Much of the blame for general aviation’s current weakness falls on flight schools. An AOPA study found the dropout rate among student pilots as high as 80% at some flight schools. But while miracle cures abound, from all-simulator training to new airplanes to different training styles, we thought we would check in with a flight school that is successful in today’s tough market. Sporty’s Academy President Eric Radtke says his school is busier than ever, and it doesn’t require huge investments or gimmicks. His school’s 100% student completion rate backs it up.
John was a confident, successful businessman whose sights were set on earning a pilot certificate. Flying his own airplane was something that had always been in the back of John’s mind, and the prospect of purchasing a light airplane for business use was the practical nudge needed to bring John to his local airport for flying lessons.
Already overloaded with commitments (work, family, hobbies, etc.), he took lessons only when his busy schedule meshed with that of the instructor he had been assigned. Needless to say, John never really gained any traction or continuity in his training. Worse, he never was able to develop a meaningful relationship with any flight instructor, given the predictably short tenure of most of the staff. Accustomed to success in so many other areas of his life, John became frustrated by his lack of progress and gravitated to other interests competing for his time and discretionary dollars.
On this particular day, though, John’s typically neat appearance and serious demeanor were replaced with a slightly disheveled look, some beads of sweat across his brow, and an air of tremendous satisfaction. John had just completed his first solo flight at Sporty’s–the traditional three laps around the traffic pattern with full-stop landings in the utterly tranquil environment of an instructor-less cockpit. I was there following his third landing, and knowing his history and how important this day was to him, I offered my sincerest congratulations along with about twenty other flight school employees and fellow students. A round of applause and some pats on the back were exactly what John needed to know that he was indeed a valued member of the Sporty’s community and that so many shared in the pride of his accomplishment.
Later, we cut John’s shirttail, displayed it at the flight school for a few weeks, then framed it to create a memento John will cherish forever. In addition, it will be a great marketing tool when people ask him about the framed shirttail with the markings, “First Solo, June 12, Clermont County Airport.”
John journeyed back to aviation in response to a description of “finish-up” programs at Sporty’s flight school–Sporty’s Academy. The description wasn’t fancy, but it offered a service that responded to John’s individual needs. By taking into account his past experiences and end goal, Sporty’s formulated a plan of action to see him through to his pilot certificate in a timely manner.
We believe that John’s success was the result of a collection of strategies we have implemented at Sporty’s Academy. After examining areas of our business that needed improvement, we took ownership of the total training experience by nurturing a company-wide appreciation for the fact that providing a quality product with broad appeal trumps any marketing campaign—and you don’t have to write a check!
Here is what we do to create a positive, customer-centric experience:
Modular Training – manageable goals make it fun and keep training focused
Modern consumers are seeking less commitment, not more. Sporty’s extensive experience in aviation education, including more than 20 years managing its own flight school, demonstrates that customers learn most effectively when the training process is divided into manageable steps. These steps, or modules, should connect to previous information, creating a building-block approach to pilot experiences, ultimately saving time and money. For a practical application of this principle, consider that regardless of one’s ultimate goal in flying, everyone must solo. So focus training efforts on this most important milestone and be open to what the next step may be.
In simpler times, the private license was the “gateway” certificate, allowing a pilot to add “advanced degrees,” such as an instrument rating, as it became necessary. However, the requirements are greater for the private certificate today than for a commercial certificate half a century ago. For many people, this is more than what they need to accomplish their aviation goals.
A private certificate alone may take at least 6 months and 70+ hours of flying time. The journey is filled with ups and downs before a pilot is able to begin enjoying the fruits of his/her labor. Today, a more reasonable approach, and an approach more likely to result in success, is to aim for the solo first and then to utilize the recreational or sport pilot certificate as the gateway.
Pilot candidates pursuing these licenses learn how to control the aircraft, master simple navigation techniques, and safely take off and land on a nice afternoon. Once certified, they can show a friend his house from the air, look at the mountains, view the city, or cruise over a beach–in other words, experience the simple pleasures of flight that likely attracted them to aviation in the first place.
The sport or recreational training curriculum helps to develop habits and instincts that will increase a pilot’s likelihood of success in more advanced training courses and will allow that pilot to build valuable PIC experience along the way. Flight experience may be credited toward advanced privileges, so enjoying the moment contributes to the next goal.
Pilot training is a very personal experience, and each individual will need to consider how he/she learns most effectively and what best fits with long-term goals and current lifestyle. There is no wrong answer to how one begins. The important first step: get to the initial solo.
Finish-Up Programs – give identity to something you already do
Finish-up or completion programs are a marketer’s dream, as these customized course offerings are generally nothing more than taking something you likely are doing already and giving it a face and a name. If you believe (or even partially believe) the troubling statistics regarding retention rates at flight schools, there’s a massive market of consumers who have already identified themselves as likely candidates for a pilot certificate. At some point in the past, they took the time to come to an airport and seek training. Somewhere along the way, for reasons unimportant now, they did not reach that goal.
Simply identifying yourself as an instructor or flight school that recognizes this student as unique, in terms of past experience, demonstrates confidence and understanding; however, it would be a disservice to deliver this message if you weren’t committed to seeing it through.
Patience, persistence and flexibility must be in your skill set to make this training work for your customers. Instructors must be adaptable, and management supportive, to deliver a dynamic strategy in a generally narrow window of opportunity. Further, our experience has shown that if a customer’s departure from a previous flight school was the result of a negative experience (which it often is), more counsel and encouragement may be necessary than with a traditional student. Schedules must remain fluid; and it’s imperative, as in any training program, to adhere to a written syllabus to ensure that any instructor can step in to take responsibility for the training program with no noticeable disruption.
Simulation Integration – used the right way, this will enhance the flight training experience
A great deal of attention has been given to the benefits of simulation. In the Midwest, where Sporty’s Academy is located, it is a vital tool to success and to continuity of training, especially during the winter months when cloudy, flightless days can linger for weeks.
It doesn’t have to entail elaborate devices and hours of programming, but a plan for the use of simulation is a must. A simple list of tasks, maneuvers, or even complete lessons from your current syllabus will create a simulation package for the simplest of devices. A menu of training tasks provides enough autonomy to allow instructors to create unique learning experiences for their students, but with sufficient structure to keep training focused and within the established curriculum and company guidelines.
The tougher task is determining the right mix of flight and simulation. While the choice may seem fairly obvious if the weather outside doesn’t permit an aircraft lesson, keep in mind that most of your students are at the flight school to fly aircraft, not simulators. The key is to be mindful of your students’ individual needs and motivation. Flight simulation is certainly not a one-size-fits-all program, and despite the promise of cost savings, previous AOPA research suggests that consumers may not be quite as price sensitive as you might think. Remember, the universal language of product/service appeal is not dollars, but value.
Community atmosphere – make the airport a destination
The airport has to be a fun place to visit or guess what? They won’t come! There are several easy, high-impact strategies to employ that won’t cost a dime.
Ensure that your students know their way around campus so it doesn’t look and feel like a strange place when they return for the second lesson. Make introductions to other staff and students and emphasize that the airport is a place to come anytime–not just on lesson day. You don’t want the airport to be perceived solely as a training location.
A) You want your students coming to the airport to fly (sounds more fun than to train).
B) Your students will be much better equipped for success knowing they’re part of the group and not an outsider.
The airport should be a place where a flight student can meet friends; learn about the success, motivation and even struggles of others; and garner support from like-minded individuals. It also must be a welcoming place to non-aviators who may be part of that student’s support network (friends and/or family). A comfortable, inviting and clean facility will enhance the airport experience for visitors and encourage them to return, even participate. You have the opportunity to create lifelong airport advocates who will recommend your school and facility.
Fly-ins, open houses, seminars and other social events provide venues to attract customers, disseminate information, and learn more about the needs of the aviation community. Slightly less personal, but vitally important, is utilizing your website, electronic communications and/or blogs to serve the same ongoing purpose. These media outlets can offer encouragement to would-be aviators and reminders to everyone about what’s happening at your airport.
Equally important is taking advantage of social media platforms, which allow customers to interact, share ideas and experiences, and celebrate their accomplishments. While it may seem like a monumental task to manage Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Google+, and Pinterest accounts, the fact is that it has already become an expectation of customers to be able to communicate and interact via these outlets. Social media outlets also offer prime space to provide recognition of accomplishments and milestones. Today, we mustn’t expect our customers to be where we want them to be; rather, we need to be everywhere our customers are.
More about John…
After John’s impromptu solo celebration in the lobby, news of his accomplishment and related pictures were distributed not only to local media outlets (many of which have online submission forms and appreciate the content), but also to social media outlets and directly to John, with the recommendation that he share them with friends and family. His picture, marking the occasion, still hangs on the “solo” wall, very close to a more recent picture of his checkride celebration.
Renewing your focus in flight training on the customer doesn’t require a brand manager or marketing consultant to be successful. Review your procedures and processes with a critical eye or even enlist the help of a non-aviator to gather feedback on what your customer’s expectations should be when they walk through the door.
A healthy exercise is to examine your personal interaction with other businesses across a variety of consumer products and services. Create lists of positive and negative experiences and determine which of those positive experiences can be replicated in some manner in flight training. Equally important is how to avoid the unpleasant experiences.
The first step in becoming a customer-centric entity is an honest acknowledgement of areas requiring improvement. The second is an organization-wide commitment to positive change.