiner will (apologetically) say easily a month or two out for a date because they are so booked up. Oh yeah, they are also allowed to have a life!