How Can We Fix Our 80% Aviation Drop Out Rate?

It is amazing our aviation industry has survived this long while sustaining an amazing 80% drop out rate. Only one person in five actually makes it from first walking in the door of a flight school to becoming a certified pilot. The other four people end up discouraged and spread bad news about our process of learning to fly. And it gets even worse because we also know that after certification another 80% of new pilots fly very seldom or stop flying all together within two years. It seems as an industry we are failing as educators? I would be curious to see retention data for other challenging recreational activities.

screen-shot-2016-12-09-at-9-32-23-pm I know the common and easy explanation is blaming “the rising cost of modern aviation” but we also see many people spending scads of money on all kinds of expensive recreational toys. Quads, boats and RVs seem to be flying off the shelves (and admittedly require no training courses). Also, two other observations argue against the simple cost theory. First, in real dollars learning to fly is actually *cheaper* than when I learned in 1970 (though admittedly the cost of planes is *way* up). Second, AOPA’s extensive polling on this subject among students at all levels puts financial considerations something like 7th in picking a flight training operation. Cost is a dominant negative factor but only when people perceive they are not getting a good value for their money and there seems to be no real concern for their personal progress and success.

For more detail, read this reportscreen-shot-2016-12-09-at-8-57-35-pm  that AOPA generated from extensive data gathered from students at all levels. They discovered students highly value excellent instructors with a professional concern and involvement. An active social environment, camaraderie and a sense of caring are also very important positive factors to students. And notice, these are the “soft skills”, not the expensive hardware and gizmos that drive up a flight school’s expenses. With minimal investment we should be able to provide a better learning environment, more fun and keep people engaged. Sit back and think for a moment about *your* flying experience and your pilot group. Are they welcoming and professional? Does your tribe actively seek out and gather interested new people? Can we grow aviation?


This (admittedly ancient) Ralph Hood tape is an obvious exaggeration, but as people in the industry we also have to confess, it contains a lot of truth. We do not do “customer service” well in aviation. Take a look at this video and I bet you will recognize some characters from your local airport.

screen-shot-2016-12-09-at-9-21-33-pmThe 2016 AOPA Excellence Poll was published recently and we are very proud that our SAFE member Brenda Tibbs is the National #1 CFI based the AOPA criteria and the enormous feedback they gather. You will notice she is not a multi-hour veteran but instead a fairly new CFI, starting a new flight school business. The ratings from AOPA, based on extensive research, highly value customer feedback in many areas. Technical subject matter mastery is surely important, but it also investigates the value of “soft skills’ like communication and motivation…again the glue that binds students to aviation when the learning can be a struggle.

So moving forward, how can we build a better flight training environment and reduce our aviation attrition rate? Lots of things have not changed since this video was made in the 90s. I personally think it would help to train compassion and caring into our ardent “hour builder” CFIs. Flight academies do pretty well teaching academic and technical skills but fall short imparting the soft skills of customer service and  concern. A personal bond between CFI and student goes a long way toward motivating and inspiring a student. We are very clearly at the cusp of a huge pilot shortage and unless we successfully rebuild and regenerate the pilot training infrastructure, our GA world will continue to diminish and large academies will do all future flight training. Expect to see more articles here focusing on flight educator professionalism; your ideas, comments and suggestions are eagerly solicited.

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Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

14 thoughts on “How Can We Fix Our 80% Aviation Drop Out Rate?”

  1. I’ve always thought “EVERYBODY wants to fly, some folks just don’t know it yet!” I’ve lived by that thought.

    It’s ture! The defining point of where I started my training was… One place said, “stop by anytime” the other said “how’s Monday at 3p.” I officially signed on that Monday at 3p, and never got to visiting the other place.

    One thing I’d like to add though, about 15:00 min into Ray Hood’s video…. NEVER ever touch a female student on the lower back without permission… Think before touch. Think “would I touch another dude like this.” If you wouldn’t then don’t!!

  2. First of all, you state that the “high cost” is a myth….I almost stopped reading at that point. Cost comes into play at all levels of flying, from learning to continuing after getting your ticket. Anytime someone has to take out a loan to do something, anything, it’s expensive. Gone are the day’s that someone can just work their normal jobs, especially young kids, and fly. It’s just not a reality, and hasn’t been for a very long time.

    Don’t delude yourselves into thinking otherwise. I’m a 51 year old man, who’s wanted to fly all his life, and I simply can’t come up with a valid enough excuse to take out said loan for this when I have car payments, a mortgage, and other life concerns that are simply more important than this hobby to me. You can say I’m not motivated enough, but you’d be very wrong. I tried out flying an ultralight a few years back, and quite frankly was terrified the engine(Rotax , two stroke, smaller one)would quit on me every single time I started it up…very dissuading for sure. I decided right then and there that a real plane was the only way to go—and have been trying to find a way to do it without bankrupting myself ever since. I’m at Oshkosh every year, I support all of the alphabet groups with my money and my input….but I just can’t afford to do it. And I’m not getting any younger.

    Lower the cost of entry, you got a new student. Don’t, and lose yet another one. Sorry, but the truth does indeed hurt…..

    1. Thanks Michael, you are absolutely right flying is expensive (and always has been)! I should have stated “rising cost of flying” as a deterrent since that is usually how that goes. I added a bit in here just now; people seek “value” also…people buying expensive toys. As John King points out, there is no 3 month training course required when you buy a boat or RV, that is the rub! You are captain of the boat when the check clears.

      1. Honestly, I wish it weren’t that way, I really want to fly…..guess it’s not(yet at least, I never say never) in the cards.

      2. I’ve looked into LSA…it’s interesting if not really supported much where I live(upstate NY). There are 2 airports that state they train for that, but neither of them seem very serious about it. I called and talked to the schools and they thought I should maybe aim a bit higher, like a proper ticket….kinda got the feeling the LSA course was more of an attraction to get me to go full on more than an actual course to them. And then I was back to square one, too much money, and that’s that. Maybe when I move further down south to Missouri in a few months, I can find better schools and start from there. Like I said, I’m not giving up just yet.

    2. Michael,
      I don’t agree with your statement about flying not being a reality for someone working a normal job. You say you’ve been wanting it all your life but your excuse for not doing it is funding. Maybe you should drive an older car and lose the car payment. You value the other expenses more than your desire for flying. You don’t have to take out a loan to pay for training, you can pay as you go. I did it that way and stretched my training over 2 years and suspect my monthly budget was under many people’s monthly car payment.

      What are you waiting for, find a CFI and get started, you’re only wasting time ‘waiting for an excuse to take out said loan’. If I could only afford to fly one hour a month I would do that, it may not be the most efficient way to train but I say an hour is better than nothing. I finished my private pilot cert while flying about 1 hour every 2 weeks, spread fairly evenly over 2 years. It can be done.

      1. Hi 🙂
        Do understand that flying where I live atm is not gonna happen unless a loan is involved. I make decent money yearly, but some things really are more important than this dream of mine. Getting an older car could be catastrophic to me as my very livelihood depends on a reliable form of transportation. As such, what works for one wont necessarily work for another. I am retiring by April of this year, and I’ll have both the time and easily the loan needed to do this, not to mention being in a better climate to get this done in a reasonable time. I AM doing this, I’m just not too keen on the costs OF doing it. I also just got a preliminary diagnosis from a former AME and may be forced to go the LSA route after all unless I like paying almost as much for a Special Issuance as I will for the lessons….such is life. I’d at the very least like to fly one way or another and if there are restrictions to doing it, so be it. We all have to make sacrifices to get what we want in life, I’m glad you found a way to get yours 🙂

  3. This is a very difficult problem to solve, and might be unsolvable at this point. I see the issue as one if instructor competency rather than attitude and customer service savvy. The understanding and ability to teach attitude flying techniques seems to have all but dissaoeared. When so few instructors can teach this simple, effective, and in fact correct flight paradigm, it’s no wonder that students get frustrated and quit in record numbers. This situation has progressed so far that now the examiners and even those who write the new testing standards don’t get it. The aviation training community, which includes schools, instructors, examiners, and the FAA, suffer from a pervasive case of group amnesia. I have little hope that this devolution of understanding and teaching of basic aircraft control can be reversed. I noted an increase in this deficiency during my last five years as a DPE, and have seen evidence of further deterioration since I stopped examining. And this is not just my observation. Ask some of the veteran instructors at Flight Safety who work with new pilots getting their first type ratings. They have stories to tell about the latest generation of glass panel trained candidates. I wish I knew how to reverse this trend.

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