Can Flight Instructors Get Paid Enough? by Michael Marotta

“This is Eric, my flight instructor,” I said to my wife. They exchanged greetings and said a few words to each other and then my wife and I walked off to see the rest of the local air show. “He seems so calm,” she said. “Yeah,” I replied. “But he spends all his time in airplanes with guys like you who do not know how to fly,” she said. “Yeah,” I replied. “It would make me nervous,” she said. “Yeah,” I replied.

At that time, I was paying him $27 per hour, or about half what the plane cost. It was his plane — and his airport. His house was next door. About a year later, I was flying out of a small controlled field with a couple of large FBOs running freight and partial ownerships. The CFIs there got 60% of the $22 per hour charged by the flight school. The guy I flew with was retired from another career, teaching in order to fly and flying to teach. “If I did not have the retirement money, I could not afford this,” he said. “What about the other CFIs?” I asked, referring to a bunch of kids I saw hanging out. “Everyone has stars in his eyes,” he explained. “They love to fly and are happy to be paid anything to do it, and of course, they are building hours for a better job.”

The median individual income in America from 1995 to 2000 ranged near $34,000 per year for a median hourly wage of about $17. A salaried computer programmer with five to ten years of experience makes between $30 and $35 per hour. Unionized industrial workers make $20 to $25 per hour. A production assistant on an automotive assembly line, non-union contract labor, will be paid $10 to $12 per hour. Fast food with a national chain pays $6 to $8 per hour.

Public high school teachers earn $15 to $25 per hour: $30,000 to $50,000 per year — and not all of them teach well, either. In fact, just what “teaching” is and how we “learn” is not well understood. Problems in epistemology are not well-defined. All we can say is that the flight instructors who are lucky enough to get and keep students who pass their checkrides are thought to know “something” which in 100 years has never been quantified, let alone commoditized. In short, teaching is an art and artists do not make a lot of money.

Supply and demand are cruel. If the general economy is active, aviation does well. Markets are brisk. More freight and more passengers bring more demand for pilots. Prosperity allows more people the opportunity to learn how to fly. These factors add up to mean that more people can (and must) work as CFIs. This keeps the wages of CFIs low. When the economy turns down, the wages of CFIs are also low.(This is the same situation farmers are in. In order for prices to be high, the crops have to fail.) Seen from the supply side, it is a no-win situation.

However, the demand side is the power plant of an economy. CFIs make so little simply because no one is willing to pay more than they “have” to. Why should you? Because it is a question of honor, that’s why. No matter who you are or what you do for a living, you should never pay your CFI less than you charge your own clients or employer.

It is possible, perhaps likely, that your CFI will not be “worth” that much. Not all CFIs teach well. Different people learn differently. It makes no sense to pay for instruction you are not getting. However, given that your CFI is doing the job you need to have done, you owe it to them and to yourself to pay what the service is worth to you. It is, after all, your life we are talking about.

Why pay more for a commodity than you need to? You do not look to happily overpay for bread and milk. In the first place labor is NOT a commodity. You are buying human intelligence, the rarest intangible on Earth. In the second place, there is a difference among breads and milks. The Theory of Quality says that whole foods and pure foods are more nutritious and therefore better bargains than cheap foods that are only filling. Similarly, if you stuff your cockpit time with the cheapest instruction you can find, dickered down to the last dime, you may find yourself short on something you really need when your life is on the line.

If you make $100 per hour and you do not feel that your instructor is worth the same amount, then you need a different instructor. Myself, as a technical writer, I earn $35 per hour. I will not pay my CFI less than that.

Michael E. Marotta
Technical Writer