Safety Publications/Articles

From The Right Seat

Making A Living As A CFI.

Whenever I walk into a retail store I'm reminded how lucky some business owners are. They have to be lucky to stay in business, considering how little service they offer their customers. I don't mean to sound cranky, but in some places you get the impression that you're doing the store a favor by showing up with your money. That's why my mom shops at Nordstrom. What's their secret? A reputation for treating each and every customer well.

As flight instructors, we are equally dependent on providing our customers with good service. This means making them feel like we appreciate their business, not like they're imposing on us. Little things such as listening, following up on all solo flights with a congratulatory phone call, keeping the airplanes clean, and greeting anyone who walks through the door are all part of providing good service. The first time I walked into a Waffle House, I thought I was on Candid Camera. Everyone yelled, "Hello" in unison. I felt as if I had stumbled into a herd of long-lost friends. When I'm on the road, guess where I eat?

If you want to keep your customers happy, make them feel important. Offer good service. And tell them you appreciate their business. Say "thank you" a little more often. The payoff is worth the extra effort.

From The Right Seat

Making A Living As A CFI: It Can Be Done

I can't tell you the number of times I've heard someone say, "You can't make a living as a CFI." For some people this may be true, but it doesn't have to be. Given enough experience and the right conditions, you can easily make a decent living as a flight instructor.

There probably has never been a better time to be a flight instructor. The airlines are hiring, which makes it difficult for many flight schools to hold onto their high-time instructors. Look in any major aviation publication and you're sure to see want ads for CFIs. In my travels around the country, I've even heard of FBOs closing their doors or eliminating their flight training departments because they can't find qualified CFIs. If you're interested in working as a full-time flight instructor, here are a few things to consider.

Before a flight instructor can expect to make a reasonable wage, he or she needs a little seasoning. Expecting a top-dollar hourly fee during the first year of teaching is unreasonable. Those with a few years of experience in the business, though, can expect to charge fees ranging from $35 to $60 an hour, and higher.

I know several CFIs who charge $500 a day for training in specific airplane types. These folks have acquired enough additional training to qualify themselves as experts in specific makes and models of airplanes: Malibus, Bonanzas, cabin class twins, etc. One CFI whom I know has developed such a well-established reputation that operators fly their airplanes from all over the United States to his home airport just for a full day of specialized training. He's completely booked months in advance.

Treating flight instruction as a business is the key to making a good living. For instance, many years ago I met a CFI in California - let's call him Hank - who makes well over $50,000 a year as a full-time flight instructor. Here's his strategy.

First, Hank has his students sign a contract for at least three two-hour lessons per week. This forces them to make a strong commitment to flight training. If the student has to cancel, the lesson can be rescheduled if notice is given at least 24 hours in advance. The results of a missed or hastily cancelled lesson are clear: Payment is expected regardless of the excuse.

Given that each student consumes six hours of his time per week, Hank limits himself to working with only five clients at a time. This totals 30 hours of revenue-producing time per work week. An additional 10 hours of nonrevenue time is invested in lesson planning and recording keeping, resulting in a 40-hour work week.

The beauty of this arrangement is that Hank makes money even when he is grounded by poor weather. After all, students need ground instruction in preparation for their certificate. He never fell into the trap of thinking that ground instruction deserves less recompense than airplane instruction. Why should it? After all, ground instruction has its own inherent risks. What about getting bitten by the airport dog or poisoned by airport coffee? (The secret here is to get the dog to drink the coffee.)

Hank charges $35 an hour for flight or ground instruction. At 30 hours per week, this produces a guaranteed weekly income of $1,050. Over a 50-work-week year, he earns a minimum annual income of $52,500 from flight instruction. This doesn't include income from other peripheral activities associated with flight training, such as finder's fees for airplanes sold, consulting fees, or other services rendered. In reality, Hank makes more than $52,500 per year.

Although Hank now relies strictly on word-of-mouth advertising, he originally advertised in medical and legal magazines. He'd place a small classified ad that offered a free consultation for anyone considering flight training. During the consultation, he'd explain his flight training program, the contract, and the pros and cons of owning an airplane. Of course, he always dressed professionally and had professional brochures to distribute, too.

Can you see why Hank was successful? He directed his marketing to the folks with sufficient disposable income. Sure, not everyone can afford to pay his prices, but Hank isn't marketing himself to these folks.

Can you earn a similar living as a CFI? With a few qualifications, I'd say, "Absolutely." First, being in a large metropolitan area helps. Good weather helps, too, though with the sophistication of modern simulators the weather is becoming less and less of a hindrance to flight training, even for those taking primary instruction.

The next time someone says that it's not possible to make a good living as a CFI, please mention Hank's story. Remember, the average CFI in the business is becoming less and less experienced - they're all getting hired by the airlines. Therefore, it's not unreasonable to expect that the chances of making a good living as a full-time CFI are becoming better and better.

By Rod Machado

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