Darren Smith, Flight Instructor
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You Get What You Pay For!

by Darren Smith
Getting the Most from Your Flight Training, September 2006
Smarter Student Series: Researching Flight Schools | Managing Your CFI | Annoying Students | You're in the Driver's Seat! | Why People Quit Flying | Being a Better Aviation Consumer | You Get What You Pay For | Performance Anxiety |

Flight training sure is expensive!  Every year, I watch rental rates increase.  Gas costs more.  Insurance costs more.  Flight Instructors cost more.  Even pilot supplies cost more.

Folks call me and a typical question is usually, "How cheaply can I get this done." While my initial impulse is to hang up, I attempt to explain reality to them. I tell them, "After all, this is your life you're putting on the line and you're trying to get the cheapest deal?"  Most people without a death wish, would rather get the best training than the cheapest rate.

Instead of looking at instructor qualifications and how well aircraft are maintained, students focus on cost.  David & Annie, married private pilot students in Florida told me about their less than stellar training experience. When I told them find another instructor, their best response: "But he is so cheap!" They then complain about the lack of a training plan. I tell them to change instructors and they say, "But he is so cheap!" They then tell me about the instructor's aircraft having persistent electrical problems. I tell them to change instructors and they say, "But he is so cheap!"

It makes me want to find a high powered transmitter mounted on a satellite to announce to all airports: "You get what you pay for." Perhaps I can just find the paging system at the nearest WillyMart.

Todd, a Missouri instructor tells me that some of his students complain about the cost of training materials required to get their pilot certificate.  He is so fed-up with it that he has given up the career he so dearly loves.  As Todd puts it, "If you want to play, you've got to pay."  He hears constant complaining about the high cost of flight instruction and then students show up unprepared, late, or not at all.  Todd, a highly skilled senior flight instructor, has walked away from the profession to focus on a more lucrative business. 

Several years ago, Henry, a prospective instrument rating student with a high performance aircraft called me for training.  I offered him a discount off my retail hourly rate if he bought block time.  He then told me that another instructor was willing to do the training for $20 an hour.  I then told him perhaps I wasn't the right instructor for him.  He started with the other instructor and called me about 30 hours later to complain he wasn't progressing.  Yes, I suppressed the urge to call him an idiot but I did suggest some changes he could make with his current instructor to make some progress.  After about 70 hours, he finally finished his instrument rating with the other instructor. I guess it wasn't such a good deal after all.

Another student, Timothy, asked me for a proposal for an instrument rating.  After providing the proposal he selected another instructor.  I ran into him at an fly-in event and learned he was about 20 hours into his rating.  He was dissatisfied that he wasn't making progress.   After listening to his complaints about his current instructor, I suggested some changes he could make in his relationship with the instructor.  Namely, he needed to ensure that his instructor was using an organized plan to push him through his rating.

Unfortunately, lots of Flight Instructors are busy serving themselves and their future careers rather than the student.  These are the ones that are busy watching the HOBBS meter rather than monitoring student performance.  As a result, quality suffers.  When the per hour price is lower, the student thinks he got a good deal.   When it takes longer to progress through training either because of poor student aptitude or poor instruction, it costs the student more in the long
run.  That's hard for most students to figure out until nearing the end of training.

Here's another little dirty secret of the flight training industry.  When a student pays $40 - $45 - $50 to the FBO for a flight instructor, often they only pay the CFI $10 to $20 an hour.  Just ask yourself if the best and brightest are attracted to a job where the pay is $20 an hour.   For the math wizards reading this, that comes out to about $1000 a month.  The next thing you'll quickly figure out is that Flight Instructors live in poverty.  Is it any wonder why Flight Instructors use the job as a stepping stone to get somewhere else?  Thats the beginning of the cycle that provides students low quality and a disorganized if not incomplete training experience.

Independent instructors who make a living as career instructors are far and few between.  I can think of only a handful that make a living doing flight instruction.  Most end up creating training materials and becoming Pilot Examiners not only as a way to increase their income but as a natural career progression.

So now that you've heard all this depressing news, what can you do to find an instructor who isn't going to waste your time?  Here's my golden nugget advice that can save you thousands:
  • Independent instructors tend to be laser focused on getting your rating completed.
  • Instructors should use a syllabus / training plan.  A sample can be found at:  Instrument Training Plan Sample
  • Seek a ground school in neutral territory such as at a local college.  Often times you'll get unbiased advice.
  • Find the local pilot examiner and ask him who sends him the best prepared students.
  • Have an informal conversation with the local FAA Safety Program Manager - he knows the best schools in the area.
And above all, remember two things:
  1. You get what you pay for.
  2. Nothing ever gets cheaper.  If you're going to do it, then do it now.

Reader Comments

Date: Tue, 22 May 2007 07:50:15 Name = andrew s
Comments = Darren, I highly suggest you practice what you preach.  By discounting your 10 hour block rate you are effectively negotiating against yourself!  When you visit your dentist, chiropracter, lawyer, etc. do they discount their rates?  This is a catastrophic mistake as a professional pilot instructor!

Date: Sun, 1 Apr 2007     Name = Ed Smith
Comments = Hi, I agree with everything you say.... 

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