CFI Certificate Issuances Increase; Total CFI Certificates Held Decreases for 2023

For the first time since 1999, we experienced a year-to-year overall decrease in the number of holders of FAA Certificated Flight Instructor (CFI) certificates. For a long time, the average age of the holder of  CFI certificate was continuing to climb in our U.S. aviation databases. This spiked, and began to turn in a more downward direction in 2017. This also appears it may be a peak point in our CFI certificates held point for the moment.

With the 2023 data, we see that we decreased from 125,075 CFI certificated holders in 2023 to 122577 at the end of 2023. This represents a small, 1.9% decrease, but it is also happening when we are at the same time increasing the number of CFI certificates issued in each year.

We can see from the graph below that we have been increasing the number of CFI certificates issued yearly in the recent past, even surpassing high points of issuance back in the early 1990s.

If we look at more detail, we can find that in 2023 we increased our CFI issuance numbers to 11,337 from what we had in 2022, 8364. This was an increase in issuance numbers of over 35%. In spite of this, we saw that overall small drop in overall numbers of CFI certificates held.

I have a theory here, and it is a simple one. We have CFIs who are simply aging out of the system. Since the CFI certificate (currently) requires the individual to renew the certificate every two years to keep it active, at some point people who are of retirement age eventually stop doing this. This seems to match with our trending up of overall CFI age for many years and now a relatively significant turn being experienced in the past few years of average CFI age.

The largest numbers of CFI certificate issuances are to younger pilots who are entering the career path, utilizing the CFI job to gain experience to make them employable for minimum experience requirements. As we certificate more of these younger CFIs each year, and as the older CFIs retire and no longer keep their certificates active, I expect that this turn in average age will continue. It also seems to indicate that we may see a continued dropoff of total CFI certificate holder numbers that will eventually stabilize at some point at a lower number.

Our baby boomer generation of pilots is aging, and retiring. As this happens, we can see some of the effects tracking in our various pilot population data points. I fully expect us to continue to see a reduction in overall CFI certificate holder numbers in upcoming years as a result.

One might ask, however, if this means we are less able to produce pilot certification due to a lower number of CFIs in our system. On the surface, this might seem a logical assumption, but it doesn’t really track like that.

The youngest of our CFI cadre still tend to provide the bulk of the training for primary certification. Most of our older CFI certificate holders are employed in other professional aviation functions, such as a corporate or airline pilot, and keep their certificates from expiring but are not actively using it on a regular basis for primary training efforts. There are exceptions to this who are engaged with the flight training industry and might be even serving as chiefs in training programs or engaged on other training sectors, but they do not comprise the majority.

In fact, each year there is another interesting data point that helps us understand the activity of our CFI cadre. This is the data point that shows how many CFIs have endorsed at least one, and I mean just one, applicant for a practical test within the year. You can see from the chart here that this is much smaller percentage of our CFI population than the overall total.

As our CFI total numbers go down, and our younger cadre of CFIs goes up, I do expect the percentage of CFIs who do endorse to increase, especially as we increase overall pilot certification efforts.

The bulk of certification training for practical test endorsement continues to be completed by under 20% of our CFI certificate holder core. Even smaller numbers of these CFIs sign off larger numbers of applicants each year (you can see some more detail on this at – How many did you sign off as a CFI in 2023? How do you compare?).

Our CFI population is one that is very transitory in terms of their highly active years. By most accounts, CFIs in heavy training volume operations are there 14-18 months over the past few years before flowing to employment in other professional pilotage positions. Should airline hiring rates decrease, this typically will extend their time service as a CFI. In either case, our more senior CFI certificate holders are not as active, are aging, and appear to be dropping out of our system at a higher rate than in recent years. Some upcoming regulatory changes expected in 2024 may change the reporting of these individuals with regard to their currency as a CFI, and this is something we will need to contextualize when the final rule is published, and its effects are seen.

At this time, it does, however, seem as though our ability to produce CFIs is one that is stable and/or growing and sufficient to keep training for other pilot certificates and ratings moving through our aviation training system.


Pass Rates on Commercial and CFI Practical Tests Stable, Private Pilots Dropping

Some concern has been raised over the past year that anecdotal data was pointing to increased failure rates in practical tests. A decrease in applicant performance. Until we got some data, that was all it was, anecdotal. The good news is that we can now put some data analysis to the question in comparison with previous years and see how we are really doing.

The results of that analysis are good and bad.

Commercial and Instrument Pass Rates Stable; Private Drops

The combined chart here shows us the trending pass rates for primary original issuance certification events in our aviation training system over the past years. We can see that in 2007, 2008, and 2009 we were at a generally higher pass rate than we were in the early 2010s where we saw a little dropoff in each of the certifications. But then we started to improve around 2018.

Pass rates on initial CFI certification actually trended up pretty significantly from the historic rates and private and commercial pilot certification also trended up. Until 2021. We can see the trends in the chart here.

In 2021, we saw a small dropoff in overall pass rate for commercial and CFI practical tests, but a larger dropoff specifically in private pilot certification events. With the 2023 numbers, the commercial and CFI certification pass rates stayed pretty stable, but the private pilot certification rates continued to drop.

For those of you who want to see the numbers in a little more detail, the chart to the right will help illustrate this point in a more granular manner.

While the private pilot pass rate does not differ significantly from the historic averages, it does show a drop over the past couple of years from a high point pass rate of 78% to last year’s pass rate of 74.5%. No, the world hasn’t stopped spinning and it isn’t going to end over this. But it is an indicator that we are not improving our performance, instead regressing a bit.

Why? I am not sure. But I can’t help but think that the super heavy hiring of 2021 and 2022 left us with a very young active instructor cadre and that experience in training counts for something. The lack of that may be proving out in the performance of their students in their testing activities.

LOTS More Test to Give

Ok, I want to very carefully make this next point. It relates to pass rates, demand for practical tests, and the overall increase in testing volume. While of these items are related, they are not necessarily directly relational or causal. But there are integrations.

We continue to see the demand for more pilot certification increase, and this increases the demand for examiner-conducted certification events. Most of this is done by designated pilot examiners, with a few training providers who are FAA Part 141 certificated operations having self-examing authority. The last time the data was conveyed to me, this only represented about 29 or the 570(ish) 141 training providers, so it isn’t the largest percentage by any means.

When we increase the number of tests demanded, and we have more failures, it means we tax our testing system and those that provide those tests even more.

The next chart compares some of this concerning sheer numbers of disapproval issuances by examiners in 2021, 2022, and 2023 overall and specifically for original issuance of private pilot certificates.

We can see that in 2021 examiners were issuing 13891 disapprovals overall, and in 2023 that had increased to 22860. That means that examiners had to conduct at least 9869 additional tests to make up for the disapproval rate. The private pilot disapproval numbers that needed retests increased 46.78% from 2022 to 2023 alone! Ok, this is where I need to be clear also. This is not to indicate that the failure rate went up 46.78%, it is the number of disapprovals that were issued. The failure rate went up 3.5% from 2021 to 2023.

This is probably leaving you asking, well then why did the total disapproval numbers go up that much? The answer is that the overall private pilot certification rate went up significantly also. In 2023 we issued 31950 original issuance private pilot certificates, and in 2022 we issued 24405. That is an increase of overall certification of 7545 more private pilots in 2023 compared with 2022; an increase of 30.9%. This is why I say that the numbers don’t directly correlate. We have a moving total certification number but at the same time a dropping pass rate. The two integrate somewhere in the mix. In either case, one might surmise that pushing through more certifications does not necessarily result in an increase in quality.

Many DPEs I have talked with anecdotally were indicating that they thought here was at least some dropoff in quality, these numbers seem to in part back up that feeling.

Total Test Events Up; DPE Pressure Up

Most in the training environment have indicated continued challenges to source practical tests, with examiners backed up and in high demand. I have been tracking a ratio over the past decade. I have affectionately started personally calling it the DPE Pressure Ratio.

It is a ratio of the number of original and additional issuance approvals and disapprovals issued by examiners for pilot certification.

This chart shows the total number of required activities and the number of DPEs available to serve that need. Averaging this out gives us a required number of tests per DPE average if the tests were spread equally across DPEs in our system.

We can see that our DPE number has gone from 944 to a low point of 785 in 2016 and back up to 969 where we finished off 2023. Considering our certification demand has gone from 60621 to 140954, it has drastically increased the average demand per examiner.

This pressure has been seen throughout our entire aviation system and is, without a doubt, a cause of scheduling backlogs, increased pricing in high-demand markets, and the inability to complete training for some applicants waiting on testing services.

The answer to this demand issue is not a simple one but one that is multi-faceted. A solution probably includes some more DPEs, perhaps fewer part-time and more full-time DPEs, a training system that right sizes itself for the actual availability of testing services, work to decrease failure rates, and potentially alternative testing and certification processes to reduce the pressure.

Unless we are going to reduce the certification demands on our system, this remains a problem that needs address to serve certification testing demands.

ATP Pilot Certification Peaking Again; Aging ATP Population

The number of ATP certificates issued each year is something that helps us identify how many potential pilots are being qualified each year for service in airline operational environments. With active hiring over the past couple of years, the pressure to deliver ATP-certificated pilots has been strong.

Our industry has been delivering increasing numbers of ATP-certificated pilots over the past years, something that can be seen from the chart below.

Increasing ATP Certification Trends

While there was a spike in 2014-2016 in ATP knowledge test and certificate issuance when regulations changed, the overall trend has been largely similar through the last decade or so.

Until 2021.

Since then, we have seen continued increases in ATP knowledge test completion and certification. Much of this is completed through the process of airline hiring and onboarding, beginning with completion of the ATP CTP course and finally with their ATP certification that coincides with a type rating for an aircraft they will be operating.

As many have indicated that there is a pilot shortage, this trend of increased certification would seem to indicate an increased ability to serve demand, decreasing the pressure of a pilot shortage. The longer this trend continues, the more our industry should be able to meet all hiring needs, and potentially even be more selective in hiring in terms of quality versus just quantity of hiring.

Through 2023 we saw a trend of certification that was outpacing all recent years on a month-by-month basis

Will the trend continue?

This is a valid question as we enter the third month of 2024. Numerous airlines have reported slowing or even pausing of hiring at this time. It very much appears some fleet restructuring is happening that may change the mix of how many pilots are needed compared with passengers flown. Larger aircraft will take more passengers for fewer flights.

Secondarily, as airlines right-size their hiring, and cut back class sizes, this means we may see some dropoff in the flow of ATP certification. If the airlines slow hiring, especially those that are regional airlines that conduct much of the training and certification for initial ATP pilot certification, we may see the month-to-month trend begin to not pace as high as it has over the past two years. This is a trend that I will monitor in the upcoming months and share if I see any data of interest.

Aging ATP Pilot Population

Another interesting point that I think is worth looking at when it comes to our ATP pilot population is that it is aging.

Well, kind of.

From the chart below, we can see that from 2001 through 2021, the average age of an ATP certificate holder rose from just over 46 to a peak of over 51. In 2022, that average began to drop, and it did it again in 2023.

This is the average age of ALL  pilot certificate holders who have an ATP certificate.

As we certificate more per year, those begin to weight our average downward with younger pilots. But it also seems to be an indication that our ATP pilot population may be dying off also. This may sound a little crass, but its actually pretty simple demographics. Our baby boomer generation of pilots is aging out and dying off. With that, we will eventually reduce the number of ATP pilot certificate holder numbers due simply to age.

This is where some discussion also takes place in our industry about the age of ATP pilots and who may be allowed to fly in the airline operational environment.

The chart to the right here shows a snapshot of some of the demographics regarding the age of ATP pilot certificate holders at the end of 2023.

Fully 15% of those pilots are over the age of 64, which means they are subject to the mandatory retirement age of 65 for airline operations. While some discussion is taking place at the national level regarding proposals to extend the mandatory retirement age to 67, until such a time as that were to be made reality, we have at least 15% of our ATPs who are ineligible to provide service in airline operations.

Some will argue that those pilots may then move over to private or charter operational activities, but our industry has seen significant movement in those markets to limit pilots of more senior ages from service. Whether it becomes company policy that a pilot will not be employed after the age of 70, or insurance restrictions that mandate a pilot not be allowed to fly in an operation at a certain age, any attempt to gain further pilot service by just increasing age tolerances is likely to gain minimal positive benefit. Even if it does gain some, the gains are likely short lived.

I actually expect we will see the age of our ATP pilot population trend down from an averaging calculation over the next few years as our older pilots pass along and our higher certification numbers of younger pilots offset the larger populations of senior pilots we have had in our system over the past decade or two.

Pilot Certification Numbers Increase Again in 2023

Tracking pilot certification numbers each year allows us to understand how robustly our training system is producing potential future employable pilots for our aviation system. In a continued trend, and with demand for hiring strong, it again appears that certification events climbed in response according to recently released FAA Airman Certification data.

A total of 134,057 pilot certificates were issued in 2023, up from 106, 662 in 2022 and 93,775 in 2021. You can see the increased trend over the past years, and one that has largely continued since 2010 in the graph below with a small dip in 2016 and 2017.

When we look at more granular detail, we see that in the core primary pilot certificates, the initial private pilot certificate, instrument rating, and commercial pilot certifications, each is showing an increasing trend, with 2023 showing higher certification numbers than any other years in recent history.

To accomplish the certification of pilots, we also need to have instructors. Commensurately, we are seeing equivalent trends of increasing Certificated Flight Instructor (CFI) certificate issuance. Our issuance numbers of CFI certificates are at levels not seen in nearly 40 years as depicted in the below graph.

Some of you reading this know that I pick at the U.S. Civil Airman statistical data every year, digging in and trying to understand what some of the trends and data points are telling us. Things we might use to understand better our training industry, our pilot community, and our professional career paths. These quick data points are the first of some of the data I am going to be sharing over the next couple of days as I fill in my spreadsheets and graphs. Hopefully, you find some of it as interesting, and potentially helpful as I do!

With that, more data to come in the upcoming days…