Ground school
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Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of five articles called Mayday! The declining pilot population. You can read all the articles here.

Stories about the declining pilot population never surprise me, because they never fail to trigger the memory of two sadly illustrative experiences that might have put me in that category.

Ground school

Are flight schools today delivering what 21st century consumers want?

The first occurred in the early 1990s when, having finished private pilot ground school, passed the knowledge test, and acquired my student pilot certificate/medical, I visited the nearest flight school to see about flight training. I found myself in a dark and dingy facility, partly excused by the “pardon our dust” construction signs but nonetheless uninspiring. No one at the counter seemed interested in helping me. When I politely inquired about flight training, they handed me a single sheet of crookedly-copied information on flight training packages. There was no conversation. No offer to show the facility or the aircraft. So there was also no sale. I wanted flight training badly enough to keep searching, and I eventually found a school that wanted my business. But I have often wondered how many potential pilots simply gave up at the counter.

The second occurred just three years ago, when I wanted an aircraft checkout in a city I visit often enough to make the exercise worthwhile. I was in the company of a couple who owned the nearly-new Cessna T206 Stationair we had just refueled. The counter attendant looked panic-stricken when I asked about checkout requirements, but pointed me to “one of the instructors” on the sofa behind me. Said instructor was engaged in a lively shoot-the-bull conversation with a fuel truck driver, and both appeared annoyed by the interruption from this pesky potential customer.

Neither bothered to stand. No one offered a handshake, an introduction, or an invitation to sit. And then, while I stood in front of them, the instructor proceeded to conduct an almost hostile interrogation on my qualifications and experience. His description of the overlying Class B airspace seemed designed to intimidate and discourage me–hard to do, not only because I’m relentless when I want something, but also because my home airspace in the Washington, DC Tri-Area Class B and Special Flight Rules Area makes anywhere else seem simple by comparison. Again, no sale. I found another school, but I continue to wonder how the first one stays in business. I do not wonder why anyone in search of flight training might well find some other way to spend large sums of money.

There’s a lot of competition today for discretionary income, and there’s a lot less tolerance for the kind of experience too many potential pilots have when they walk through the door of the typical flight school. The high cost of flight training is certainly one factor in the declining pilot population, but it’s not the only factor. I’m not convinced it’s the primary factor, either. Treating potential pilots like valuable and valued customers is certainly a necessary start, and I could write a lot on that particular subject.

But if we want to reverse the declining pilot population, it’s not enough to treat potential customer-pilots well enough to enroll them in flight training. We also have to keep them in flight training, and keep them flying when they finish.

Here too, my experiences–by no means unique–may be illustrative. During my primary training, I was fortunate to have a fine instructor. The school used a respected commercial syllabus. I never had cause to worry about the airworthiness of the training fleet. Still, the overall approach to training was unimaginative, an exercise in marching through set maneuvers-based lesson plans that sometimes seemed irrelevant to my reasons for learning to fly. Even for a highly motivated, absurdly enthusiastic student like me, it was sometimes difficult to keep going.

When I did finish, the school seemed oblivious to the marketing axiom that keeping an existing customer is far less expensive than acquiring a new one. They sent me off with a cheery “congratulation–have fun–be safe” farewell, but I was basically on my own to figure out how to use my shiny new license to learn. If I had not independently set my next aviation goal for an instrument rating, which gave me a reason to go flying and, eventually, a reason to sign up for more flight training, I too might have drifted into the declining pilot population.

To that end, I think another key to reversing the declining pilot population lies in principles outlined in The Experience Economy (Pine and Gilmore, 1998). With apologies to the authors for oversimplification, the premise is that the focus of economic activity in the last century has evolved through agrarian, industrial, and service phases.

Economic value-added now comes from carefully structured, staged, and “mass-customized” experiences–think Disney World or Amazon–that offer positive and memorable experiences that the customer wants to repeat. Pine and Gilmore posit that the next and final phase of economic evolution is the “aspirational economy,” in which economic value-added comes from helping the customer achieve a personal aspiration in some area.

Now apply those concepts to flight training. Although scenario-based training is verbally in vogue, the existing model still largely markets flight training as a product (pilot certificate) and/or a service (training needed to obtain it). At the very least, though, flight training in today’s highly competitive market for discretionary income needs to be a carefully structured, staged, and customized set of positive learning experiences – experiences that fulfill a customer’s aspiration (e.g., self-improvement through acquisition of a new skill), contribute to another aspiration (e.g., fly my family to the beach next summer), and provide reasons to keep flying.

FAA Wings program

Can the FAA’s Wings program help keep pilots flying?

Here’s how an experience-oriented, scenario-based training program might operate for a potential pilot who wants to fly for vacation and business travel. At the very first meeting, the school ascertains the customer’s goals in learning to fly so as to understand, and meet, that person’s individual aspiration. The school then uses standard tools to create a “customized” training program and–this is important–explains and discusses that program with the customer-pilot. Since the first part of any flight training program is necessarily a maneuvers-based focus on attaining fundamental stick-and-rudder skills, the school should use this discussion to motivate by relating those maneuvers to the customer’s ultimate goal (e.g., you’ll need short-field landing skills to use XXX airport for family vacations).

As to what the rest of the program could entail, I have often thought flight schools are missing a real training and marketing opportunity in states that have a formal airport visitation program. In my state, flight schools could include the “aviation ambassador passport” booklet and a recommended training and post-training sequence of airports to visit in the enrollment package. Since some of these activities would qualify for FAA Pilot Proficiency Program (WINGS) credit, the school could include that information as well. During the cross-country phase, each dual and solo XC is part of the airport visitation program experience, with passport stamps and WINGS credits serving as visible evidence of achievement and progress.

When the customer-pilot finishes training, the school encourages use of WINGS and the recommended airport visitation sequence as a structured post-training reason to fly. Since some airports are more challenging, a discount on dual instruction for certain trips would not only encourage safe stretching of the fledgling pilot’s skills, but it would also give the new pilot and the flight school an opportunity to reconnect, thus bolstering both training and marketing relationships.

In my state, completion of the state airport visitation program (which also requires attendance at safety seminars) earns the pilot a nice leather jacket. Flight schools could create their own form of recognition for “ambassador-level” pilots, which could bolster pilot community camaraderie and provide another opportunity to connect with the customer-pilot. Since a pilot who has visited the entire set of airports is likely to have both enough XC hours for an instrument rating and an appreciation for its utility, it’s also a perfect time to offer an instrument training outline.

Modern educational theories have a lot to say about the importance of meaningful experience, personal relevance (aspiration), and “scaffolding” to support and strengthen the process of acquiring new knowledge and skills. I can’t help but think–or at least hope–that a flight training program that uses these principles for training and post-training support could do a lot to get ‘em flying … and keep ‘em flying, too.

About the author: Susan Parson is an active general aviation pilot and Master flight instructor in northern Virginia. She holds an ATP certificate, as well as ground and flight instructor certificates with instrument, single engine, and multi-engine land ratings. She instructs for her Leesburg-based C182 flying club and the Civil Air Patrol. Both for CAP and as editor of FAA Safety Briefing magazine, Susan has authored several online training courses and over 80 GA safety articles.

Susan Parson
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19 replies
  1. Edward Todd
    Edward Todd says:

    Agree. Much of this was addressed by us readers of yesterday’s column in the dozens o comments that followed. Dark, mysterious, unfriendly FBOs have probably turned many a potential pilot away frustrated, never to return. The actual schools may do better, but I would guess 90% of folks just walk into an FBO to inquire. And the person at the desk may not be at all interested in selling this person.

  2. Todd
    Todd says:

    I have talked to too many people who have experienced the same lack of interest from flight school employees when they inquired about flight training or aircraft rentals. In some cities that is okay because for the student or renter they can find someone else. But, too often there is not another provider who does want to earn their business and instead this person often walks away and tables their dreams for another time.

    These businesses are losing out on customers by not discussing what their customer wants to get out of flying and tailoring a solution for them.

    Great post!

  3. Edward Todd
    Edward Todd says:

    The EAA Young Eagles program is a great start. Introducing young kids to flying in small planes. But what about AFTER the free ride? They say it was fun and go home. Any good sales person will tell you, its all about the FOLLOWUP. Get their addresses, and some org needs to start sending them instructional and informative materials suited for 8-16 year olds. Keep them interested. Let them see it not just as a fun ride, but a real possibility of something they could do themselves and maybe even a career.

    • Bill
      Bill says:

      “Any good sales person will tell you, its all about the FOLLOWUP” That’s the problem with all of these “solutions” to the GA precipitous decline. Its all marketing and salesmanship oriented. Not fixing the problems of GA, but pulling the wool over the eyes of the prospect so they don’t see the 35 to 45 year old tired trainer with holy seats and trim, six dollar (or more) avgas, the antiquated instruction methods, unfriendly FBOs, the engines that need a manual mixture control and carb heat that cars haven’t had for 30 years, etc.

      Young people are brighter than we seem to give them credit for and most of them will see though this. Unless we FIX the problems of GA, GA is DEAD except for the high end who fly jets and turboprops without these problems, but will stumble on, zombie like for some unpleasant years to come.

  4. Dave
    Dave says:

    LSA has potential but many schools simply don’t support the concept. Availability is a real problem and there is lots of misinformation about restrictions, insurance requirements, etc. And for full sized Americans, the 1320 MTOW is a deal breaker.

  5. Pete
    Pete says:

    When you get the flying bug, you’ll put up with a LOT of problems to become a pilot. I know I did.

    Catching the bug is the key part.

  6. Brent
    Brent says:

    The FBOs make the difference. I grew up in a small town of 25000 people. We had a great airport, but the FBO owner wasn’t friendly to newbies. I taught there and flew very little – there were no students to be had.

    A guy with people skills bought the FBO and I flew 1000 hrs in a year teaching new guys to fly.
    It’s all about the FBOs!

    • Edward Todd
      Edward Todd says:

      Bingo Brent. I live in a university town that has 30,000 students. The number of those students driving BMWs, Mercedes, and the like are astounding. Money isnt an issue for some of them. Yet we just have a handful of part time CFIs here that might have at most 10 student pilots total. And some of them are adult, so its not many students at all. No one here is reaching out to the University community and making the sale. Out of 30k students there must be dozens or more that would get started at some level if they knew how easy it could be to drive 5 minutes to the nearby airport and fly on a pay as you go basis. Many think they have to have $8k in their pocket before starting. Not so.

  7. David St. George
    David St. George says:

    Thanks for the insightful article Susan. I have experienced the same terrible customer service at many flight schools. Most are embarrassing and deserve to fail! At the same time, all flight schools are increasingly in direct competition with a whole host of easily accessible recreational opportunities that ARE doing a great job marketing and offer immediate gratification; buy a boat and you can drive off in it with just some basic instructions!

    If aviation is going to survive and grow again we must “sell the sizzle” by making the advantages of aviation prominent and aggressively marketing the fun to a wider audience. Guiding and customizing the experience more carefully is also essential, we need life-long customers to grow aviation. Social media and a social experience are essential to bonding and keeping our pilot/clients; “flying clubs” or similar organizations are clearly the future. AOPA is on to this with their “Pathfinder Flying Club” project; more to come soon. Love your magazine!

    • Patrick
      Patrick says:

      David’s “selling the sizzle” comment is, in my opinion, more important than might be recognized. I just started PP flight training and I’m 65 years old. I am attracted to it because of a fascination with flying and aviation but just as important, because it isn’t easy.

      In my younger years I have been a whitewater kayaker and solo open boat whitewater paddler, rock climber and ice climber. Now, flying is more complicated but I would submit, all in, not all that much more expensive if you rent. Check out the costs to travel to whitewater streams, rock and ice climbing areas, or for that matter, skiing in a big way. Not lots of difference, particularly after the initial instruction cost to earn a private pilot license.

      Now, consider what seems to be attractive to young people and by that I mean, say, under 45 or 50. Well, it’s the activities I mention above, or similar things. Serious undertakings, not easy, a touch of risk, and roughly similar costs. As a renter anyway, these things characterize private pilot flying after the initial instruction.

      So yes, “sell the sizzle”. That’s what whitewater guides, climbing guides, and ski resorts do. David is exactly right.

  8. Rich
    Rich says:

    One thing I haven’t seen mentioned is the partner to the pilot, be it wife/husband, significant other, or whatever. If that person is not on the same wavelength with the pilot, then the pilot is severely restricted in doing the fun things after he/she gets their license. How I’ve yearned to go on some of the adventures I’ve read about, only to be told no because my partner gets airsick all the time. Dramamine, wristband pulsars, patches, herbal medicines, all the same thing – airsickness and an unhappy passenger. Doesn’t matter if it’s a C172 or a B767, same result.

    Many, many others have mentioned the same thing, their partners just won’t fly with them for a myriad of reasons – airsickness, fear of small planes, don’t like those tiny spam cans, etc., etc. I’d venture that only 15 – 20% of pilots have flying partners.

    The sales job becomes twice as hard.

    • Edward Todd
      Edward Todd says:

      Yes, my wife is the same. Is able to go for a short local flight maybe once a year when I can drag her out, but she really just can’t take the longer flights. I see those couples in the Cessna 150 clubs, and others, who fly together on long trips, and I would like that. But for now, flying is for me and my kids and grandkids. And mostly solo flights. Which is why being a renter is the best option.

      As I said in another thread:

      I think many keep talking about economics of ownership of a plane as a reason for the declining pilot population. Sure, I would love to own, but I’m a 500 hour pilot who still rents. So YES …. I can fly 3 or 4 hours a month for fun on nice days … take a weekend XC a couple times a year ….. and spend less than my neighbor with his year ’round sports like fishing, hunting and more.

      Don’t discourage potential pilots with too much negative talk about plane ownership economics. You can be a renter, let the FBO worry about maintenance, and just have fun. :)

  9. Whitney
    Whitney says:

    I was just thinking about this issue just the other day. I had gone to the local FAA testing center to take my ATP written. I have to say I was very disappointed at their lack of basic good business habits. I spent more than an hour in their “lobby” that day and other than someone eventually asking what I was there for nobody even said a word to me. When I paid for the exam and they asked if I had ever made a purchase there before and I said know they didn’t even ask why I had not been there before and if there was anything else they could do for me. It was a little disappointing as well that the only hint the school was there was one sign on the hangar by the street and in order to get to their lobby you had to go through a gate in a fence with lots of signs warning about unauthorized access. I have to wonder how much longer this industry can survive when we are fenced in and closed off from everybody else. Lets put out the welcome mats and put on some smiles and share the wonderful world of flying.

  10. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    I have been out of the game for a long time for various reasons, but I can remember how flight instructors were treated at flight schools. They were espected to sit around all day whether they had appointments or not and I thought that was inconsiderate of the FBO owners to treat their instructors in this way. No one should be expected to drive to the airport, hope for some business, and leave having only added wear and tear to the car and spent money on gas to drive there. It comes to me as no surprise that potential pilots are coming to the door, only to find people that just don’t care. If instructors were treated like the professionals they are, and FBO’s presented a more appealing environment, I think that would help draw some people into flying who would have otherwise been turned off. It’s time to stop the use of flight instructors as “slaves” and have them be at the airport only when they are scheduled to fly with someone. The FBO’s OWNER should be the one waiting for and working to find customers for his business. The instructor’s job should be to TEACH and not have to spend so much idle time not making any money during a long day at the airport.

  11. E. Harold Munn, Jr.
    E. Harold Munn, Jr. says:

    The common thread — the need to teach teachers how to teach! Good sylibi, properly used, are a “must!” I learned to fly despite the instructor — and it was in a Cessna 180 tail dragger. The best IFR/multi-engine refresher course was Flight Safety, Wichita, where the instructors had been taught “how” to teach, maximizing their use of limited time. Judicious time building in simulator plus affiliation with nearby college or university facilities can be a plus, providing substance, accreditation and control of expenses. Train the adjunct CFI’s to teach! Then you’ll see a marked uptick in student flyer interest. An FAA CFII ticket alone doesn’t make a good teacher!

  12. Mike
    Mike says:

    I learned to fly just 6 years ago at age 42….inspite of the local flight school rather than because of it. I’d had the bug since I was a kid, and finally was in a position to act on it. Sadly, it’s 6 years later and some days I wonder if it’s worth keeping up. I was lucky enough to come across a really good instructor about 15 years younger than myself. He didn’t like the local flight school or owner any more than I did, but he stuck it out with me until I finished. It helped that I bought a 30 yr old 172 during my training and could fly it anytime. The local flight school owner was even trying to find a way to charge me fees for using my own plane instead of his. While I completed my training, I saw at least 6 other students quit this school, utterly frustrated with their instructors, and tired of being screamed at in the cockpit. One instructo came to blows with a student who said he’d never get in an airplane with him again.
    I have done my bi-annual reviews with a retired United pilot, who recently died at age 94. Loved the guy. He knew things about flying that nobody else does anymore, and he couldn’t wait to share flying with as many people as possible–he was starting to teach me WWII celestial navigation. Best of all, everytime we got in the plane he would say “This is supposed to be fun. If we aren’t having fun, I’m coming back down and going home.” Now I have to figure out where to go in this community for my bi-annuals, and it’s a harder challenge than it should be. There are far too many CFI’s here who’s approach to students is “I’ve been flying since the stone age. What right do you have trying to break into my private little club? I’m going to discourage you in every way possible until you hate the idea of flying.”

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