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Flight Instructors – Are they the real problem to the pilot population?

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There has been a lot of talk about the number of pilots numbers that have been dwindling for years now, and the concern is with fewer pilots, become fewer privileges to be a pilot. Once there are too few pilots, the strength in numbers argument is applied, and regulations become more onerous, while the cost of flying skyrockets, and airports dry up. A very vicious circle indeed! AOPA is working to get the number of student pilots that start flying to complete their certification, but the problem isn’t the procedure, the problem is truly in the process!

It was an interesting interview by Avweb (http://www.avweb.com) and AOPA’s Jennifer Storm on the state of the pilot certification study. The problem was identified with the flight instructor, who didn’t seem to care about their students progress and professionalism, which probably has some truth to it, but I don’t believe that is where the majority of the problems really are. Perhaps I am not that familiar with the ratings factory type flight school, you know, the 6 months 0 time to ATP in six months…wish they did better marketing to me when I was getting into the business…would have saved me a lot of time and money! Really, the number of drop outs in flight training isn’t the problem, I would venture to say that if 60% to 65% is a realistic number from AOPA, considering various motivations to finish a pilot certificate, I think this is a steady number that has always been around.

In Jennifer Storm’s interview, she talked about how the money for flight training wasn’t the main issue for someone dropping out of training, as most knew going in what the costs were going to be. Probably an accurate statement, being that the Internet is a place people go to conduct their initial research, they probably have a good idea of the number of hours required, and the average cost to rent an airplane. So is it the ?lazy instructors? who are the largest contributors to the pilot population decreasing? For some stats, the pilot population has declined 25% since the peak in 1980, while the overall population has increased 29% in that time…hmm, out of kilter for sure!

The real problem with flight training, is the fact that, outside of the ratings factory type schools, most small flight schools are under-capitalized, and don’t have the business knowledge to grow a flight school. I would say that a majority of the flight schools, and I dare you to ask your local flight school, the question is what type of marketing and advertising do they do to get student starts? I will tell you 85% of them will answer…?People know who we are, and where we are, so we don’t spend anything on marketing?. The next question to ask, is who is your best student pilot? The answer: Anyone who shows up to learn how to fly. A standard answer, but this is where the problem belongs, because without proper marketing, the flight school isn’t getting the ?quality? student pilot that flies 2 or 3 times a week, and has a NEED to learn how to fly because they want to buy an airplane to go to the lake home, or do business, or see family on a regular basis.

If you want to know some demographics, you may want to ask Rod Beck about the number of population in an area, to the number of pilots in that population to make a flight school work statistically. That ratio is somewhere in the are of 1 pilot/student per 1,400 people. Therefore, with a 140,000 population, you have a saturation of 1,000 pilots in the area. Since I live in a city that is slightly over that population, perhaps the 1,000 pilots is about right, with 70% of them inactive. Why bring this up? Because the business model to have a successful flight school, requires customers I.E. students to be profitable. If you are in business to make friends, maybe Aviation is your gig, but I think most get into aviation to enjoy what they are doing, AND operate the business at a profit.

So…what is that I find? Well, most flight school operators get into the business without ever having any previous business experience. They have a nest egg, or some type of inheritance that they use to purchase a flight school, because flying is expensive, it must be one huge profit center! What they don’t do, is a proper evaluation of what the business is worth using a gross profit ratio, and the market study to what is the potential this business has. If you need help, visit http://www.aviationbiz.us Once in the game, they realize that it takes a lot of work and risk to operate a flight school, and there isn’t that much money in it just operating a flight school.

Where am I going with this, and the overall pilot population? Truly, without working capital, the airplanes get worn out, they look terrible and aren’t updated as they should for the new technology available. I think someone learning how to fly, is always ok with the airworthiness of the airplane, but the look of some of the ratty trainers out there…well, makes that $60,000 BMW seem so much higher quality than the airplane. Is that the way it should be? I don’t know how much real impact this has, but getting into a mid 70’s Skyhawk or Cessna 150 that has original paint…well, it is the nostalgia of aviation, but I don’t think it does much for people who believe that flight training is expensive anyway…what am I getting for my money? Perception means a lot.

Without the ?good client? that we didn’t market too, we are losing out on the ?volume sales? which the car business is all about being profitable. If you could double the number of hours an airplane is flying, you get a lower price for rental, and better airplanes at the end of the day, because whoever is leasing back the flight school the airplane, it works for them as well. With more clients, and a few of these clients being wealthy enough to afford their own airplane, the sales edge becomes a part of the flight schools profit center. My personal opinion, the best way to operate a flight school is to have constantly changing inventory, whether you are selling it to customers who received their license, or you are active in the market buying airplanes, using them for flight training, and always offering them for sale on the market.

So that is my question, can aviation survive using poor business practices? Although the flight instructor flight training scenario is flawed, I don’t think the flight student is willing to pay…double the going rate for the instructor, just to have the top notch professional instructor. A good operator will manage the flight instructor, it isn’t hard to offer bonus money based on a survey filled out by the customer…we do it in the automotive business all the time. Have you ever heard of anything as whacked out as a flight school having the customer fill out a ?customer service survey? during their flight training? Hmm, probably would be too easy to identify flaws and problems in the training, which would HURT THE BUSINESS???? The pay plan would be key to solving the ?professionalism problem?, as the buy in would be immediate. So this problem is solved, next problem!

And the real problem is knowing how to run a small business, and the learning curve is steep enough that most aviation programs figure it out too late to continue the climb, they are often in a shallow glide looking for a field to land in. That is why I think the solution is a flight school franchise concept. Very good demographic research to figure out the probability of profitability, a marketing and sales plan to develop and build the school and training, and consistent training standards for the customer. Once branded correctly, the student pilot would feel more comfortable with the flight school because it would have a consistent business element of quality for the price. The airplanes would be a standardized fleet, safety standards would be top level, and the airplanes would look nice and have refurbishment schedules to keep them up to date.  There just isn’t the consistency that this business needs, and there is one problem that needs to be looked at.

The million dollar question, is would people be willing to pay the extra money for these standards, in an arena with a lot of fly by night programs, it would be interesting to see. However, I believe if we did a better job with the business fundamentals, I think the pilot population would at least find a bottom and start a climb toward greater numbers of pilots!

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