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CFI to CFI

Shedding the tin cup mentality

What you earn is up to you

Tired of low CFI pay and rotten hours? Like the late Rodney Dangerfield, do you get "no respect" from the flight school or students? Perhaps the solution to your malaise is closer than you think. Maybe you hold the key to better pay and greater job satisfaction.

As Dr. Phil of TV self-help fame might say, "Take responsibility for your own condition, and don't depend on outside factors to make your life better." This holds true in spades for CFIs.

While researching this article, I discovered CFI pay that ranged from nothing, to $8 per hour for beginning CFIs with no instrument instructor rating, to more than $80 per hour for "boutique" instructors in urban areas who have built a business teaching corporate executives and other high-level professionals.

Teaching situations are likewise diverse. Many CFIs work freelance and/or part- time for local FBOs and flight schools, frequently on an "on-call" basis. Others work full-time for flight schools or university aviation programs and are paid hourly, or a salary, or both. Some jobs have benefits, and some don't. Some CFIs provide instruction just for the privilege of flying a client's airplane. So it's nearly impossible to nail down an average pay scale. The only universal answer to the question of what CFIs get paid is "It depends."

Motivations for instructing differ, too. Some CFIs are in the field temporarily, building time for the airlines or a corporate job. Others are retired and teach flying because they like it and it provides supplemental income. Still others teach for the sheer joy of it, with almost all of their income provided by a regular full-time job unrelated to aviation.

Just to provide a benchmark, the University of North Dakota satellite campuses in Phoenix, Spokane, and other locations pay an hourly rate starting at $9.39 for part-time instructors to $20.80 for experienced instructors who provide CFI training. This school also pays an additional $2 per hour for instructors at its Hawaii campus, and more for instructors involved in its Cirrus training program at Duluth, Minnesota.

Other flight schools pay CFIs a percentage of the rate charged flight students, typically 60 percent, making a CFI's hourly income $30 from a school instructional rate of $50. Of course, if the weather is lousy for a week, the CFI gets nothing unless the school has a minimum or base salary. This is an important consideration when seeking employment.

I recently saw an ad for a full-time instructing job at a flight school, offering a one-year contract for $27,000 and a guarantee of 600 yearly flying hours. Doing the math, this job worked out to $45 an hour, which wouldn't be bad unless there were a lot of "extra administrative duties" that resulted in a 60-hour workweek. For example, I have a friend who went to work as an instructor at a major flight school at a beginning rate of $7 per hour. He would fly all day, but had additional administrative duties at night without compensation. He soon left to fly charter--for more pay and a more reasonable schedule. He still instructs part-time, but only after improving his lot by taking control of his own situation.

A long-established tradition of charging students only for instructional time in the airplane (Hobbs time) is still largely followed, despite professional advice to charge for all instructional time, ground as well as flight. In his book The Savvy Flight Instructor, AOPA Flight Training Contributing Editor Greg Brown writes--tongue in cheek--that many instructors need psychological help because they feel guilty about charging students for their services. "Most of us being impoverished, it's hard to imagine that other people may actually have enough money to pay for flying, so we all too often set our rates too low," he says.

You are a professional CFI, and, just as if you were a doctor or lawyer, people expect to pay for your professional services. Brown wrote that in all his years of instructing he never found anyone who said he was charging too much, and in fact, one student actually became irritated with him for not charging enough. "He had been convinced that he was taking a flying lesson from a true industry expert and had fully expected to pay real money for it," Brown says. In the eyes of the student, Brown's value as an instructor was directly proportional to what he charged. Considering the hourly rates we pay for a plumber, an auto mechanic, or an appliance repairman, why should we consider our CFI services to be any less valuable?

Darren Smith, a CFII/MEI from Tampa, Florida, who markets flight training services via his own Web site, thinks about it this way. "Would you expect to pay a dentist only for the time drilling your teeth? Would you expect to pay a tennis instructor only for the time spent swinging the racket, but not for the time he or she spent talking?" It follows that CFIs who don't charge for ground instruction tend not to spend much time engaged in it, depriving the student of valuable knowledge.

The key to becoming a successful and well-paid CFI is to establish yourself as a respected professional, with a reputation and a record of success that is widely known. Such professional status has many elements, but some shared by the most successful instructors are:

  • A commitment to continuing education, honing not only aeronautical proficiency but teaching skill as well;
  • Gaining the confidence of the local FSDO personnel and pilot examiners by sending only well-prepared students for checkrides;
  • A reputation for treating students with respect;
  • Use of training methods that create enthusiasm for students;
  • Professional recognition, such as FAA Gold Seal instructor certification or a NAFI Master CFI accreditation; or
  • Regular exposure as an expert CFI by conducting safety seminars attended by potential students, writing articles, or participating in a Wings Weekend.

Look at it this way: When you have a medical problem you look for a doctor who is a specialist with a good reputation for success. It's the same for students seeking flight instructors. Students, as well as flight schools, will search for CFIs with a good reputation, outstanding training and experience, and a record of success. Like someone searching for a doctor, the student's life may depend on whom he or she selects as a CFI, and students are willing to pay for it. Soon the word gets out that you are the best one to go to for flight training. It's all up to you.

Richard Hiner retired from the AOPA Air Safety Foundation as vice president of training. He can be contacted by e-mail.

By Richard Hiner

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