Each year that the FAA releases statistical data on U.S. airmen certification efforts, I, and probably a very small number of other people in our industry get excited. We dork out over the data and try to parse it in ways that help us understand trends in our industry. If we can understand some of this data, it helps us understand what is happening in our pilot production pipeline.
The yearly data came out about a week ago, earlier than most years, and I have spent the last few days playing with the data and putting it into my own spreadsheets where I track some of the trends. Each year I do this, I like to share some of the data points I think might be interesting to others in the training sector of aviation. So, with that, let’s check out some of the data and trends I noted.
Overall Pilot Certificate/Rating Production Remains Strong
Even with many of the challenges we all have experienced in the past two years, overall pilot certificate production remains strong.
When we look at specific ratings, the primary ones being for Private Pilot, Instrument Ratings, and Commercial Pilot certifications, we see these specific ratings are still continuing to have relatively strong numbers of certificate issuances. In fact, pre-COVID numbers were actually lower than we saw even during COVID restriction affected time periods.
Another good measure tends to be the number of student pilot certificates issued. We can see that while there was a dip for a few years, the number of student pilot certificates being issued in recent years has increased again. This is an indicator that there are people in the training pipeline working their way through certification efforts. This is our future pilot population as it is being trained.
The ATP Data Highlights
On the surface, the data trends seem to indicate that our population of ATP certificate holders is robust and growing. We see over the past 20 years that the number of individuals that hold these certificates continues to grow generally, offering us more pilots who have the requisite certificate to serve as pilots in airline and other commercial operations. Looking back over the past 20 years, we have seen our ATP certificates number go from 144,072 in 2001 to 170,086 at the end of 2021. But that is only part of the story.
To better understand what is happening in our ATP population, we need to additionally contextualize this compared with trends in certificate issuance rates and ages of the pilots who hold these certificates.
The years 2020 and 2021 saw the issuance of fewer ATP certificates than our industry likely needed or expected. Covid effects cut down training classes and certificate issuances of this certificate.
Over the past two years, our ATP certificate production numbers were reduced from the trends that were experienced in 2018 and 2019 as we started to experience what many were describing as a “pilot shortage”. The effects of this were stalled during the effects of COVID as airline schedules were significantly reduced with travel restrictions. As those have lifted, and demand has again returned, the need for more ATP certificate holders to provide their services has again returned. With that return for need, the demand for production of these certificates has also returned and we are starting to see in the monthly ATP certificate issuance numbers an increase.
This has happened primarily as regional airlines again started new-hire training classes at the end of which candidates complete their ATP certificates.
There is a question however if this number (increase ATP certificate production) is sustainable or if it is a number that was only possible because many CFIs worked in their positions longer during Covid related hiring reductions and amassed enough flight experience to qualify for ATP certificates. Once that “pool of CFIs who meet ATP requirements” has transitioned, a more normalized flow of experience gathering may limit the number of potential ATP-qualified applicants to a lower number monthly.
Worth noting though is that while our overall ATP certificates held numbers is continuing to increase, a larger and larger percentage of ATP certificate holders are not able to provide the service of their certificate in airline operations where the maximum age they can operate is 65.
Airline operations are going to need to see the production of ATP pilot certifications increase significantly over the upcoming years if we are going to meet the demand for pilots. In a data point that illustrates that we might be moving in that direction, we can see that January 2021 saw the highest single number of ATP certificates issued in a single month since July of 2016 (when there was a deadline for certification pending due to ATP/CTP requirements). January 2021 saw 956 ATP certificates issued. If this trend continues or increases it will help fill more pilot positions but it won’t meet all the needed pilots for our aviation system.
At the same time, the average age of ATP certificate holders has increased from 46.1 to 51.3. While this may not seem to be all that big, another data point illustrates how much of our ATP population is limited to flying in non-airline operations or has retired.
The Rodney Dangerfield of Aviation (CFIs)
Without CFIs, pilots don’t get trained. But for much of the industry, the CFI is just a way people gain experience and very little respect is given to how the work they do keeps filling the 121,270 pipeline of pilots needed to fly the bigger shinier jets with the cargo and passengers.
Tracking data related to CFI certificates is important, and some of the trends I am seeing here are worth noting. The CFI certificate is the canary in a coal mine.
But let’s start with looking at the overall numbers. At the end of 2021 we hit a peak in the number of CFI certificates held over the past 30 years. We finished this year with 121,270 CFIs. That means that is the number of people who have a CFI certificate that was issued or renewed within the previous 24 calendar months. The total number of CFIs has continued to grow steadily over the past few years.
In the past few years, we have seen a slight increase in the issuances of CFI certificates per year. Some have postulated that this is in part due to the awareness of a pilot shortage and increased interest in the career path, which requires in large part that pilots gain experience (hours) required to serve as an airline pilot. The CFI position remains the most commonly used mechanism to gain that experience.
While the overall CFI population is growing, it is also aging much like our ATP certificate holder population. At some point, these indicators will necessarily see dropoffs in the numbers of CFIs of older ages. People only live so long, so it just seems obvious that these numbers are going to turn the other way at some point.
We are seeing an uptick in the percentage of CFIs who are under the age of 30 also. This is an indicator that is correlated to the increase in number of CFI certificates issued per year as is seen in the chart above. The majority of CFI certificates issued are to younger pilots beginning their career, so we are starting to see the number of CFIs at younger age represent a larger percentage of the overall CFI certificate holder population.
Many holders of CFI certificates are not necessarily actively using their CFI certificates by providing training that results in signoffs for practical tests. They keep their CFI certificates “alive” since they must be renewed every 24 calendar months or they will expire and the holders would need to complete a retest to gain them back.
When we look further at that point, we see that in the last few years less than 10% of CFIs have signed an applicant off for a practical test in each of the last 4 years. These are the CFIs who are actively engaged in providing the testing that results in filling the pilot pipeline for future airline (and other commercial pilotage) service.
So, while we have lots of CFIs, the majority of them are not actively engaged in training, and they are getting older. As a percentage of the total CFI population, a significant number of our CFIs are beyond the common retirement age. And a very large number of CFIs out there are not actively engaged with providing training on a regular basis. It really is a small core of CFI certificate holders each year that are training pilots and endorsing them for certificates and ratings.
We should expect a major dropoff of the CFI certificate holder population within the next decade as those CFIs retire, don’t renew their CFI certificates as they age, and/or die as we all do at some point.
Returning to my title of this section, why do I consider the CFIs the “Rodney Dangerfield” of the pilot populations? Well, because like Rodney Dangerfield’s catch quote, they “don’t get no respect.” They are many times taken for granted and assumed there will always be enough to keep training going. This is not a guaranteed thing but their contribution to the industry is critical to keeping the pilot training pipeline going. If we neglect the importance of this CFI population and don’t ensure we have enough CFIs who are actively able to train the next generations, a major part of our pilot training infrastructure will be under-delivering its product; the next generation of pilots.
Training Didn’t Stop During COVID Effects
While many airlines cut back on their routes during the initial COVID onset, most of the flight training community found a way to persevere and keep going. In fact, our overall pilot certification issuance numbers didn’t really falter.
When we look at the overall pilot certificates issued, it is still down from what we were seeing in the early 1990’s, but is definitely on par with what we have seen over the past decade and up from what we were seeing in the 2014-2016 time period. Renewed interest in the career due to stories of pilot shortages is one perceived reason for this uptick recently, even through the time period where COVID restrictions were most impactful.
Female Pilot Certificate Trends Still Slowly Increasing
While still certainly not at a level that equals the representative percentage of the overall population, the issuance of student pilot certificates to and holding of pilot certificates by females continues to increase year-to-year. This trend is slow but positive. It is good to see that the trend of representation of females in our overall pilot community continues to grow.
There is MUCH more data that is reported and that others might find interesting. I am not summarizing it all here, just a little bit of it. So, if you want to join a few of us data dorks in the industry, I welcome any other inputs that others see if they choose to check out the data from this year or year’s past.
If you want to geek out over the U.S. Civil Airmen Statistics also, you can find them at: https://www.faa.gov/data_research/aviation_data_statistics/civil_airmen_statistics/.