Collusion between flight schools and DPEs can easily create corruption in pilot certification; we have all seen this problem in action. There is a good reason to maintain a professional distance between flight schools and DPEs to uphold the high moral standard necessary for the honesty and safety of the pilot certification system. DPEs are the “gatekeepers” and there are always temptations and ethical questions. More than anything, the DPE function requires honesty and great integrity. Maintaining a professional distance between schools and DPEs removes temptation and protects the independence and integrity of this process. Geographical freedom, announced in October 2020, created chaos in the system nationally by suddenly shifting the balance of influence toward flight schools and creating a glut of DPEs in busy flight training markets.
Immediately following this change, solicitations went out nationally from larger training facilities seeking services from DPEs from across the country offering lots of tests, transportation and living accommodations. You can’t blame the schools, they need to get tests done in a timely fashion, but too close a relationship can create temptations (and bad public optics). WIth geographic freedom, DPEs from the frozen north aggressively invaded the southern states. Suddenly, long-time DPEs in states like Florida had no tests at all with DPEs from North Dakota and Minnesota testing in Miami and Orlando. In the private market, “DPE-hopping” became the new norm with applicants triple booking examiners then canceling at the last minute based on their changing schedules. The result of this change was all the leverage was in the hands of the flight schools with a glut of DPEs in the busy flight testing areas. Meanwhile, the northern states were languishing. The FAA’s attempt to create availability resulted in some surprising and unwanted consequences!
In an honest system, there will always be some distance (and occasional friction) between flight schools and DPEs, just by the nature of the relationship. Flight schools understandably want their students to pass and pilot examiners need to work. But integrity and independence are essential to assure an honest government standard (and protect aviation safety). Some applicants will always be unsatisfactory and need more training to be safe – no participation trophies in aviation! Good flight schools and CFIs understand this need for separation and work well with regular DPEs learning and improving their training. But this process requires mutual respect and professional distance; not cozy relationships.
The DPE system never envisioned professional full-time DPEs. The original system designated experienced, professional aviators offering part-time testing to assist the FAA in pilot certification. Full-time examining only became possible as the FAA got entirely out of the testing business. Some DPEs now conduct >300 evaluations a year. And most full-time examiner’s only income is conducting tests.
The FAA is working to create positive change right now, with listening post meetings at Oshkosh and lots of ideas in play. The free-market “money for ratings” system does not seem to be headed in a healthy direction Changes need to be well thought out and not improvised by industry. Success will ultimately depend on the hard-working, honest DPEs at the heart of the system. Fly safe out there (and often)!
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