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Flight Schools – Why the profit motive is so important

Flight Training 3 Comments

I subscribe to the AOPA Flight Training Magazine, the on-line edition.  This magazine has been around for a while, it teaches flight schools good operating practices, and other flight instruction related techniques.  Recently I received the latest copy about proper management of a customer base, and realized if you don’t get this, there is a reason you aren’t in business. I don’t have the direct link, since I had received it a while back, but the concept kept floating in my head as to the REAL problem in aviation – too bad it took 25 years for everyone else to figure this concept out, since it is quite common in other business sectors! shouldn’t be a new concept for most business owners, but the flight school operator seems to be stuck on some concepts that are just not conducive to growing a business.  As I track where my web hits from this blog come from, I frequently see AOPA staffers stopping to visit, as well as Textron Aviation, Piper Aircraft Corp, Boeing, and other aviation brands you are all familiar with.  Everyone is trying to find a solution to General Aviation, when in fact, it is the flight schools who are doing a terrible job in this area, and it is costing the industry “big league” as president Trump would say!

The title to this blog is “the profit motive – why it is so important”, and this is so true as to why flight schools are failing General Aviation!  I can understand why people get involved in the flight school business, in fact there are several reasons why.  The first reason is – they had a bad experience learning how to fly.  It took too long, the instructor was un-professional, the organization was defunct, etc.  The reason for most of this unprofessional operation and management, is because a flight school seldom makes the big money for the business, so it becomes a sideline.

The second reason most people get involved with the flight school business, is because they LOVE flying so much, and have a passion for it, that they just want to SHARE their passion with everyone else.  Very good and noble, but the bottom line is…you aren’t going to fulfill the satisfaction of a customer UNTIL you figure out how to make your passion profitable and sustainable.  Sure, there are a few flight schools that make money teaching people how to fly, but for the ROI of a business venture, most find the charter business or maintenance business to be the way to go. The concept comes to the simple equation of, how much effort do I put into something and how much money do I make for that effort?  If you can fly a charter flight three times a week, you are probably making more money on those three charter flights, than you will in two weeks of heavy flight training and aircraft rental!

Get it?

What amazed me about the AOPA Flight Training article, is that it was a basic principle that was emphasized…LIKE IT WAS A BRAND NEW CONCEPT!  I was wondering why it took 25 years for AOPA to identify this, and start more fundamental principled exposure to how to operate a flight school, it had me shaking my head in disbelief!  The concept is quite simple, and that is how do you manage your client base?  It seems like most in aviation have the passion, and ASSUME everyone else shares that same passion for learning how to fly.  Being that this is the way they see the world, everyone else in the assembly line shares that same passion.  However, we know a lot of flight instruction is given by flight instructors that are teaching people how to fly, so that they can get a real job, right?

As a current flight instructor, my view has always been to any student, don’t assume that person knows ANYTHING!  Don’t ASSUME!  I have had students who are engineers with a lot of talent, and they would do the most stupid things like go fly with thunderstorms close to the area, and I just couldn’t believe the guy couldn’t put two and two together until I explained it!  Nonetheless, this also applies to managing flight instructors and making sure the customer is taken care of.

Why don’t more flight schools keep track of washout rates for students, IE why do some instructors have fewer students that achieve solo?  Very easy to identify, but why not track what is going on with the student and flight instructor AND doing a survey on how the instruction is going?  Sounds fundamentally simple, but very far and few between for most flight schools.  It is sort of a free for all type of environment, with no-one seemingly caring what is going on.  Then we have a 75% + washout rate, and blame it on the economic factor.  My answer is NO, these people did the research and know what the cost of learning to fly is, so that can’t be the reason.  It is like, why didn’t the customer buy the car?  They didn’t know the price!

But the real problem in the industry is the profit motive, because it is an economic principle that some people never figure out.  The profit motive is what brings the level of instruction up, provides better airplanes for flight instruction, AND has a higher graduation rate of all flight schools!  People believe that passion and passion alone is what brings the results, but having the profit motive for success is actually what achieves this level.  Every other business I have been associated with, is always trying to improve the customer’s experience, whether it is the quality of the product, the features, or the price compared to other alternatives.

In aviation, we seem to look at the excuses instead of the value we are bringing. Aviation is expensive, but that isn’t why we have a declining pilot population, and I base that on GDP figures as well as “alternative recreation” to aviation.  We need to bring the value IE the enjoyment and satisfaction for the money, because achieving a pilot certificate is more difficult than learning how to sail as an example.  As a motorcyclist, I find buying my new Ultra-Classic to be a $27,000 + opportunity, I find I can buy a nice Grumman Trainer or Cessna 150 for less money.  As the boating industry keeps setting records for sales, the ATV market is growing huge, and the RV world is doing well, the problem is the promoting and doing business aspects are what is hurting General Aviation.

I often ask a flight school owner – what are you doing for marketing?  The answer is almost always negative, and the marketing budget is very little.  The usual response is two things, A) everyone knows where we are, so we don’t HAVE TO DO ANY MARKETING, or B) we are on Facebook, it’s free!  Ok, lets look at problem #1.  Does everyone REALLY know where you are?  Some people build a nice web site, so that is good, but how about promoting that web site?  The Internet is a fantastic tool for promotion and tracking of web hits, the question is – how many people contact you based on this ratio?  Always improving that aspect is what good marketing is about, I haven’t found a flight school that really tracks this.  The second part…B) Facebook is about a captive audience that already is flying, and you need to maintain that SOCIAL MEDIA aspect.  However, Facebook isn’t bringing you new customers like you think it is, Facebook isn’t designed to sell anything, get it!

This can always be proved relatively easily, and if you are thinking I am Krackers for thinking this is true, let me ask you the basic question.  When was the last time you saw a local flight school promoting learning how to fly at an airshow, or some other aviation oriented event?  NOT!  So here you have an audience that is/has an interest in the airshow or radio control event whether it is actual model airplanes or drones, and there isn’t any sponsorship or flyers with regards to learning how to fly.  Talk about a cheap marketing exploitation, and if you knew what you were doing, you could make a lot of flyers and track your web hits to see if this event has brought you more traffic, hopefully your phone is ringing also.

But the truth is, why aren’t flight schools trying to capture the best customer…those who have money?  It seems that this is the one area that if I were owning a flight school, that I would be spending my time and marketing efforts.  Do you wonder why automotive manufacturers don’t advertise the Chevy Sonic, although it is cheap to own?  Why are they always promoting the trucks?  Well, the answer is simple, that is where the money is, the people that have the money are buying the trucks, the small profit margin of the Sonic…although you would think there would be more demand from an inexpensive car, the fact is you go where the money is!

And that my friends, is why we need to wake up and start thinking about making money in this business!  Profit motive makes the industry turn, because then, you are using your brain to find the area that has the best potential for sustainability.  The recreational flyer is always going to be there, because they enjoy the aspects of flying, and that is great.  However, identifying the real source of income and profitability is what it is all about, and is why most don’t get it figured out because you have to be profit oriented to get to that place!

3 Responses to “Flight Schools – Why the profit motive is so important”

  1. Rod Beck Says:


    I rest my case!

  2. Ben Says:

    Agree Rod, they expect the 0.1% to fund GA purchases. In other words, a failed business model.

  3. Rod Beck Says:

    Hi Ben, I’M in the process of writing an “article” to ad to Mikes claims-stay turned!

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