FAA Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE) Program Under Watch (By FSANA and Others)
Over the past several years, there have been various process issues and concerns raised with relation to the operational procedures of the Federal Aviation Administrations (FAA) Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE) program. This program was originally created in 1939 as an effort to designate qualified individuals to conduct the work of the FAAon behalf of the Administrator. In effect, it allows more FAA work to be completed with less direct FAA staff. For the most part, the program runs well, but in some instances, problems and concerns do arise. Recently, more of these concerns have been being expressed.
Starting in 2012 and continuing through the present time, FSANA and its members have been receiving feedback about variations in how the airman certification examiner program has been operating across the United States.
In 1989, there were approximately 1,600 DPE's in the system. They conducted 105,113 flight tests which represented 95% of all flight tests administered in 1989. For the same year, FAA inspectors conducted 5,428 flight tests.
Right now it appears that there are less than 900 DPE's and in 2014 only 42,440 practical tests were given. This represents a significant reduction in test volume from the 1989 levels and a comparable drop in DPEs numbers. In addition to this, compared with administering approximately 5% of practical tests in 1989, in 2014 actual FAA staff conducted only approximately 1.3% of practical tests. Leaving the overwhelming bulk of practical tests having been completed by DPE's across the country.
FAA Airman Certification Statistics can be fount at -
The FAA is tasked with oversight of these examiners; the theory being one FAA staff member can oversee multiple examiners who are tasked with "doing the work of the FAA". While this generally works, there have been some glaring instances of misconduct by examiners or misapplication of Practical Test Standards. The FAA does catch many of these through their oversight process, but some do go unnoticed. When these go unnoticed or get caught, it is many times the applicants and the training providers that suffer.
FSANA has been receiving information about some examiners around the country and some anomalies in how the DPE's are conducting their activities in various locales around the country. Along with this, it seems there is inconsistency in how the FAA FSDO offices manage and what permissions they grant the DPE's in their particular area. The result is an unstable DPE system that does not have full consistency in application throughout the country.
Some of the complaints FSANA has heard over the past 36 months include:
- Lack of examiner availability for practical tests (either based on schedule;
- Local FSDO limitations on how many practical tests the examiners administer;
- Proximity of examiners to their training operation;
- Examiners charging inconsistent prices;
- Examiners charging different prices to different training providers;
- Examiners taking additional payments to get someone on the flight test calendar first;
- Flight Schools having their students fly out of their local FSDO district in order to have a practical test completed in a cost-effective and timely fashion.
One test candidate reported that their region had a very high failure rate for a particular test and that the candidate did not want to have to pay twice for the test which was going to run between $1,000 - $1,100. The assumption by the test candidate was that they would not pass on the first test no matter how prepared they were and that they would be required to take a second test.
FAA staff from local FSDO's, regional offices, and from the national level offices in Oklahoma City does conduct oversight of examiners. This oversight is focused on the examiners activities in relation to FAA Orders and Practical Test Standards. In 1991, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) set forth a grouping of recommendations to the FAA to improve the oversight the FAA conducts on its Designated Pilot Examiners. (Click here to see the NTSB recommendation letter)
While the FAA regularly monitors how examiners conduct their tests, how many tests they administer, and where they do so, they do not get into the "economic discussions" of pricing for examiner activities. This has been left to the examiners to monitor on their own, allowing the market economy to drive the pricing structure. But the market structure is somewhat flawed when arbitrary limitations are placed on examiners by local FSDO offices or there are not sufficient examiner resources to meet the needs of the particular training area.
FSANA is interested hearing more from members and others about local examiner policies, availability, and pricing. It is important to the flight training system that a fair and equitable process for airman certification exists while still recognizing that DPE's are highly experienced individuals who are providing a valuable service that does require fair compensation for their services.
While it is not the only factor, pricing is an area of concern. When considered relative to the entire training process, or even hourly rental rates for an aircraft, in most places the pricing of a practical test is reasonable. But some outliers do exist and if different pricing structures are being charged to different customers, it implies preferential treatment. The cost of airmen testing varies greatly across the United States and in some regions, it is now a major budget item that adds to the cost of learning to fly.
FSANA has learned that Congressman Frank Lobiondo from New Jersey, chairman of the U.S. House Aviation Sub-committee has sent a letter to the United States Department of Transportation Inspector General regarding the DPE program. The letter addresses concerns that have been brought to the Congressman's attention. FSANA is interested in working with both the FAA and legislative branch so that the airman practical test administration and certification process is maintained and delivered in a consistent, fair and equitable manner across the United States.
As this process moves forward, FSANA will provide updates to its members and the aviation community. In the interim, we want to hear from you regarding the concerns that you have about how practical tests are conducted in your area. Please email us at info [at] fsana [dot] com or call 610-791-4359 with your experiences.
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