The flight training industry knows that the training system has been putting out as much training and testing as humanly possible. Some might question if we are doing too much at the expense of safety for the result of numerical certification accomplishment increases to fill pilot shortages.
A pain point for many in the training industry has been sourcing practical tests from FAA Designated Pilot Examiners. Backlogs have been reported in most locations and they don’t seem to be clearing.
There are lots of things that play into this condition, but there can be no doubt that the amount of pilot training taking place is a major factor in that condition. And the number of pilot certification events that were accomplished in 2022 are higher than any other years in the past decade. Perhaps a record number ever?
Nearly Double the Certification Events Compared to a Decade Ago
The table here shows how many original and additional airman certificates were approved or disapproved by FAA Designated Pilot Examiners in each year, going back to 2011. Each of these events, approval or disapproval, correlates with a “checkride” a DPE conducted. We can see that in 2022 we did nearly double the number of tests that we were doing a decade ago.
Even when we compare how many tests were issued during 2021, and 2020, we see significant increases in the number of certification events! A dip during 2020 and 2020 as the country felt the effects of COVID likely only were a speed bump in the climbing rates of certification that were taking place already in 2028 and 2019 as highly active airline hiring was ramping up only to be paused.
When economies opened back up and began to again grow, airline hiring again ramped up and the pull for new pilots seems to be driving pilot training to new levels unseen recently. Perhaps ever? I honestly don’t know. I haven’t looked at data far back enough to if we ever hit airman certification levels this high in the past. But I do know that our training system is running at 110% reactor power right now.
You can see the graphical trend of this in the chart below. We keep just going up with that little burble in 2020 and 2021. Even that burble though shows that the training industry at high levels even while many other sectors in the economy were slowed or shut down.
DPE Availability Stress Point
The stress point of availability to schedule a practical test continues in much of our training system.
This is directly related to the number of DPEs designated, how many tests those DPEs are able to provide personally, and how many tests the system is asking them to be able to provide.
The increase in certification events naturally is a big part of the matrix of availability. When we double the number of tests a system is expected to provide, we need to somehow increase the ability to provide for those tests. If we don’t, a resource constriction is the result. And that is what we continue to have.
We can see the relationship in the table above that the number DPEs has to the number of tests and how many tests it would require on average for each DPE to conduct to meet the need. Some DPEs do lots of tests, some do fewer depending on their personal availability, if they other primary employment, and where they are physically located and what demand exists.
I will add a note here, and it’s an important one, that it isn’t just about adding “more DPEs”, it’s about adding the “right DPEs”. While some DPEs in our system provide large numbers of tests each year, they are a minority. Many DPEs choose to provide the services as a side job to their primary employment in many professional aviation jobs. They might be airline pilots, fly for corporate operations, or any other variety of jobs. Few DPEs do this job as a full-time occupation.
In 2022 a little over 40% of our DPEs did less than 50 practical tests in the entire year. This means they averaged going less than one test per week. On the other side of that discussion, only just over 12% of our DPE pool did more than 200 practical tests in the year.
Our training industry needs to find a way to source more practical testing events if we are going to continue to grow our output. This doesn’t necessarily mean we have to add lots more DPEs. It might just mean that we need to add some more DPEs who have larger amounts of available time to provide their services. Adding 50 DPEs who can only do 50 tests in a year would only result in 2500 more testing events. Adding 25 DPEs who could do 200 events would generate an additional 5000 events with half the requirement for FAA management of individual designees. This is a complex matrix that many in the industry will be required to discuss to come up with the correct solution. This of course assumes that the demand for testing events continues at this level or grows. If it drops for any reason, the pressure point could ease even with current testing provider availability.
This DPE ration of available DPEs to number of tests is something I have been monitoring for a number of years as a measure of the pressure point of practical test availability. It isn’t a whole metric for our training industry on this point, but it does help us get a feel for availability to service the testing needs of our pilot training sector.