In a rising market, companies look at marketing activities, pricing strategies, and retaining instructors
BY Monica L. Rausch, Associate Editor
An informal survey of flight schools around the country indicates good times for many. Some reasons: a good economy, an increase in hiring at the airlines, improved advertising, and programs initiated with community colleges.
Here's what reporting companies are doing to attract student starts and rate-setting methods they employ.
Seminars and Aviation days
Warren Smith, flight training manager of Flightstar Corporation in Savoy, IL, says his company gets involved in "Wannabe" seminars started by the Illinois director of aeronautics three years ago. The seminars, held in conjunction with the local Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) chapter, teach those with an interest in flying how to take the first steps toward becoming pilots. Before each seminar, Smith sends out press releases about the program. One seminar attracted the attention of the local television station, which came to the airport to cover the event.
"It's not only helped us get new students but improved our relations with the clubs and EAA chapters," reports Smith.
A few schools participate in an aviation day or an airport open-house program to advertise their services. "We put the flight training airplanes on display and the flight training ground school on display and encourage anyone who has an interest in aviation to come out," says Richard Casler, general manager of Lubbock Aero in Lubbock, TX.
Casler also participates in charity fundraisers in the community, donating free hours of flight to be auctioned off or given as prizes during the events.
Chris Ellis, flight instructor for Northwest Aero Services, Inc., in Enid, OK, says his company participates in local events and festivals. During the Christmas season, he offers flights to see Christmas lights, which has garnered him some students.
Getting students off the ground
Some companies attract students with the ground school program, sometimes running it through a local community college. "We encourage people to get started that way because it's an inexpensive way to learn what aviation is about," says Chaz Hunt, chief pilot and instructor at Oakland (CA) Flyers.
Smith says his ground school is run "with the idea of we're not going to try to teach these people everything there is to know about (a) private pilot's license and get their license.
"A lot of people ... won't sign up for flight lessons, but they'll sign up for ground school right away. What we've found is if we try to make it a full-blown test prep course, after about the third week, about 50 percent of the people have dropped out, and they just don't come back. But when we just say forget about the requirements, let's have fun, and while we're doing it maybe learn a few things about airplanes and aviation and what this is all about, it kind of opens their eyes a little."
He says instructors still follow the ground school syllabus and the company has computer programs available for practicing the written test.
Albert Beckwith, president of Commercial Aviation Corporation in Stow, OH, offers ten lessons a year for five years for children in grades 6-11. By the time they're 16, students are ready to pass the written test and primed for flight.
He also markets to business professionals. "We teach them how to economically and profitably utilize their time by flying an airplane for their business use," says Beckwith.
Targeting overseas markets
Those who cater to international students usually do so through former students or contacts outside the U.S., websites, or in trade magazines like Flight Training International. "We get more inquiries after a very modest ad in that publication, and more direct results out of that than any other advertising that we do that we can see tangible benefits from," explains John Brown, general manager of Mizzou Aviation in Joplin, MO. About ten percent of his students are international.
Zakk Razaq, chief flight instructor for Airgo, Inc., of Centralia, IL, says through former students and word of mouth, "we've established a lot more contacts out there and representatives." Representatives work on commission. He says about 98 percent of Airgo's students come from outside the U.S.
Most companies contacted report seeing a few of the $35 coupons for an introductory flight from Be A Pilot, the aviation industry's learn-to-fly marketing effort.
"We get very few coupons, but the ones that we do get seem to be extremely good prospects, and typically without fail they sign up for lessons and spend quite a bit of money," says Smith.
Some flight school representatives note that they had hoped to garner more than just a few coupons. "I think there's something lacking within the Be A Pilot program," says Beckwith.
Pricing: profitable VS. competitive
That $35 introductory flight can be a bargain at some schools or be right on the money at others. Rates seem to vary by location as well as by the company's pricing strategy.
"There's still a lot of people out there that don't have the realization of profitability, and, as a result, they don't charge enough for their airplanes," says Beckwith.
Smith says his company has raised its rates and is finding that the industry can support them. "I think our rates have gone up quite a bit in the past couple of years, but it doesn't seem to have affected our businesss.
"I think we've just decided to break away from the industry standards a little bit and just set our rates at where they need to be for the department to be profitable, rather than feeling like we have to match everybody else's rates."
Caudell says his operation's rates are set strictly on profit. "We don't care how much money other people lose, we just don't want to lose any," he notes.