Airman Practical testing and DPE update

Airman practical testing and DPE update

— First appeared in FSANA Flight Training News, December 8, 2020

Airman certification in the United States is something conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and it is something the agency takes very seriously. Much of the actual certification of pilots is not done directly by FAA staff, but by designees of the FAA. These are experienced individuals who meet and exceed minimum qualifications requirements, have been trained, receive regular oversight, and are trusted with upholding the standards of certification for airmen.
In the case of pilot certification, the vast majority of certification events are conducted by designated pilot examiners (DPEs). These are pilots who are also certified as instructors who are given the privilege of administrating practical tests for airmen. A part of this privilege is the ability to charge for their services. These DPEs represent the United States government and the administrator of the FAA, currently Steven Dickson.
Jay Kitchens, FAA Designee branch manager, recently noted to Robert Rockmaker, FSANA president & CEO, that,
"The FAA fully recognizes the value and experience that the DPE community brings to the aviation industry. The FAA will continue to improve our internal processes concerning designee management. DPEs are a highly valued resource that we depend on to get the job of airman certification completed. We never like to terminate a designee. This is a loss of a resource to the FAA and the aviation community."
DPEs are not employees or contractors to the FAA. They serve at the pleasure of the FAA and have a huge responsibility. With the granting of this privilege however, the FAA also has the ability revoke said privilege at any time, with, or without need for cause. This leaves DPEs in an interesting position if they choose to base their personal financial income generation on this type of work. In the eyes of some, it is an unstable bargain.
Well-run businesses rely on a stable work and regulatory environment and the creation of consistent brand awareness. This poses a challenge for some in the DPE community who have concerns about the stability of their work privilege.
FSANA is bringing this up because there have now been at least two publicly viewable terminations of DPEs in the United States recently that have made some press. In one case, notifications were sent out that some applicants would need to be retested. In a second case, a Youtuber in the aviation community is spreading content that questions the FAA's termination of the "well respected" examiner.
FSANA is not here to question the FAAs termination of either of these, or other DPEs at this time, but has been fielding questions from within and outside the aviation training community about why the FAA would be terminating "good DPEs." That characterization is a biased one, and only the FAA and the DPEs involved will know all the details of each case, but what FSANA does know is that the FAA terminates very few (typically less than 10) DPEs "for cause" each year and it does so only after clear facts are present that warrant it.
What FSANA is interested in however, is that the review process and termination, and/or appeal of such a termination process, is less clear and may need some added transparency and bolstering.
In the case of one DPE who FSANA did have discussions with, the reason for their termination was not evident in the Designee Management System (DMS) even to that individual and their legal representation. Even after an appeal process, the attorney representing the DPE was not clear what they "should be appealing."
This leaves a desire for a better process that more closely aligns with review processes and potentially some peer review inclusion when a DPE is terminated. The current appeals process requires further review so that all parties are treated in a fair and equitable manner.

Industry Group Discussions

The FSANA lead industry working group which formed three years ago recently met a few weeks ago to continue discussions regarding systemic improvements on the table for airman practical testing with the DPE segment. This topic is a part of that effort.
In discussions with the FAA's Designee Standardization branch manager, Jay Kitchens, he highlighted that there "are currently efforts in our branch to increase involvement at our national level with review and consideration of any DPE termination efforts to allow for an outside review that goes beyond just a local FAA office staff." He went on to note that, "it is always important for us to make sure any decisions for designee termination take into account real actions and any potential safety concerns, not personality conflict or other non-job related considerations. When we have trained and put in place a DPE, we will always first work to provide training if a DPE is willing and and able to correct any identified discrepancies. This helps the entire system improve, become safer, and best leverages the resources the FAA has invested time and training in for future airmen testing services."
FSANA agrees with this approach and looks forward to additional involvement when tough decisions about termination of DPEs is required by JKitchen's team in Oklahoma City.
In a broader sense, FSANA and FAA team members have continued to discuss airman testing needs and the FAA teams have been continuing to respond with positive regulatory and policy guidance.
During a working group meeting on November 18, 2020, Kitchens updated the attendees on several topics. Highlights of this discussion included that:
  • The FAA has increased the number of DPEs from a little over 800 to just over 1,000 over the past two years;
  • The FAA continues to revise the March 31, 2015, policy 8900.2A which is the GA Airman Designee Handbook. A transition has been made to FAA order 8000.95 for designee management. The 8900.2 is being phased out.
  • FSDOs are under pressure to help maintain a quality airmen testing process.
  • FSDO managers need to take the time to listen to their DPEs and DPEs need to take time to engage with their managing FSDO to better share information and concerns collaboratively;
  • Potential additional support for DPE oversight and training by national level staff to help provide more support for DPEs and local FAA staff in an effort to better coordinate national level standardization of DPE activity and support;
  • The FAA recognizes that DPEs are human and may require supportive guidance and counseling to keep improving the service they provide;
  • A majority of the process improvements can accomplished via "Policy" versus "Regulation" 

The FSANA lead national working group looks forward to continuing to work with the FAA staff on critical issues relating to airman testing and certification. We encourage any interested parties with concerns to share them with us so we can include them in future discussions. And, as always, if you hear a story out there, the FAA isn't always the bad guy. Many times they are doing hard work that is required and they may know, as Paul Harvey always noted, you might need to know "The Rest of the Story" before you make any judgments.
If you would like to share any concerns or ask questions, feel free to reach out to us at FSANA. We know that some are concerned about sharing such concerns. Know that if you prefer, any such conversations can be kept confidential with FSANA staff and deidentified with any discussions we may have with other industry or FAA representatives.
Email us at or call our office if you have encountered these practices or or have concerns you might want us to consider.