As someone who has been acting as a DPE for a significant period of time and still currently provide CFI services to clients, I hear all kinds of assumptions and myths about DPEs.
After recently encountering a few of these myths, I thought I’d try to help explain the job that DPEs do and the services we provide to the aviation training community. There are many myths and misconceptions about why DPEs do some of the things they do, and I think it is important to help dispell them.
While I don’t claim to speak for all DPEs, I wouldn’t be surprised if many examiners would agree with my observations on the following.
Examiners Charge too Much, Need to Charge Less, or Should Provide Practical Tests for Free
Yes, we actually get told that examiners should do this for free, should not charge any more than a flight instructor charges per hour, or that the FAA should have a capped national price level.
Ok, “free” is just a silly recommendation. As an examiner, I can come back and say, “then why don’t flight training providers provide their aircraft for free?” Their answer is that they are in business to make money. The same is true of examiners. We work hard to gain the skill and experience to become examiners, keep our qualifications current, and provide the service. Charging for that service is a business endeavor. If examiners couldn’t expect reasonable compensation, why should they do the job?
I personally wouldn’t bother to go through all of the work and take on the liability that comes with being an examiner for free.
Examiners Just Fail People to get Paid Again
This is actually rather counter-intuitive, and certainly, counter productive for DPEs. Few examiners charge the same price for a retest as they do for an initial test. At the same time, DPEs are limited to only doing 2 processing events on the same day. So, if DPE does 2 full initial tests, they get paid full price twice. If they do retests, they get paid a lower amount and actually make less money per day. An examiner makes the most potential money per day in their allotted 2 processing events if they are both successful initial testings. Retests actually cost the DPE potential revenue.
Still unclear about this? Here is what the math might look like.
If a DPE charges $500 for a practical test, and they can do two in a day, they can make $1000 that day.
If that same DPE charges half price for a retest, $250, and if they had to do two retests in the same day, they would only make $500. If they did a full test and one retest, they would make $750. No matter what happens, retests typically make the examiner less money per day than if they could keep people passing and doing initial tests. It is a disincentive to fail people because we make less money for the same time slots.
Some say a DPE shouldn’t be able to charge for a retest. Think of it from the DPEs perspective. They showed up prepared to do their job and conduct the practical test. Whether it was due to being unprepared, or just botching a maneuver, the applicant was unsuccessful in passing. Would this be fair to the DPE to require them to work for free during the retest? The best way to make sure you don’t have to to pay for a retest is to be prepared and pass the first time.
DPEs Only Accept Cash because they Don’t Have to Report it to the IRS
Yeah, well, if it only worked that way. You know all that paperwork you do to apply for the test? The IACRA application or the 8710 form? Well, all of that is completely trackable and auditable. Any examiner who doesn’t report the tests they conduct and the revenue that comes with them is certainly risking some very serious questions in any audit that matches these two things up.
The reality is that many examiners do not accept other methods of payments because they have been burned.
I, myself, and other examiners I know, have had students give us bad checks, cancel them after the test if they were unhappy they failed, and have even had people contest credit card fees (I accept processing of credit cards using a service) just as a way to avoid paying for the test or showing displeasure for a failure. This leaves the examiner out the time they took to conduct the test, trying to hound an applicant who may not even be from the local area, or giving up on the payment for their services. As a result, a few bad actors have caused some examiners to only accept cash. I personally still accept other means of payment, but I also haven’t gotten burned as many times as some examiners in places where applicants are more transitory for the training and testing they are completing.
DPEs Shouldn’t Charge Anymore Per Hour than a CFI
A DPE is a CFI who has gotten enough experience, training and put in the work to be qualified to a level beyond that of a basic CFI. As with most other industries, as additional qualifications and skills are added, one would expect that compensation for a service requiring those additional certifications would increase as well. It seems reasonable that this specially qualified and experienced group of CFIs who are also DPEs should be able to command a greater hourly rate than a standard CFI.
DPEs Have the Easiest and Highest Paying Job in Aviation
Oh how I wish. Actually, only a very small percentage of DPEs in the system ever give more than 200 practical tests in a year. Most do this as a part-time thing on the side. For those that do it full time, these pilots could frequently make more money per year as a professional pilot in corporate or airline environments. Most who chose to become a DPE do so because they like the training environment, have chosen to do it based on a lifestyle choice, or very seriously just like helping people get through their training.
A side note, for most DPEs who do it anywhere near full time, they get no benefits that they might get working for a company as a pilot. They pay their own taxes including the federal matching that an employer normally pays, they have to pay for their own medical benefits, they get nothing that resembles disability insurance unless they purchase it themselves, and there is no such thing as a paid vacation.
DPEs Won’t Make More Time Available Because They Have Other Jobs
This is many times very true, but it isn’t because the DPE doesn’t want to work and get tests done. Historically, there was FAA policy that indicated that a DPE was not allowed to make giving practical tests their primary vocation. It was intended to be experienced pilots acting on the side, sharing their experience from real-worldflying, who tested the next generation of pilots.
This policy is no longer in effect, but in some areas the practical application of DPE administration by FAA offices has been to continue this practice. It is slowly changing, and there are still currency flying requirements that DPEs must meet every year to ensure they are still active and current as pilots, but it is becoming more acceptable for DPEs to give higher numbers of practical tests, bordering on the activity being acceptable as a full time occupation.
Until this fully changes, many DPEs will have to serve multiple employment masters and regularly have other active aviation jobs that they do as well as doing practical tests.
DPEs Need to Charge Less Because I Have to Travel to Them and Flying is Expensive
We understand this, we really do, but the time it takes us to give a test and the price we charge can’t be determined by what your cost of operating an aircraft is to get to the test.
Many examiners will travel to the test for a fee that is less than the costs you may incur to fly to the examiner. But it also isn’t fair to expect the examiner to charge less because of your flying expenses or to come to you without consideration for the cost they may incur getting to you. If there really aren’t examiners near you, and there is enough demand for testing, a conversation with the local FAA office may encourage them to have a DPE designated closer. For more remote locations, this may not be possible, or logical from an FAA oversight requirement viewpoint. In some cases, the cost of getting to the place where the test can be administered is just part of the certification cost. As much as most of us DPEs would love to make flying a lot cheaper, it is just beyond our control.
All Examiners do is Show Up, Test, and Go Home
Actually there is a lot of time that goes into giving a practical test. We have to develop a plan for each test, do the paperwork that goes with it, and do all the other stuff that goes with keeping our DPE authorization current throughout the year. There is more that happens behind the scenes that is not visible during the administration of the actual practical test. All of this gets oversight by the FAA to make sure we are doing our jobs correctly. If we don’t do it, we won’t be able to continue to give tests. Sure, there is some redundancy and a little bit of what we might call economy of scale that allows an examiner to reuse materials to some degree on multiple tests, but we really do have to prepare for each individual test separately and that happens before we ever show up with the applicant.
Type Rating Costs are Too High
I certainly understand that type rating testing costs are higher than the typical FAA Private Pilot practical test. I also expect this. Type rating training costs much more than basic level training. There are far fewer examiners capable of and qualified to give type ratings. There is an upper limit on everything, but this is a free market economy. As a supply of those that can provide a service gets smaller, the price gets higher.
DPEs Can’t Do Enough Checkrides in a Day
DPEs are currently limited to 2 practical test activities in a day (1 if it is an initial CFI test). This is a policy that was put in place over time as a result of examiners giving “too many” tests in a day. “Too many” in some of these cases meant “too short”, which meant that DPEs weren’t giving fully compliant practical tests in accordance with PTS/ACS standards. The reality is that practical tests take time to give properly. Most DPEs that I know who are giving good, compliant, but not excessive tests for things like instrument ratings or private pilot certification find that they take about 4 ½ – 5 hours to fully start and finish with the ground and flight portions of the test. Do two of these in a day, and it is a 10 hour day. That’s enough. Plus, eventually you run out of daylight.
There are some cases where examiners could, and sometimes do get permission when asked, do more than 2 practical test activities in a day. This may include, say, 3 partial retests as an example. But the FAA had to set a line somewhere, and without permission, the DPEs have a policy to follow that is based on experience the FAA and DPEs had over time in the testing system.
A Checkride Should Be the Same Price in California as in Nebraska
Different areas of the country have different costs of living. This is just a fact.Should a house in Southern California have to sell for the same price per square foot as one in Nebraska? Try telling that to the real estate people in California! Do I need to say more here?
There Aren’t Enough DPEs
Maybe. It depends on where you are. And it may instead be a question of if there are “the right” DPEs.
Without going into lots of detail and spreadsheets, in some places, there actually may not be enough DPEs serving the need for testing.
In high-density training environments, especially where training has expanded as the market for pilots has grown, there may actually not be enough examiner capacity.
The FAA and some industry representatives are actively working on this problem and working to bring new examiners on where they are needed. But this does take some time. Part of the answer may also be to have examiners that are more active. Where examiners are only giving a small number of tests per year, the FAA may look to replace them, retire them, or supplement them with DPEs who are more available and able to provide a larger number of tests per year. Another potential solution is and has been to allow DPEs from other areas (who were historically geographically restricted) to travel to places where more tests are needed to be given. This may allow some temporary alleviation of testing backups.
The long-run effort is to evaluate where training needs are dense and make sure available and enough examiners are staffed in close proximity to meet the needs.
I Can’t Find Any DPEs, the Only Way to Find Them is Word of Mouth
Yes, we hear this a lot. A quick Google search can usually find a DPE, but there is also a public list of current, available, and active DPEs that the FAA makes available.
You can find it at: https://www.faa.gov/other_visit/aviation_industry/designees_delegations/designee_types/dpe/.
A General Closing Thought
I guess as a DPE one thing I would like people to remember is that while we are designated by the FAA to provide testing, these are services. We do this because it is worth us doing it for compensation. We may enjoy it also, and it’s always better when someone enjoys work they do, but it is still work. A little respect for our time and the effort we put forth to help people get testing completed is very much appreciated.
When a DPE commits to give a test at a particular location and a particular time, they have committed to that as any commercial service provider does when setting an appointment. When an applicant shows up, unqualified, unprepared, or for any reason unable to go forward with the test, the DPEs has lost their opportunity to make a living in that slot of time. And they can’t get it back. Time is valuable. While I personally don’t charge for time slots when I send someone home who was missing paperwork or unqualified, I completely understand why some examiners charge partial or full price to an applicant even when a test isn’t given. I suggest applicants ask about the examiner’s policy on this at the time of scheduling.
We are likely juggling many applicants, trying the best we can to help people get scheduled, but any one applicant isn’t the only person we are working with. I know that every test is important to the person who is trying to get it done, but you aren’t the only one doing it. We will do our best to get you scheduled, work around weather, work with aircraft or scheduling challenges, and try to balance multiple commitments. But when it comes down to it, we are human too, we have limits, and a little communication with us will go a long way.
Your article is right on. I was a DPE for 15 years and faced all the things you mentioned. Although my separation from the FAA was involuntary (not for cause – which is code for “pissed off the FSDO Manager”) and an unhappy event, I would not wish to return to examining. Perhaps if, as in days past, mutual respect between the FAA, the DPE, and the training community existed, it might make sense. Now I fly an airplane with a contract Day rate that exceeds two checkride fees, although mine is a full time position. I can’t imagine going back to the things you describe, although I was fully invested while designated. I enjoy reading your excellent articles when I find them.
I woke up this morning feeling regret for the cynical tone of my comment to your excellent article on DPE Myths. I suppose I am prone to cynicism and I find that at times I express this in ways which can be counterproductive. What I failed to mention in my comment was that being a DPE was an honor that I will always cherish. It was the most difficult thing I have ever applied myself to. I learned more about teaching and flying by not teaching or flying, but by carefully observing others doing so, than I ever could as a student. My failure to maintain my designation was a result of my inability to accept certain flaws in the designee system. I have the utmost respect for those who are active examiners and for those in the FAA who work to improve the training and testing paradigm. So just wanted to leave this note of apology for the sour tone of my previous comment.
Really appreciate the article.. just one thing about the cash part… I get that cash is a preferred payment method, but why isn’t the student given a receipt?.. at least in my case I have never seen that. Doesn’t that seem like a more fair transaction (one that has a record for both the FAA and the expenses incurred by the customer)?
Many examiners definitely do this. I typically offer it for any cash or check transaction that an applicant does when paying for a test. Even something such as an email confirmation of payment is an easy way for an examiner to do this. Definitely within something reasonable for an applicant to ask the examiner to provide if they didn’t offer it!
Your comment on why a DPE wouldn’t fail just to retest for more money is false. This is under the assumption that a DPE constantly has two brand new students a day. I had a DPE seem eager to fail me and then gladly told me when he had an opening in his schedule in the near future. It makes perfect sense to do this – if you pass someone on one attempt you make $500, if you make them retest you just made another $300. All the DPE has to do is say they went over the limits on one maneuver and bam another payment, no one can question or dispute the decision either, there’s no evidence.
While I cannot say that this never happens, it is extremely rare. Especially in today’s testing climate. The statistical data has indicated that DPEs are largely full on schedules in most areas, in fact, over full. We have nearly cut the number of DPEs in half in the last two decades and the testing volume has remained steady and in some cases increased. In many areas, this has lead to long waits for practical tests. Most DPEs who want to work full time at this point, can, which means two tests per day. One potential consideration of why they had a slot open for you is that many DPEs, me included, do leave open spots on our schedules to ensure we can work in a timely retest for applicants that do fail to meet ACS/PTS standards on a maneuver. It is frequently a professional courtesy that we don’t give away every potential slot and make applicants for retests wait weeks, or in some areas, months, to get back on a calendar to finish up a test. Making “another $300” for a slot I could have charged $500 for is simply not good business. But it is part of the job, and it’s why DPEs don’t charge a full price (normally) for a retest. If we look at the numbers, considering the number of tests given throughout the United States, in 2011 the average workload of tests per DPE would have been 64 tests per year, in 2018 it had risen to 110, nearly double the workload. I can’t say no DPE ever failed someone to get the retest, but it is by no means the norm and it is actually counterproductive. Just a little other way for you to think of this. Your comments are appreciated.
Mr. Smith:. I have been a DPE for over 30 years and up till recently never charged at all for rechecks. Your blanket accusation is baseless.
Its hard to find a local DPE other than by word of mouth .. the FAA site is of very little value (almost none at all really).
And where do you find statistics on how active an individual DPE might be … or information re the pass / fail ratio … or any info that might help to select a “reputable / respected / competent” DPE?
Sorry to say there isn’t a one stop spot to find all of that. There is no publication of the DPEs “pass-ratio” as a way to try to find an “easier” examiner. The best I can tell you is that there is an FAA website that does list the folks that are currently available: