As far as I am concerned, time is THE most finite resource we have as humans. As of 2020, the average human lifespan is about 636,000 hours. Read that again: your life will last, based on averages, only 636,000 hours, and you will be asleep for a third of that! That leaves about 420,000 hours in your life to be awake and conscious, doing what you love, with the people you love...and doing what you must to make ends meet.
For this reason, in whatever it is I am doing, I charge for my time. To that end, my policy with student pilots is simple: you pay me when I am giving any of those limited 420,000 hours to you. This means that from the moment of our agreed upon meeting time, to the moment I have put my signature in your logbook, you are paying me. I find this approach reasonable because I am NOT out to gut anyone's wallet. In fact, I do everything in my power to help a student's dollars go as far as they can (see my article: How To Save Money During Flight Training). I love being efficient with my time and money, and I love helping others do the same.
When I was actively instructing throughout the Willamette Valley in Oregon between 2017 and 2019, I charged $50 per hour as a freelance CFI to students that I acquired through my own marketing, and $40 per hour as a 1099 CFI for a local flight school who found students for me. This was all Part 61. I also worked as a W2 part-time employee for a flight college, instructing under Part 141, and for that I was paid about $23 per hour. This difference in wage between freelance CFI and W2 employee CFI is unfortunately just a reality in the flight instructing world. Naturally, I did what I could to do more freelance work and less work at the college. I found these amounts to be fair for a CFI (not CFII or MEI) with about 500 hours total time.
I began learning to fly as a senior in high school. Though I was absolutely blessed to grow up in an upper middle class household - an extreme advantage, no doubt - my parents did not pay for my flight training. I worked two jobs after school and on weekends, and over the course of 10 months and 42 hours of flight time, I was able to obtain my private pilot’s license. Working for minimum wage meant I had to make each and every penny go as far as possible. I was fortunate to work with an instructor who gave me a discount on her time...but in exchange, the expectations were high: I needed to show up prepared and ready to go.
I made a bone-headed comment to my CFI when I was 17 and learning to fly. I don't remember exactly what I said, but it was along the lines of my instructor benefiting from training me in the form of hours and experience. She put me right in place, and for good reason. I absolutely cringe when I think about what I said, especially now that I have lived through the process of becoming a CFI. Acquiring all of the certifications and paying for all of that flight time throughout training was expensive and a lot of work, and instructors should absolutely be paid well for the experience they bring to the table and the service they provide.
Having said that, I am very sensitive to the money-strapped student pilot. In fact, I am happy to give a good rate to students I work with who are in a situation similar to mine, to help pass along my first instructor’s generosity and keep flying as accessible as possible to. If they communicate to me and are upfront - and if they show up early and very prepared - I will do all I can to keep their costs minimized, even if that means I don’t get paid quite as much.
Even if a student is not strapped for cash, I try to be efficient with all of my students. I let them know during our first lesson my policy: I begin charging from the moment of our agreed upon meeting time, to the moment I have put my signature in your logbook. If the student is running late, I still charge from our agreed upon time. My policy was especially important when I was commuting 45 minutes each way to the airport. In that situation, I wasn’t going to charge for my commute time, as it was my choice to live and work where I was. But I was going to charge for all the time I was at the airport on behalf of my student.
I am adamant that my students understand that starting from the time that it becomes apparent to me that they can competently fuel and preflight the airplane on their own, I encourage them to book the airplane slightly early so that they can show up before our meeting time, preflight, fuel, and be ready to fly the moment I arrive. Here’s the thing: I like making money in exchange for satisfying and challenging work, but I have no interest in being paid to give up any of my 420,000 hours of life watching a competent student perform a mundane preflight. Further, students need to get used to performing preflights on their own, and this independence will only develop with my absence. In any case, I’d much rather show up, have a quick talk about what we will be doing that day, make a quick walk around the airplane, double check oil and fuel caps myself (ALWAYS do this as a CFI - a lesson I learned the hard way), get in, shut the door, and fire up.
I also am adamant about letting my students know what it is we will be working on during the next lesson, and I do my best to supply this information well in advance. It is my hope that the student reads up on (or watches videos regarding) the maneuvers or lesson content so that when we do meet, my student can ask good questions, or at the very least, has been exposed to the maneuver. I find that reviewing this content on their own time is a much better way to prepare them than discussing the content in-depth just before going flying. The student will have other things on their mind and probably won’t retain the information as well as they might if they had read up on it the evening before.
A quick note on my expectations of students. My favorite teacher of all time was my algebra 2 and physics teacher in high school. He’s a great guy, but he also had extremely high expectations for his students. As in, there really was absolutely no excuse for not learning the material. He spent every one of his lunches in his classroom, willing to help guide students to the answers to their questions (no spoon feeding though), and he hung around for a few hours after school every day to offer that same help. He provided deadline dates weeks in advance, so that we could plan appropriately. He never budged on rounding up grades (89.9?% for the term? That is a B, and was not rounded up to an A)...unless he had seen you in his class each day at lunch and after school, working your tail off. Then he might give you the benefit of the doubt. To this day, I credit him with exposing me to the life-changing concept of absolute personal responsibility and ownership when it comes to learning.
I take this approach with flight instructing. I have high expectations of my students, and I give them every resource they need to be successful, including my phone number to call at any time of day to ask me questions, free of charge. My job is to keep the student safe in the air and help guide them along the process of obtaining their pilot’s certificate, and federal law prohibits me from endorsing any student for a solo flight or checkride if I do not feel they are knowledgeable, safe and competent. And I genuinely do care about their success. As previously stated, I charge for my time, but my job description is not to spend my time poking, prodding, or babysitting someone who isn’t motivated to do the work that is required. Flying an airplane is a massive responsibility, and if a student doesn’t have the motivation to put in the time and effort, that student just won’t have the knowledge necessary to pass any evaluations and they will weed themselves out in an unfortunately expensive manner.
If a student insists on paying me $50-$60 per hour for me to spoon feed them paragraphs from the Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, that is easy money for me and I will do it once or twice until they (hopefully) realize that it’s a horrible use of their time because being spoon fed information is an incredibly inefficient way to learn (If you are interested in my take on how I recommend studying, I wrote an article on this as well). Based on my experience, this student is not likely to be successful in achieving their goal if they remain on this trajectory. But I digress.
I am not militant or without reason with my charging policies. For example, as the experienced professional, if the forecast weather for our lesson (an uncontrolled airport, prone to patchy fog, with no weather reporting) at 6am the next morning was looking questionable, I either cancelled the night before, or made the judgement call to continue as planned. If I showed up the next morning and the airport was socked in, I did not charge the student, as that was my responsibility. As students progressed in their training, I then put this judgement call on their shoulders as a form of a lesson, and hopefully they had been studying meteorology and noticing local weather patterns. I let them decide, based on the forecast for the next morning and their knowledge of local weather patterns, if we should cancel in advance or meet as planned. If I disagreed with a decision to meet as planned the next morning, I let them know as much. If they were so confident in their abilities as to override my call, that’s fine - but they’d be on the hook for my time if they were wrong (to this day, no one has overridden my call...but I have certainly been wrong in my forecasting!).
If I showed up and there was a maintenance issue, I did not charge the student. If there were unforeseen life circumstances or events that could not have been predicted by my student and they were late or had to cancel, I was reasonable with these and took them on a case-by-case basis.
There was a particular incident where I had been working with a student on XC planning. This student wanted to do a long flight from the Willamette Valley in Oregon, all the way up to Bellingham, Washington - WAY more than 50 miles! This was one of those situations where this flight was one he wanted to make regularly once he had his certificate, as his sister lived in Bellingham. I thought this was a great opportunity to expose him to XC flying on a route he would actually fly on his own, through Seattle Class Bravo airspace and over water. It was one of those “many birds, one stone” kinds of flights. He was a great stick and rudder pilot, and at only 17 years old, his enthusiasm reminded me of my own when I was learning to fly at that same age. However, unlike me, this student had the amazing fortune of having his training paid for by his parents. Lucky guy! Seriously, he was very fortunate and I was happy for him. But at times, it did become apparent that he wasn’t pinching pennies quite like I had to.
The night before his XC flight, he called me around 11pm. We had planned to meet the next morning around 6am. At the time of his call, he had questions about things like calculating wind correction, magnetic deviation, etc. After talking for about 45 minutes, I reminded him that he needed to have all these calculations completed by the time we met in the morning. The flight - one way - was over 250 nautical miles, which means a lot of VFR checkpoints that require calculating. I also let him know that if he did not feel this was possible, we could call off the flight, no problem. The goal was for this flight was to be a good learning experience. In hindsight, it was probably not the smartest thing for me to allow a student undertake such a long flight for their first dual cross-country flight. That was my mistake, as I allowed my better judgement to be overridden by my student’s enthusiasm. Still, he was far enough along in his training that it was time for him to start being responsible for making go/no-go decisions in regards to how prepared he was to complete a flight. But he insisted he wanted to continue as planned. “Okay,” I said, “see you in the morning.”
When I arrived the next morning, my student had not been able to complete the calculations for more than a few of the many checkpoints along the route. In fact, he spent over 2 hours working on his calculations at the airport that morning until he was ready to fly. He knew how to perform the calculations pretty well, so he didn’t have many questions for me, which meant that he was paying me $50 an hour to sit and watch. The total bill for my time that day was nearly $400, and a significant portion of that was for my time spent doing absolutely nothing.
I share this story because I think it is a good example of how this policy is reasonable and fair to everyone. If you do the work and show up prepared, you will save money. If you don’t, you will pay more because it boils down to this: anyone giving up their precious and limited time on behalf of someone else should be compensated appropriately for it - ideally for an amount that both parties feel is fair. In my case, I found my policy to be fair, as did practically every student I worked with. The few who took issue with my policy were welcome to find a different instructor, and I did not take that personally at all. I hope and encourage everyone to charge a fair price for their time, in whatever profession they work, as time is the ultimate non-renewable resource.
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