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Flight school closures

Over the last twelve months, three UK flying schools offering commercial pilot training have closed down, leaving some of their trainee pilots with significant financial losses.

The flying schools are:

In July 2023 the BBC reported that many trainee pilots at these flying schools were required to pay for their courses in advance, and lost thousands of pounds, in some cases as much as £90,000, when the schools closed.

Flight school regulation

Flight schools are regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the UK aviation industry regulator. But this regulation only extends to the flight school safety provisions and the quality of their pilot training, not their financial ‘health’. The CAA advises pilot students to be cautious when paying up front for pilot courses, and to use a credit card where possible to protect the payment:

Protecting your investment

The CAA’s approval of a flight school means it complies with all safety requirements and is able to provide training to an agreed standard. The CAA does not regulate the financial viability of flying schools or clubs so CAA approval to conduct flight training does not imply any certification of financial health or stability. For this reason, the CAA advises all prospective student pilots to take precautions to protect their financial investment.

Many flying schools may offer a discount if you pay more money ‘up front’. Whilst you can make a saving, it should also be considered what will happen if the school or club ceases trading. If payments are made in advance, using a credit card will usually protect the payment up to a certain amount, whilst cheque or bank transfer payments may result in you losing your money.

Campaign for financial regulation of flight schools

Following these closures, the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) a trade union and professional association, and Wings Alliance which represents student pilots, have campaigned for better regulation of UK-CAA approved flying schools (known officially as Approved Training Organisations or ATOs).

On 14 June, representatives of BALPA, Wings Alliance, Flyer Magazine and Bristol Ground School wrote an open letter to the Transport Secretary Mark Harper [PDF]. 

The letter had three recommendations for the CAA:

  1. Make it a requirement of a flying school’s approval that they cannot take advance payments from consumers in excess of £5,000 and that the option of payment by credit card must always be available, with no surcharge applied.
  2. Review its oversight procedures for flying schools, in order to achieve proper compliance with retained EU law.
  3. Consider the setup of a consumer protection scheme that protects student pilot funds, similar to the ATOL scheme for customers of package holidays.

Government position

In a parliamentary question, the Government was asked what further financial protection it might give to trainee pilots from UK flight school failures. Responding on 3 July 2023, Baroness Vere, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Aviation, Maritime and Security, said the CAA did not regulate the ongoing financial viability of flying schools:

Responsibility for regulating flying training in the UK rests with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The CAA’s approval of a flying school or training establishment as an Approved Training Organisation (ATO) are designed to provide confidence that they are able to perform their operations safely. However, as the CAA does not regulate the ongoing financial viability of flying schools or clubs, approval to conduct flight training does not imply any certification of financial stability. I have asked my officials to engage with the CAA to consider this in more detail.

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