Current Trends in CFI Certification – A CFI Shortage?

CFI ShortageImage: Courtesy & Copyright by Textron Aviation

Current Trends in CFI Certification – A CFI Shortage?


Image: Courtesy & Copyright Textron Aviation

Written by Jason BlairTrends in the overall pilot population are closely tracking to what is being experienced in the CFI community, with one significant difference, that of the total population. While the overall certificated pilot numbers have trended downward over the past few decades, the overall numbers of “active” CFI certificates on a yearly basis has actually trended upward.

If we look at the number of active CFI certificates, defined as having been renewed within the last two years (which is required to remain a current CFI certificate), we see that the overall number of CFIs has increased by nearly 25,000 CFIs in the last 15 years. Over the same period of time and beyond, the overall certificated pilot population has decreased. To contextualize this, we see that over the same time period there has also been an “aging” of the CFI population with the average age of the CFIs over the same time period increasing from under the average age of 44 to the age of 48.

With this being the case, we are finding that these middle aged CFIs are less likely to be actively engaged in providing flight training in the training providers that are engaged with throughput career-focused training in the majority. Many of these middle aged CFIs are employed as professional pilots in jobs such as airline service and keep their CFI certificates active simply in an effort to not lose them based on FAA regulatory requirements.

With the increasing number of CFI’s, but the aging of the pilot populace, we see that a significant percentage of the CFI group is over the age of 40 and that the average age of the CFI is increasing. Along this same time period, we are actually seeing a decrease in the number of the CFI certificates being issued on a yearly basis. This is visible in data on both the number of CFI knowledge tests being administered on a yearly basis and in the number of initial CFI certificates being issued on a yearly basis.

As the trend of CFI certification numbers decreases, and the overall age of the population increases, we are left as an industry with a CFI population that is aging, does not consist of CFIs who are actively engaged in the day-to-day provision of instruction, and in general, decreases the number of available CFIs to be employed by flight training providers. It is typically younger CFIs who are engaged with highly active CFI activities in an effort to gain experience to become employable in other professional pilot career options.

With this change in dynamics of the CFI community, we find that there are fewer potentially employable CFIs to be hired by flight training providers and that they have a harder time filling needed employee positions to provide training to customers seeking training for pilot certificates and ratings. This directly affects the business processes of flight training providers.

Staffing the Training at Production Scale Flight Training Providers

Considering the fact that there is a general downward trend in CFI certification on a yearly basis and an increasing average age of the CFI population, we can correlate this with an assumption, if not assertion, that the CFI population, while up in overall numbers, is not increasing in numerical relation to those CFIs that actually are providing training to future pilots in largesse. Most of the CFIs that are “currently” certificated are older and either actively employed as professional pilots and keep their CFI certificates “active” instead of losing them, in many cases using Flight Instructor Refresher Course (FIRC) based renewals. Many are beyond retirement ages. These CFIs are not typically providing training at what I will call throughput training providers.

In fact, a minimal percentage of the overall CFI community meets what should be considered “active” CFI levels. While the FAA defines an “active” CFI as one that has a current CFI certificate which must be renewed every two years, a more functional definition when considering training throughput potential might be one that considers if a CFI has signed off an applicant for a pilot rating or certificate within the past two years.

But data on what exactly is an “active” CFI has hard to come by or drill down to in order to figure out how many really are “active”. The FAA doesn’t report or track CFIs that are actively engaged in training. What we do know is that while the overall number of CFIs has been growing numerically on a yearly basis, the number of “new CFI certificates issued” each year is relatively low and from a percentage basis small. Considering the fact that a CFI must renew their CFI certificate every two years, and that historically we haven’t seen more than approximately 10-15% of CFIs signing off students for practical tests within a two year period, we can back into a number that may approximate the number of CFIs who are more or less active.

If we considered the number of “active” CFI certificates on a given year as defined by the FAA, being those that are still current and have not expired, we can then extrapolate considering the number of new CFI certificates given in a particular year. I will consider these CFIs who recently obtained a CFI generally active at least for a given year. They have bothered to get a CFI certificate, let’s at least assume they are going to use it for the first-year. From here, I will postulate that if we considered what has been historically seen as a maximum of 15% active CFIs who sign applicants off for a practical test could be added to that number and result in a relative number of CFIs who might, and I stress we are erring on the high side I believe here, might be actually engaged on a regular basis with flight training provision to applicants for ratings and certificates. With these assumptions in place, the data would look something like the following chart:
( (Active Flight Instructor Certificates x 12%) + New CFI Certificates Issued = Assumed Active Maximum)

From this data, we find strong probability that far less than 20% of CFIs are probable to be engaged with what we will call “throughput training” for pilots seeking ratings and certificates. On a yearly average, it would indicate that approximately 17% of the CFIs who have certificates may be actively engaged in providing training on any given year.

At the time of the writing of this paper, of the 104,382 CFI certificates that are current, only 80,688 have an active medical certificate (that data point provided by the FAA). This means that approximately 77% of CFIs could provide training for pilots seeking ratings or certificates that require the CFI to have a medical, which is most of the certificates and ratings that develop throughput training at flight training providers. While some will argue that the other 23% “could” be providing training for things like CFI certificates and/or commercial pilot certificates, it is my practical experience in the industry that this is a very small minority of CFIs who engage in this type of training without a medical certificate.

What is more likely, is that the vast majority of these CFI certificate holders are of a senior age and no longer actively engaged in flight training provision, but keep the certificate active instead of losing it through a renewal process such as a flight instructor refresher course that must be completed every two years.In another “gut check” of this level of activity, we can consider how many CFIs actively renew their CFI certificates based on completion of a FIRC course because they do not meet student sign off activity levels required to renew on that basis. To qualify for renewal of a CFI certificate based on student sign-off activity a CFI need only sign off a minimum number of 5 students in a two-year period (with a greater than 80% pass rate).

CFIs who are not doing this minimal number of sign-offs in a preceding two year period are doing little to impact the real production of new pilots into the system.While the FAA does not publish data specifically that indicates the number of CFI renewals based on FIRC course completion, I have been able to closely approximate the number of CFIs who complete online and in person FIRC courses on a yearly basis through discussion with FAA staff and the FIRC program providers. A reasonable estimate seems to indicate, within a 5% deviation. that on a two year basis around 78,000-82,000 CFIs are completing a renewal based on a FIRC within recent years.

This further backs up the approximation I have proposed above by closely correlating to the numbers of estimated CFIs who would be actively engaged in providing training that results in a signoff for a rating or certificate. It is these CFIs that are providing throughput based training that is creating newly certificated and/or rated pilots that are potentially seeking professional pilot careers based on the training they have received. These factors typify our understanding of the fact that it is percentage of instructors who have been certificated for longer periods of time, and a majority of instructors who are “newly” certificated that are providing the highest percentage of training in businesses that base their model of flight training on career-focused customers.

With the exception of a few long term senior instructors at these businesses or academic institutions, the bulk of these instructors are employed after recently accomplishing their CFI certificates and use this work as a method to gain the requisite experience to become employable at other professional pilot employers.With this in mind, as soon as these CFIs gain the requisite experience to be employable in alternate pilot positions, such as airlines, they leave their CFI positions for other jobs.

This has created active and aggressive turnover in CFI positions for many flight training providers in the United States as their CFI employees stay in those positions only long enough to gain the experience to move on to other employment options that provide better pay, better benefits, and longer term career options.In a recent FAA Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee (ARAC) report, it was noted:

“The turnover of CFIs across the nation is tremendous and there are very few full-time/permanent CFIs. The flight instructor profession is a transient position for the vast majority of pilots on their way to fly jets professionally. As a result, instructors are moving fast to Regional Airlines; our turnover (and the turnover across the training industry) is approaching 90% annually.” (The full ARAC report is available by clicking here)

When this turnover was evaluated considering the length of time that a flight instructor is typically staying in a flight instructor position, it was found that when averaged across a variety of flight training providers, most instructors stayed in a CFI position an average of 9-10 months. This means that a flight training business needs to “rehire” a position at a minimum of every year. With this rehiring comes costs to the business to recruit, retain, and standardize those staff members who are CFIs to provide training to their customers.

If we put this math to the test and assumed a middle-sized flight training provider would need to have 50 instructors on staff at a given time, we can estimate the number of CFIs they would have to hire over a period of time. To make the point, let’s evaluate a 9 month turnover average for such a provider over a 5 year period. The math would look like this: Staffing rate = 1.25 staff per position per year; 50 instructors x 1.25 staff per year x 5 years =  312.5 instructors required over the 5 year period. This strongly illustrates the effect of turnover over a period of time to keep positions staffed. It becomes an exponential staffing effort.

An additional challenge beyond just keeping enough staff with this active turnover of CFIs is present when considering the fact that CFIs are not able to train new CFIs without meeting requirements of FAA regulations that require a CFI to have been a CFI for more than 24 months. The ARAC addressed this in a further note that highlighted the following,

“This turnover is severely limiting the number of flight instructors available that meet the requirement of 61.195. This regulation sets the requirements for an instructor pilot to train individuals in the CFI course. As of right now, we have about 40 students waiting to start their CFI training who cannot start due to the lack of human resources that meet the requirements of 61.196 (and the backlog is growing).”

This turnover and the limitation on who can train new CFIs further exacerbates the constriction of employable CFIs for flight training providing businesses. These businesses are finding that the pool of CFIs to be largely tapped out as hiring by airlines became aggressive and are the same time unable to train CFIs internally due the fact that the turnover has left them with few experienced CFIs who meet requirements to train other CFIs. With this all in mind, these conditions are affecting the overall ability of flight training providers to increase or even maintain overall pilot training throughput in our aviation system.This was further noted in the ARAC comments when it stated that:

“A shortage of CFIs increases the training time of new flight students thus increasing the time it takes for new pilots to complete their flight training and ATP requirements. This delay further exacerbates the pilot shortage problem.”

Flight instructors and the ability for flight training providers to employ and maintain sufficient numbers of flight instructors is currently a restriction on the overall pilot training output within the U.S. flight training system. This trending data is was discussed at the 2018 FSANA International Flight School Operators Conference and further correlated to a presentation and discussion about what some possible solutions to the CFI Shortage may be, considering how these affect flight training providers staffing efforts. A full whitepaper on the subject is also available on my website.

Jason Blair is an active multi- and single-engine CFI, is a NAFI Master Flight Instructor and also a FAA Designated Pilot Examiner for both part 61 and part 141 training providers. He has served as the Executive Director of the National Association of Flight Instructors, represented the flight training community on a variety of committees including but not limited to the FAA’s Runway Safety Council, the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee, the TSA Aviation Safety Advisory Council, NATA’s Flight Training Committee, and others. He writes for multiple aviation publications and actively works within the general aviation industry. You may learn more about Jason on his website:

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