Competency Based Training, Syllabus Requirements and Training Costs for Commercial Pilots

Experience, Competence or Syllabus? Influences on Flight Hours at Licensing of Commercial Pilots

Todd and Thomas (2013) studied the flight hours logged by commercial pilot licence candidates at the time of licence issue to ascertain the use and effectiveness of competency-based training (CBT) for pilot training [1]. As CBT was introduced in Australia as a training methodology for commercial pilot training in 1999, a near normal distribution of hours at licence issue could be expected in the sample as student pilots mastered the needed skills at individual rates. There remains a minimum flight hour requirement for various categories within the licence, required both by the regulatory body and airlines. These minimums undermine the efforts of flight training organisations (FTOs) to operate CBT effectively, and gave the sample a non-normal distribution.

Illustration 1 shows the average student flying almost double the required instrument flight hours, and over 2.5 times the required cross-country command hours, yet only accumulating an extra 26% in total hours. Assuming the regulatory minimums have been established as an accepted level of competence, a purely CBT environment without minimums would be likely to result in a near normal distribution with the mean around the current regulatory minimum, as opposed to the current means above the minimum requirements.

Illustration 1: Comparison of regulatory minimums and sample means
Regulatory minimum Sample mean Sample mean converted to percentage of regulatory minimum
Total hours 150 189.0 126%
Command hours 70 74.4 106%
Cross-country command hours 20 53.6 268%
Instrument hours 10 18.5 185%

Total sample n=688

Illustration 2 shows a comparison of the interquartile ranges (IQRs) of the FTOs for each of the key flight variables. A CBT approach would result in most students achieving competence around a median with numbers decreasing at the extremes as some students achieved much earlier and some took much longer. The results for FTO 4 showed little spread for each variable with 50% of their sample being clustered closely around the median. The IQRs for FTO 3 demonstrated the possibility they were using a more CBT-oriented approach, as their data was more spread across the range allowing students to attain competency at an individual rate.

Illustration 2: Comparison of Interquartile Range (IQR) over Key Flight Hour Variables by FTOs (shown in hours)2
Total hours 20 15 13 4
Command hours 2.5 1 21.5 0.5
Cross-country command hours 0 2 24 1
Instrument hours 3 6 4.5 4

To study the effect of syllabus differences on the key flight hour variables the authors compared a subset of data which came from 4 FTOs training cadets for airlines. Significant differences were found between the FTOs for all key flight variables with only one exception. Illustration 2 shows the measures of central tendency of key flight hour variables for both the entire sample and the four FTOs conducting airline cadet training. This is contrasted with the regulatory minimum hours required for each key variable. Completing pilot training at an FTO as an airline cadet can have a marked effect on the type of hours a student accumulates to reach their required minimum total hours for a commercial licence, notably in the category of instrument hours. This could be due to many factors including differences in syllabus, selection of students and their aptitudes, and the expertise of the instructors. Most airlines would expect cadets to graduate with an instrument flight rating so the FTO median differences for this key variable may derive from whether the instrument rating training began before the commercial licence test, or after. Starting the instrument rating before completing the commercial licence would allow for a syllabus with lower overall total hours, which would decrease training costs for airlines.

Illustration 3 shows that FTO 2 as the most cost-effective training provider as it has medians near the minimum requirements for all the key variables except instrument hours, which indicates they have been more efficient in the earlier stages of training and have begun instrument rating training prior to commercial licence issue.

Illustration 2: Central Tendency Comparisons of Key Flight Hour Variables
Regulatory minimum Total sample means FTO 1 - median3 FTO 2 - median3 FTO 3 - median3 FTO 4 - median3
Total hours 150 189.0 213 165 180 180
Command hours 70 74.4 72 70 80 70
Cross-country command hours 20 53.6 50 51 61 52
Instrument hours 10 18.5 25 30 12 16

Total sample n=688

Trainee pilots are unlikely to access the full benefits of CBT until the industry moves away from the minimum hour requirements. As pilots must pass a flight test before their licence is issued, the current standards of competency could be maintained even if candidates had lower hour totals. With more automation in aircraft, new multi-crew licences and the escalating cost of aviation fuel (and therefore training), CBT in hand with rigorous assessment procedures may result in lower hour pilots and reduce training costs for airlines. The difficulty will come in balancing lower hours (lower costs) with maintaining industry safety.


Research approach

The authors conducted an exploratory study to determine the extent and success of CBT within FTOs in Australia. The study determined the spread of experience between commercial pilot licence candidates, and whether this spread was affected by syllabus differences between FTOs.


The database the records were taken from is not given. It is likely that the records came from the regulatory body issuing commercial licences. 688 records were used in the sample, all from a one year period. The subset of the four FTOs training cadets for airlines was drawn from this pool. The number of candidates included in this subset is not given. The FTOs were all operating under a regulatory system requiring the use of CBT in the original sample.


The authors used a case study-type design to give broad answers to their exploratory questions.
To analyse the differences caused by syllabus, the authors created a subset which contained the data from the four organisations that conducted flight training for airline cadets.


Independent Variable

  • Non-manipulated – the FTO of the candidates

Dependent Variables

  • Total flight hours
  • Command flight hours
  • Cross-country command flight hours
  • Instrument flight hours

Subject Variables

  • Age
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Flying ability
  • Spatial ability
  • Language capability
  • Culture

Extraneous Variables

  • Location of flight school – can be influenced by uncontrollable variables such as weather and traffic levels
  • Which airline the flight org is working for – whether the students are learning in their first language/culture or not

Data analysis

The data was initially analysed with Kruskal-Wallis H tests to determine that there was a significant difference between the four FTOs. This is a suitable test for non-parametric data (determined by descriptive statistics of the initial sample data) as it allows the authors to compare more than two independent groups. In order to determine where the significant difference lay, post-hoc Mann-Whitney U tests compared each of the FTOS with each other. This test allows for the comparison of two independent groups with a non-normal distribution.

This article provides comparative analysis of the data to identify possible efficiencies in particular syllabi and to comment on the effectiveness and future gains possible for the industry under CBT.

Generalization potential

The generalisation potential of this article is low as it is an exploratory article for an early stage of research carried out with a low level of constraint. It could be used to generate questions for further investigation. It is likely that the clash between CBT and required flight hours could be found in most countries conducting flight training, given the history of competency based on accumulated hours.

1. TODD Melanie A & Matthew J W THOMAS (2013). Experience, competence or syllabus? Influences on flight hours at licensing of commercial pilots. The International Journal of Aviation Psychology,2013, Volume 23, part 2, pages 169-180. ISSN 1050-8414 print/ 1532-7108 online.
+++ Footnotes +++
2. Quartile values were not provided in the original article, thus they have been estimated by "eye-balling" the available box and whisker plots.
3. Median values were not provided in the original article, thus they have been estimated by "eye-balling" the available box and whisker plots.

Contributors to this page

Authors / Editors

ROSS, Sarah (2013). Massey University, New Zealand. Sarah215Sarah215

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