Building a Market
Finding students, setting rates, and securing instructors are among flight school challenges
BY Monica L. Rausch, Associate Editor
OSHKOSH, WI - Behind the anonymity of an online name, Internet browsers interested in flying are relating their flight training woes to Greg Brown, author of The Savvy Flight Instructor and host of an America Online forum on aviation careers and training.
In the emails he has received, three main problems for the flight training industry stand out, according to Brown.
1. "Our local people in our local communities don't know that they can come four miles to our airport and learn to fly."
2. "We're still fighting these perceptions that if you wear glasses and you're older than 19, you don't have the hair-trigger reflexes that are required (to fly)."
3. Potential customers are confused by the rates and options offered by flight schools, and in their confusion, they fear they are being "ripped off."
Brown, an instructor himself and contributing editor to Flight Training Magazine, and Warren Smith, VP of operations for Flightstar Corporation of Savoy, IL, shared insights on how to address these problems with attendees of the Flight Training Business Success Seminar organized jointly by the National Air Transporation Association (NATA), the Wisconsin Bureau of Aeronautics, and the Wisconsin Aviation Trades Association.
Smith and Brown offered marketing strategies and rate-setting techniques, and touched on how to deal with another industry headache, a shortage of flight instructors.
Flight school managers should keep in mind that when they are competing for the target group of potential pilots — typically males, ages 25 to 50, earning enough to have plenty of disposable income — they are competing with yacht clubs, snowmobile purchases, or other "entertainment" expenses, says Brown.
"This particular group of people is looking for fun and adventure, and the dollars are going to go to some fun and adventure activity, so if we don't look like fun and adventure, we're going to lose this competition, and it's not going to be because the outfit across the field is $75 less than the quote."
Brown says the question is not which company will they learn to fly with, but rather, will they learn to fly at all. Adds Smith, "Flight training companies are not competing for market share; they're attempting to create a market."
Besides advertising, Brown says there are other ways to increase a flight school's visibility and make people aware a school exists in their area.
1. Print up colorful, eye-catching business cards for instructors; he says 1,000 full-color cards cost about $135.
2. Sell hats, lapel pins, or T-shirts to instructors and students who will then wear them in the community.
3. Send "Thank you" cards to those who have done introductory flights; sign them up for Flight Training Magazine, so it comes every month to remind them of training.
4. Send press releases to the local paper about prominent members of the community who soloed for the first time or earned a certificate.
5. Frame solo certificates, so they may be placed in students' offices or homes where others will see them; have a monthly ceremony, which family and friends attend, to award certificates.
Managers shouldn't ignore children as possible customers; ground school or aviation activities designed for children can be profitable, says Brown. "Numerically, this is a very large market...There's no law that you can't make money without an engine running."
Flight schools can also offer glider programs in which children can solo at age 14. Ultralights and gliders, paired with recreational licenses, can be stepping stones to flight training in powered aircraft for customers of all ages, notes Brown.
And, since 80 percent of a company's business comes from existing customers, according to Brown, "it's worth it to go through old files," to call students who stopped coming. Managers can find out what happened to turn them off to flight training and discover what can bring them back.
Selling a service
Flight schools typically run into marketing problems, says Smith, because they are selling an "invisible" product, a service. It's tough to price since the value of flight training lies in the customer's perception. It's hard to guarantee since every student is different and also difficult to maintain consistency with the high amount of customer contact and the strong relationships that form between instructor and student.
To tackle these problems, Smith and Brown note that flight schools need to be specific about what they are offering to alleviate confusion and build value in the eyes of potential customers. Basically, customers want to know (1) how can they become pilots and (2) how much it will cost. When someone calls to inquire about flight training, often they are bombarded with all the options included in a program plus the discounts without being given a straightforward answer.
"They're getting what they perceive to be a Chinese menu full of options, and they can't compare two different flight schools....We're losing them before they can even communicate with anyone who can sell them on flying."
Smith recommends having the customer speak to someone specifically assigned to sales to spell out prices and clinch the deal. Also, his flight school breaks training down into manageable steps: an introductory flight; a preview course on flight basics; a solo course leading up to the student's solo certificate; a "flight adventure course" which includes the cross-country training; and the final course which prepares a student for the exam.
Naming a price
Smith has a few general recommendations on setting rates in the flight training industry:
1. Don't base pricing on logic; "Flight training is often an emotional purchase."
2. Beware of middle-pricing. "If you're in the middle, you're saying you're average."
3. Low pricing is historically "a death sentence. There's nothing unique about being inexpensive. All it takes is for one person to come in and price a dollar under you."
He suggests adopting a "profitability mentality ... In a competitive market, the natural tendency is toward price cutting...Just say to heck with those guys and be profitable."
"If there was ever a time to increase the quality of service and increase our compensation as a result of that, now is the time," says Brown.
"Customers should complain about your prices, or you're not charging enough," adds Smith.
Smith says managers can "build fences" by charging different amounts for different types of instruction, such as advanced or multi-engine. Instructors with more ratings or experience can also charge more.
A dearth of instructors
Since good flight instructors are becoming scarce, Smith says schools should always be interviewing to develop a relationship with available instructors; once a position opens up, the school has several instructors to call. Other suggestions include...
...hiring for spirit, not skill; skill can be taught.
...hiring a "good person" when one comes along, whether there is a position open or not. "A good person pays for themselves."
...setting a goal to interview one candidate a month.
...considering a mix of full- and part-time instructors.
...using ex-instructors with lapsed medical certificates to teach ground school.
Also, Smith notes that instructors usually go through a cycle in employment: First, they are eager to fly and always at the airport; then they begin to get "burned out" and show up just when they need to; and finally, they start avoiding work. From the start of employment, Smith gives his instructors two consecutive days off every week where they cannot come to the airport. Instructors are less likely to burn out, he says.