Chasing the ATP Number, Forgetting about the Skills

What is more important? The number of hours a pilot has to be an airline pilot or,r having the skills and proficiency as a well-rounded pilot?

I can’t help but notice that what we say is more important versus what is actually happening out in our training system right now might not be a match.

In the past couple weeks alone I have had conversations with people who have conveyed some interactions that make me think that many pilots are just “chasing the hours,” not the actual skills and proficiency we need.

One such conversation was with a CFI who is getting close to meeting the number of hours they need to meet Restricted ATP minimums to qualify to be hired by a regional airline. Well, to at least be at the number of hours where they will meet the requirements that will get them into their class at the airline for initial pilot training.

The conversation included noting the fact that the CFI only needed to get 52 more hours in the month of December for them to meet the class date in January with the regional airline that wanted to have them start. What does this push mean for the quality of training that CFI is going to provide to their students over the month? Are they going to be more likely to fly in questionable weather conditions to get those hours instead of canceling a flight that might be less productive from a learning perspective for their student? Could it cause them to operate with less of a safety margin from personal or aircraft minimums as they push to get those hours? I think both are possible. In fact, I have seen other CFIs do exactly that as they push to get those last few hours, and their deadline for a class date approaches.

I am going to fault airlines partially for pushing this situation. It’s not necessarily on purpose, but their push to draw people of out of flight training to airline pilot service is degrading the dedication to doing the job of being a good flight instructor in many.

As future professional pilots at airlines are sought after more and more, the reach to hire them has gone further and further down the line and into the training sector. It used to be that airlines had enough candidates for jobs, and the candidates sought out the airline after they were fully qualified. Now airlines are reaching out to training providers and trying to get future would-be pilots to commit to working for them earlier and earlier in their training process. Sometimes, we are even seeing pilots in initial stages of training being given seniority numbers, committed interviews, and even some of the work benefits that come with employment with particular airlines. In most cases, these are developed through recruiting relationships with university or collegiate training providers or larger scale academy-style training operations. The airlines are confident in the pilot products that are produced will end up completing their training and enter service with them at a point in the future. They are pulling these candidates through from initial training all the way to a job at an airline. The benefit for an airline here is that they get a committed, fully trained, and qualified pilot before any other airline might hire them away. It’s a way to stabilize their hiring needs and gauge how many pilots they will have in the near future.

But this pull puts pressure on the students to “get through faster” because they have a “real job” waiting for them. This pull is most prevalent in the CFIs who are trying to jam out hours as fast as possible to meet ATP or R-ATP minimums and move on.

I can honestly say that many CFIs I have seen who are in their last 100-200 hours of instruction (hours experience gaining) toward meeting these requirements, certainly their last 50 hours, have a decreased dedication to the quality of training they are providing. The students suffer. And so does the skill and knowledge of those students.

Rotating instructors with students as those CFIs transition out of service as a CFI and leave their students behind to finish with another instructor regularly has an impact on the students. In the best of cases, it results in increased training time due to the lack of consistency for the student. In the worst of cases is results in missed training, knowledge, and skill acquisition as “the new CFI” may assume “the last CFI” covered things that might in fact get missed. Sometimes, these gaps in training get caught in the practical test process. Too many times students slide through, especially in environments where self-examining authority is a confirming effort more than a real testing that samples areas of knowledge and skill from an outside-the-operation perspective. Cookie cutters with defects in them make cookies with defects.

Another interesting story I got told recently was of a chief instructor who had an interaction with a parent of a student for whom they were providing training. Said student had just entered their freshman year and was barely into beginning their private pilot training. But the parent’s question was, “how soon can my child get the 1000 hours they need to be hired by an airline? Do they really need to do all the training and certificates and ratings or can they skip some of that stuff in any way to get the hours faster?”

Yeah. Can we just skip the training stuff and just get the hours so little Billy or Suzy can get to that airline job with the hours faster?

Again, missing the whole point of the training. The accumulation of knowledge, skills, and risk management skills (yeah, I am referring directly to the sections in the Airmen Certification Standards – ACS here) seems to be but a side part of the mindset of completing pilot training for too many people. The parents just want their kids to get to that job they hear is so great faster.

In another discussion, one with a number of industry professionals on the call, a staff member from a major, well-known, university aviation program, lamented the following:

“These power-off 180s that our students have to do are generating too many failures. They are hard for the students to do and make it challenging for ATC to coordinate when we have busy traffic patterns [assumingly with maximum numbers of aircraft and students operating to try to meet training demands for the hiring push]. Shouldn’t we just find a way to remove these maneuvers from the standards so we can get more people to pass?”

Wow. I was glad that comment wasn’t made by someone from any of the universities that I do checkrides for. I can’t help but think the approach to training shouldn’t be to dumb it down when we find our pilot candidates having a harder time successfully learning and demonstrating a maneuver. Shouldn’t the approach instead be to figure out how to improve the training so they don’t fail the maneuver?

I can’t help but feel that lately, we have transitioned too much of our pilot training pipeline from training to standards and happening to meet experience requirements along the way to training for meet experience requirements and hoping we have met the standards as we did. It is a subtle, but highly important difference in our fundamental training mindset.

We rely heavily on automation and systemic process in our professional aviation sector today. That is a change from decades past when the sage old captains had much less support from systems to rely on and way less capable aircraft and systems. Passengers were reliant on the flight crew’s experience, skill, and to some degree wiliness. Those days are gone. But we also can’t completely discount those experience and skill-based abilities. In the event of automation failure, emergencies, or even just unexpected conditions, the flight crew has to have the skills to critically evaluate what to do next and take action based on the skills they have in their toolset. If those skills were never developed in their training, well, they won’t be able to fix the problem at hand.

The pressure on the flight training realm right now to just push out more pilots who airlines can hire is high. Most flight training operations have been operating at maximum capacity for their available aircraft and instructor resource abilities. There is unlikely to be under the current system an ability to produce more pilots, faster, or in larger numbers without a change in how that is done. Or, a reduction in the safety and experience that is expected in the pilots these training operations produce.

The goal of our training system needs to remain a focused on developing the skills, knowledge, and risk management abilities in our pilots to be good pilots while they happen to complete experience requirements along the way. It can’t be focused on accomplishing experience requirements and just hoping the skills, knowledge, and risk management abilities happen to come with that basic experience level completion. The actual ability of the pilot matters. We don’t just want a warm body with a certificate in the flight deck. If we allow that to happen, I can’t help but think there will be reductions in safety. I have to believe there will be accidents when abilities are not the focus. And I think accidents caused by warm bodies in the flight deck will result in fatalities. Now is the time to focus on holding the standards, not just pushing the pipeline.

As an industry, it might be time we all take a little breather. We can’t push training operations to do more at the expense of the skill and experience development of our next generation of pilots. While I understand that commercial flight operations of all types need more pilots, it can’t be at the expense of the quality of those they will end up hiring. Our national airspace system’s safety depends on us holding the line, not sliding it backward to get a couple more crops of pilots through.

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About Jason Blair

Jason Blair is an active single and multiengine instructor and an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner with over 6,000 hours total time, over 3,000 hours of instruction given, and more than 3000 hours in aircraft as a DPE. In his role as Examiner, over 2,000 pilot certificates have been issued. He has worked for and continues to work with multiple aviation associations with the work focusing on pilot training and testing. His experience as a pilot and instructor spans nearly 20 years and includes over 100 makes and models of aircraft flown. Jason Blair has published works in many aviation publications with a focus on training and safety.


Chasing the ATP Number, Forgetting about the Skills — 1 Comment

  1. This article makes some excellent points and is quite frightening to think about. It’s time the airlines step up to help force the standards set in place. I just started on my PPL and of course I’d love to be ready now to fly commercial, however I’m not moving forward with any level of training unless I understand it inside and out. I’ve got a stable job that pays well right now so I’m in no hurry to “get my hours”.