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SW Aviator Feb/Mar 2001
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By Michael E. Marotta

Everyone in aviation knows that certified flight instructors (CFIs) do not make much money. Aviation Career Magazine is brutally honest: “It should be noted that certified flight instructors work long and irregular hours for low pay, $8 an hour, or less than $10,000 per year.” There are many reasons why this is true. According to the FAA, for the year 2000, there were about 90,000 students with 3rd class medicals and about 80,000 CFIs. Of course, most of these CFIs are not active. Even so, the fact that many of those who are working are only passing through on their way to airline jobs does depress their wages. It is also true that CFIs make so little because they have no reason to ask for more.

This last factor is starting to change. The FAA has created its “Gold Seal” designation, and the National Association of Flight Instructors now recognizes “Master” CFIs.

“You don't shop around for the least expensive doctor,” says Alexander (Sandy) Hill. “You look for reputation, and specialty, etc., and you get recommendations, and to hell with the price.” JoAnn Hill and Sandy Hill had already been members of the National Association of Flight Instructors since 1979 when, in 1995, they proposed creating the standards for the Master Certified Flight Instructor designation. The Longmont, Colorado, educators worked for two years, basing their standards on the achievements needed to remain high school teachers in Colorado. They also got input from physicians, lawyers, and accountants, who also must demonstrate continuing professional development to keep their credentials.

Greg Brown of Fountain Springs, Arizona, was the first Master CFI. Brown is a columnist for the AOPA's Flight Training magazine, and a feature writer for AOPA Pilot. He earned the Master CFI designation in November 1997 and has renewed it three times. “In tennis or golf, you have a pro and you have line instructors. It is a matter of pride to get your training from a pro,” he says.
Phil Poynor is a Master CFI who works at the State University of New York Farmingdale. “I now charge $75 per hour,” he says. “The whole key is quality and customer service. Once those are nailed down to a gold standard then you seek customers who want and are willing to pay for that level of quality and service. You can't do this by just flying. You have to build the local and national reputation to support it. I have done that through, among others, teaching college, being an aviation safety counselor, helping in local aviation activities, cultivating a (responsible) relationship with the news media, being an active member of the NATA flight training committee, a NAFI Master CFI, and so on.”

Not all Master or Gold Seal instructors can command $75 per hour. According to David McVinnie, an MCFI working as Chief Flight Instructor for Bode Aviation at Double Eagle II Airport (AEG) in Albuquerque, “Flight Schools usually adjust their pricing to stay competitive within their local area, which explains the wide variance in pricing throughout the country.” Bode charges $26.50 per hour for primary instruction. In Farmington, New Mexico, Master CFI Willie Green charges $28 per hour. “The Four Corners area has about 100,000 people with about 40,000 of them in Farmington. I watch the local economy and base our prices on a comparison with similar areas.” Green says that he is considering an increase to $35 per hour for primary instruction. That would bring him in line with the prevailing rates at Cessna Pilot Centers in the region.

Jim Hackman works with 51 Cessna Pilot Centers in Arizona, Utah, and other western states. “We average about $40 per hour for instruction at Cessna Pilot Centers and we want to see that increase to $50 per hour,” Hackman says. Cessna partnered with King Schools to develop computer based instruction specifically for the CPCs. “Cessna's computer based instruction was designed to reduce one-on-one instructor time,” Hackman points out. “Computer based instruction cuts down on billable time, so we have to raise the per hour charge.”

At Arizona’s Cochise College, Alan Davis runs the aviation program for two campuses, Tucson and Douglas, serving 100 students. He has five Master CFIs working for him, and one of those also holds an FAA Gold Seal. His employees earn about $20 per hour. “As a community college, we are an alternative to high cost schools,” Davis says. “Aviation is expensive to begin with. The other fact is that instructors are not paid better than they are. We pay above the average.” Most of the CFIs are salaried college instructors for whom healthcare and vacation benefits are substantial compared to the private sector. Some of his part time instructors are students completing their associate degrees. That squares with Jim Hackman's view: “I defend the young, relatively inexperienced CFI. They are more likely to be involved, to follow the syllabus. For instrument or multi-engine, yes, I would be looking for experience, but for primary instruction, I'd look for good credentials from a recognized school. The best candidate is someone who has trained at your facility.”

Working with Mooney owners, MCFI Wayne Fischer of Carefree, Arizona, charges $40 per hour for primary instruction. A member of the Mooney Pilots Safety Foundation since 1988 and the 1997 Arizona CFI of the Year for the Scottsdale FSDO, Fischer says that the best instructors are “educating an aviator, versus training a pilot.” Fred Longe runs Professional Flight Instruction Services at Falcon Field (FFZ) in Mesa, Arizona. He is not currently a NAFI Master CFI and he competes directly with two other schools on the same field. Nonetheless, his PFIS charges $36 per hour. Longe has given over 7,000 hours of instruction in the last 12 years. “When I graduated from flight school, I thought I wanted to go to the airlines,” he says. “But I found that I liked teaching more.”

That commitment to education is the primary motivation behind the FAA Gold Seal and the NAFI Master instructor designations. The FAA Gold Seal is a recognition for past achievement. The MCFI must be renewed biennially.

The FAA Gold Seal designation is defined by Advisory Circular 61-65, which clarifies Part 61 and FAA Orders 8700.1. To be eligible, a CFI must hold at least a commercial certificate with an instrument rating. The trainer must have recommended ten students for certification (“check rides”) within the previous 24 months and of them, eight must pass on their first attempt. Alternatively, a Gold Seal can be earned by conducting 20 checkrides as a designated examiner or 20 graduation tests as a chief flight instructor.

There are actually four kinds of NAFI Master instructors. MCFI, came first, for primary instruction. NAFI then created the MCFI Aerobatics and the Master Flight Instructor for Ultralights. The NAFI Master Ground Instructor acknowledges professional development for those who teach outside the cockpit. NAFI considers over 60 separate activities in four broad areas: Education, Community Service, Media, and Participation. Educational activities can mean teaching FAA Wings seminars or giving insurance checkouts. Community service can include being an officer in a pilots club, or working with the Civil Air Patrol or Scouts. Publishing articles, designing courseware, or writing computer programs are examples of creating media. Finally, to earn the NAFI Master designation, the trainer must also be a student to demonstrate their on-going participation in training.
Being an FAA Gold Seal or a NAFI Master CFI will not automatically put an instructor on a yellow brick road. Many CFIs feel that it is more important to bring new people into aviation than to feather their own nests. “It's pointless to ask people if they're paid enough. If you asked a baseball stadium full of people they would tell you they deserve more (yes; even the players),” says David McVinnie. Still, McVinnie would like to see recognition for achievement. His suggestion is to set a base of about $20.00 per hour. To that would be added $5 per hour for a Gold Seal Instructor, and $10 per hour for a Master CFI and then $1 for every 100 hours of dual instruction given. A new instructor who has given 300 hours of instruction would receive $23 per hour and a Master Instructor with a Gold Seal and 4,000 dual given would get $75 per hour. McVinnie acknowledges that this still leaves unanswered the single most important question: “Would you select a new CFI at $23 or an experienced MCFI for $75?”

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