CFI to CFI
Store of value
Are you compensated for what you add to aviation?
A few months ago I wrote an article for this space titled "Aero Pro Bono: Giving Something Back" (October 2007 AOPA Flight Training). It encouraged flight instructors to be vigilant for free flight opportunities that they could offer students, easing the costly passage to a pilot certificate and bringing new pilots into contact with parts of aviation that would otherwise remain foreign. This was to be as a covenant with students and not a means of squeezing profit out of chances to fill empty pilot seats.
On the other hand, giving it away should not run rampant in a flight instructor's business model. I don't want you to have to starve and scratch the way many of us did during our leanest years of working as independent contractors training pilots. Reflecting on those times 15 years and one master's degree in business administration later, I see many things that I could have done--and you can do--that are fair and professionally justifiable to earn a decent living as a CFI.
It starts with thinking about the value that you create in your work, both for the individuals you serve and for aviation as a community. You create pilots, then you inspire them and help them advance. The safer you make your pilots, the more value you add to aviation. When your clients or other members of the aviation community turn to you for advice or assistance, who do they see in your shoes? First, they know that you are empowered by your flight instructor certificate and training to make professional judgments about their capabilities and needs. They know you made a substantial effort, and investment, to earn the privilege to provide required training, issue endorsements, grant solo privileges, and more.
What risks and responsibilities do you take on when providing those services? And--listen up now, because this is a big question--are you compensated for taking on those risks?
In the financial world, something called a risk premium helps to determine the required rate of return on an investment. An investment that does not provide a return appropriate to its risk rating is seen as an underperformer, even if that return is still positive. Seems to me that flight instructors make life-and-death judgments every day but accept compensation "priced" for more mundane labors. Can you even quantify the honest value of safely and successfully teaching a presolo student how to take off and land in a snow-blown crosswind?
What responsibilities do you accept when you issue a first solo authorization, or sign a Form 8710? That's a professional risk--both to your reputation and possibly your certification.
When is an instructor providing professional services, and when is he viewed as a target of financial opportunity? Suppose you meet your student at 9 a.m., go over weather, review the lesson, perform a preflight, fly for an hour and a half, and finish up at noon. Did you put in an hour and a half of revenue time, or three hours? That's three hours worked in my book. (I didn't always see it that way.) Then you attempt to leave the terminal and end up answering questions from the coffeepot crowd for another hour. Don't let the process cost you money by eating up your productive time.
There are many other activities not covered by an aircraft Hobbs meter for which you are clearly present and needed in your professional capacity, and should be earning your hourly rate. (I am not one to differentiate rates for different instructing activities; you may differ.) That extremely important time spent on the ramp supervising a soloing student and conducting the debriefing is one example. Teaching instrument procedures on a simulator or computer is another.
Scheduling and leading a tower or radar-room tour is a function of your access as a professional CFI, and it consumes time; here a way to provide a discount is to gather a group and have them split your fee. Filling out and checking over an applicant's paperwork before a flight test can run to hours. If you are squeamish about insisting on compensation for this, ask yourself: Is there any instructor's service more valued by a student than an endorsement to take that flight test? Be economical with your client's time, and you will earn respect and dispel objections. Yes, someone may refuse your terms and take up instead with a subprime CFI. I predict that you will come to see that as a blessing too.
As if earning a CFI's wage were not difficult enough, many flight instructors simply suck it up and go home when a student fails to show up for a lesson. Forgiveness is fine, but chronic offenders should be charged (and your life may be easier without them).
Delays or cancellations caused neither by you nor the student, such as aircraft mechanical problems or the late return of a prior renter, should not exact too harsh a price from your client. Your time is still valuable; one idea is to waive half the bill. Your client could even make a case to the flight school that he or she should be "made whole" for the inconvenience, but don't subsidize that deal by eating your fee. If you are the one who made a bad call, scheduling a flight that has to be aborted or cancelled because your go decision was erroneous--well, you'll have some decisions to make about your fee and the aircraft rental expense.
Putting in time at home also adds up. The phone rings and suddenly you're deep in a research project or a time-consuming conversation, giving advice, explaining a regulation, or listening to a hangar tale. Go ahead and dispense some wisdom or encouragement gratis, especially if the caller is a newcomer to aviation (aero pro bono again!) or a prospective client. But if someone picks your brain on a regular basis, or if the caller obviously is comparison shopping or seeking a second opinion while flying with the competition, it's time to take a professional stand. Nail down the encounter as a business contact by scheduling a future time to discuss the matter and state your hourly rate, as well as a minimum time you'll bill for your service. Keep records of the discussions, including the party, subject, and time involved. Never spring costs on someone unannounced. A client does not know your policy in such matters unless you disclose them first. At the appointed time, show up completely prepared to deal with the matters to be discussed.
If it seems that this discussion is aimed at flight instructors who have the freedom to make all their own policy decisions, it's not entirely. FBOs and flight schools with a good sense of customer relations listen when their employed CFIs suggest that costs be waived in certain instances--but don't wear it out. Even if you fail, your client will see you as his advocate with the flight school and appreciate the support.
So there it is, a framework for operating as a professional while also being compensated as one. No specific guidelines or policies offered--just a philosophy about what you do, and a way of expressing the value you create for your client, and for aviation. What you do with that information, and what you are willing to accept as terms of employment or self-employment, is up to you.
Dan Namowitz holds commercial pilot and flight instructor certificates, as well as a master's degree in business administration from the University of Maine.
By Dan Namowitz