Who Pays to Train Pilots?

A recent Buffalo News article discusses how the airlines are lobbying to rescind a new provision requiring commercial pilots to obtain 1,500 hours of flight time before they are certified (a Congressional response to last year’s fatal crash in Buffalo). The companies believe that this will cause pilots’ wages to rise (to pay for the increased training costs the pilots must incur), causing average total costs to increase, increasing industry prices and reducing output and profits.

But there are winners: flight schools would see an increase in demand (as pilot trainees stay enrolled longer); and, most important, the consumer who values safety a lot would be safer, at the cost of higher-priced air tickets. No doubt the airlines would welcome a return to the good old days, when almost all pilots were former military men whose training costs were paid by taxpayers, which represented a huge indirect subsidy to the airlines.

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

Unlike bicycles, taxis, buses, trolleys, trucks and other motorized vehicles, flying a plane can be done by autopilot or robotic technology.

The new generation and possible all future Air Force planes like the Predator, taxi, takeoff, fly themselves, and even launch missiles. The human link is the transitory control demanded by Air Force Command.

But planes can take off and land safely with no pilot. And 90% of most flight time, except for the take off and landing, is performed by the autopilot. The pilot just sits there 'in case,' or surf their internet computers or debate arguments, while they overfly Minneapolis.

If pilots get too expensive, commercial flights will shift to automatic auto pilots. The most dangerous missions in Afganistan have already shifted. And every year millions of hours of flight time are accumulated by robot pilots. Yes they are non-union.

Pilots will go the way of the Elevator Operator.


luigi remus



Congress (or, less euphemistically, those weak spined bribe takers) should mandate longer training as well as that any airline CEO found negligent (or napping at the wheels when his airline is negligent) of maintenance short cuts that lead to losses (any loss) should forfeit all his/her earnings at the airline (including prior to the incidents in question) and not be eligible to be a CEO anywhere else.


Why do you assume more training leads to more safety? I would think there are diminishing returns on training hours and increased safety.


I think you have mis-read this. The bill does not require any additional flight training, it requires additional flight experience. This may still be of benefit to flight schools, not because of increased training spend, but because flight instructors (the typical job of a pilot PRIOR to joining an airline) will stay around longer.

Pat McGee

Please note: the bill requires 1,500 hours of flight time, not 1,500 hours of flight _training_.

Jim C

As Geoff and Pat pointed out, this will decrease the cost of flight training as more potential airline pilots look to "build time" by giving cheap flight instruction. Flight schools will see an increase in supply, not demand.

It's a sad fact that many flight instructors/potential airline pilots could make more per hour working a full day at McDonald's than they do in a day giving instruction.

The net result is that fewer commercial pilots will make it through the ranks as fewer of them will be able to afford the years of reduced pay to become ATP rated.


As a pilot (non-practicing) maybe I can offer some helpful comments here:

1. Who pays for training? The pilot.

2. What does 1,500 hours mean? More pilot cost. There are only so many "entry level" jobs available. That is in part why regional airlines exist as they currently do. They offer lower prices to customers in part because they hire cheaper and less experienced pilots. A fully-qualified pilot with 500 hours experience will take a job with a regional airline enroute to a "good job" that can be had later with the requisite experience.

3. What does higher pilot cost mean? Fewer pilots. 1,500 hours is roughly the number of hours it takes for a competitive first officer candidate to get hired now. 3x cost is an overestimate, but even if you double the cost to the pilot (direct: training, indirect: lost earnings) you cause a significant shift in the supply of pilots.

4. Fewer pilots means fewer qualified applicants, higher wages, fewer companies, more movement from armed forces to the airlines (and higher taxpayer cost in training new pilots for the armed forces), and finally fewer flights and higher ticket prices.

Regarding comment #1, this is nonsense. if you don't trust a robot to power your bicycle or truck then you won't trust an airplane to have no operators. Even train transport has onboard operators.



Comment #3 in my previous post should read: 1,500 hours is roughly 3x the number of hours it takes for a competitive first officer candidate to get hired now


Jim C - Exactly right. It is that fact which concerns the airlines - a smaller supply of pilots may increase the cost.


Bill (#4), you may see diminishing returns to safety, but the safety required by airline passengers is very high because of the consequences of an accident. Flying safety is responsive to total experience and recency of experience, so it's not unreasonable to think that total time is a good proxy (or at least part of the calculation) for flying safety.

Ian Kemmish

If the above comments about the bill requiring 1500 hours of "flight time" are correct, then the politicians should foot the bill because this is a piece of legislation designed to fool travellers into thinking they are safer when they probably aren't. (Just like most post 9/11 security changes....)

These days Formula 1 racing drivers get almost no on-circuit testing and practice, due to the rule changes designed to limit team budgets. Instead they practice, and even learn new circuits, using simulators. If modern simulation technology is good enough to prepare people for such a demanding task, then it's certainly good enough to train commercial pilots. So the bill is a waste of money. QED.


Ultimately, in a supply & demand equilibirum, whoever is hiring the pilot will end up bearing most of the cost of their training and experience. Either directly as in the military (we're hiring them to fly, and paying for their training) or indirectly in commercial airlines (we're paying for tickets that pay salary, that's high enough to make up for the time & cost of training and working lower paying jobs getting experience).

Is the additional cost of requiring more flight experience worth the additional cost of higher airline tickets? Who knows, but we're going to pay the cost and get the benefits.

And I wouldn't say that tax payer trained pilots is a subsidy to the airline industry. I believe there's enough competition to keep profit low. Instead I would say it's a subsidy from the tax paying public to the ticket buying passangers. If you fly alot you're probably saving a few bucks, and if you never fly you're probably paying a few bucks extra.



If 1500 hours is required, then it doesn't matter if it's "training" or "experience". The point is, only a small percentage of persons will be able to afford to stay in flight schools/buy aircraft time to build those hours. In the end, the article is correct; only those people who are rich enough to purchase flight time (over $100/hour) or subsidized by the government (Civil Air Patrol by some states, the Armed Forces by US Gov) will be fully qualified.


Pilots get experience in a variety of ways. Some work as co-pilots or engineers and get flying time only when the plane is being transferred empty. A similar method is used to train ship captains. This means they have a lot more hours as observers than as practitioners, and the training experience is much more than 1500 hours.

Flight simulators are also used, but they are very expensive. Would you actually get on a plane that the pilot had only flown on a simulator?

We will not have fully robotic airplanes until FAA rules allow it. No robotic planes are flown in US Airspace withithout special FAA permission, which means the airspace is closed to other traffic. those rules may change as part of the NEXTGEN airtraffic control system.

Automatic control will most likely happen as a counterterrorist or safety measure: if someone storms the cockpit or the crew is incapacitated, just shut the cockpit down and fly from a box in the belly, either remotely or automatically.

The bulk of pilot errors occur when they have accumulated enough flight time to feel cocky, but not enough to get the crap scared out a few times. Experienced pilots get over that accident hump. In general aviation, that means around 400 hours, I think. That's about what Kennedy had.



"Train pilots"?

I thought trains used engineers!



The military doesn't have to field lawsuits if their planes crash! They get to write mistakes off as the cost of war or as collateral damage.

Not to say pilots won't be made redundant eventually but that the military is in a uniquely privileged position to go without human pilots.


I concur with Micah #8. The pilots pay the cost except for those transferring over from military. The government and airlines pay nothing for the cost of pilots who fail to get ATP. Literally, airlines are free riders.

#1 As a private pilot with computer programming experience, there is no way in my lifetime I'm getting on a robotically piloted plane without a pilot on the flight deck. I don't fly less than 4 engines over the ocean, either. Just because probability is low does not mean it is zero.

Jim C#7 is correct about the pay compared to minimum wage at McDonald's. However, the cost barrier to entry for student pilots is less the cost of instruction but mostly the rental cost and fuel costs. The bad economy has kept me grounded for a few years.

Many of the future ATPs in my area build time flying cargo rather than instruction. The pay is abysmally low, so they either live with parents or a well-paid spouse while sacrificing for 2-3 years.

Finally, I think 1,500 hours for a senior officer ATP is well-advised. It's a huge financial risk. There was a time I considered a career as an ATP, but went into different field.



Would a robo pilot have done what captain Sully did on the Hudson? By the way, my son is a flight instructor for small aircraft. The owner of the flight school where he works would like for him to get certified to fly jets so he can use him for his charter flights. It will cost about 20,000 dollars for my son to get certified. Who pays for pilot training? The pilots.
Becoming a military pilot is not the cheapest or easiest way to pay either. You have to have a college degree for the military to allow you to be a pilot. So there is that expense.


I was looking for somewhere to bring this story to your attention and then it occurred to me that it is slightly on-topic with this post as well since it is related to training and certification.

As this story explains, Alaska has a program to train 2-year dental technicians for basic dental care in undeserved areas. The American Dental Association strongly opposes the program and and especially opposes expanding it to other states.

What is your economic take on this? Is it patient safety? Economic rent-seeking on the part of monopoly dentists? Other issues of interest?