Tag Archives: business

The High Cost of Flight Training

Its interesting to note folks views on the cost of flight training. On the one hand, some hold the view that the cost will be high, and its ok if it goes higher, and its ok if the pilot population shrinks. Others hold to the view that aviation is too expensive, and that if the costs could be reigned in, the pilot population is likely to grow. Both points of view are correct, within the confines of their respective market demographic.

Most assuredly if Walmart entered the flight training arena, and made it possible for eighteen year olds with minimum wage jobs to once again earn a pilots certificate the pilot population would grow. Whenever something heads towards commodity status, everything, and anything is on the chopping block if it doesnt contribute to the bottom line. It may mean an exceedingly spartan flight school, 50 year old aircraft, and few if any amenities, unless such are free, or very close to being free. It may mean their may not be very many rental aircraft available for full weekend trips, as a/c utilization must be very high in order to keep the fixed costs to a minimum.

By the same token, if folks want the latest and greatest gold plated experiences, and can afford to pay whatever the going price is, they are a lot less concerned with price, than they are the experience provided. Its likely such folks would the values provided by the latest and greatest avionics, the newest airplanes, the highest tech wx terminals both in air and on the ground of great value. Obviously, such individuals are unlikely to find much value should they encounter a flight school decorated with 1950’s vintage furniture, paint that hasnt been touched since that era, and the scents of an equally vintage cigar chomping pilot population flying the hanger. in addition, such folks would likely find a minimum charge of 8 hours hobbs as a minimum full day rental fee anathama.

Ultimately the issue is this… there are a multitude of markets, and one size/approach doesnt fit all. The lower end market is one that no one seemingly wants to touch anymore… but it was where money was made years ago. Yes, the allure of gold plate is there, and it can be easier to make substantial cash if the market is large enough to demand such, and most business schools focus on that aspect. On the other hand, when one looks at the churn of Boutique retail vs Big Box discounters and compares it to aviation, it does make one wonder.

The Web is not a Panacea

While there is some truth in this statement…. “Most people that look for something on the Internet use search engines like Google or Yahoo. If your site is one of the first that pops up when they enter “flight instruction salt lake city,” for example, you’re more likely to have the person visit your website, and give you a call if they like what they see.” The same could be said years ago for naming yourself AAA flight instruction to be first in the phone book, or having a large phone book ad etc…

A form of marketing such as the above is better than just sitting around waiting for the phone to ring, or someone to walk in the door… but only a tiny tiny bit better. Its the same deal with having a twitter or a facebook page, its just a tiny bit better than doing nothing, even though social media gurus likely would suggest otherwise.

Marketing takes work, short cuts dont cut it, no matter how new, or how well they are sold. Marketing also takes risk. Folks fail to see the risk of sitting around waiting for the phone to ring, the door to open, the facebook to get commented, or to be retweeted. Sitting around is perhaps the biggest risk, and one of the biggest reason flight schools dont have students… and also why aviation is so darn expensive.

This is not to say a flight instructor should not be available at the flight school, nor that one shouldnt use social media, nor have an entry in the phone book… but that simply doing the absolute minimum possible, and going back to sitting around and expecting results doesnt work out too well. I’ll go a bit further and say one should not dilute their efforts too much either. I’ve seen twitter profiles with 50 tweets abandoned, facebook pages with a month of entries, and no more, and blogs with 5 entries from 2 years ago. Such ends up a lot like that 4″ 2 column yellow pages ad… Its better than nothing, but its not going to bring in a ton of new customers either.

Consistent effort over the long haul is the answer, albeit testing and followup to see what works is critical. Just as one would not run 5 years of tv ads if they dont bring in business, neither should one pursue other marketing approaches if they cost more in time and effort than the customers they bring in the door.

Podcasting as a marketng and instructional tool

Podcasting is a tool a CFI can use to increase instructional efficiency, build business, and potentially provide an additional revenue stream.

First a definition. Podcasting , in its simplest terms is prerecorded and subscribable audio programs that can de downloaded from the internet and played on an Ipod, MP3 player, or even on ones pc through windows media player or numerous other programs. The subscription process is perhaps one of the big advantages that podcast provides, as contrasted with just a link to an audio file. The result for the user, is that new podcasts get loaded to their player device as they are published.

A great example of a CFI using a podcast is at The Finer Points . Jason Miller uses podcasting as a marketing, and an instructional tool. Per his web site, in less than 6 months, he has over 20,000 subscribers, and is expecting to reach 50,000 fans by the end of 2006. And unlike radio, and other media, podcasting is customer pull, as only people that want to hear your message will sign up for it. In addition, in perusing his forum, he has listeners all over the world.

As an instructional tool, one could augment a ground school course with a review of the prior lesson via podcasting. Repetition, one of the laws of learning is often difficult in ground school courses, due to time constraints, and the individual needs of ones students. With a podcast of the material covered, a student that is having difficulty trying to comprehend the material has yet another avenue for review, perhaps even while they are exercising, or driving to work. In addition, topics to be covered in a flight lesson or ground school could be introduced via podcast as well. Now, this does not replace the pre-lesson briefing, but by having a student listen to a podcast prior to a lesson, they may have time to formulate some questions during the pre-lesson briefing.

In addition, ones skills as an orator will no doubt improve as you create podcasts. Listening to yourself while editing a podcast can be an incredibly humbling experience, and as a result, one will make improvements to ones technique.

As a side benefit, podcasts can be a marketing tool. Adverstising in the traditional sense is a major pig in a poke, and it can become incredibly expensive. Podcasting is extremely low cost, other than some nominal fees for hosting, and the time commitment needed to create them. Pocasting also allows you to control the frequency of exposure. One is free to podcast as frequently, or infrequently as ones desire, which is impossible in traditional advertising. It also is highly focused, being that podcasts are customer pull, vs company pushed. Thus out of one’s subscriber base, excluding user error, and people who unsubscribe after a single podcast, all subscribers are interested in what you have to say. Talk about highly targted marketing! In addition, ones podcast focus can be on education, and the marketing benefits come along for a free ride.

Podcasting can also be used as an additional revenue stream, although monetization in this arena is still up in the air. One can charge others for short sections of commercial content, or one could even create a premium podcast offering focused on a specific niche for a fee.

Aircraft Utilization – running a flight school

If I compare aircraft utilization today, to the early 80’s, it is sad, really sad. I think too many flight schools have their rates cranked way up. They are failing to reach a decent level of aircraft utilization, and in order to remain viable, are passing the fixed costs on to their students with high hourly rates.

An aircraft on the ground is like leaving your wallet open to the wind. Sure, some of the time, it can’t be helped due to weather or maintenance issues. Otoh, with proper marketing, management, and weather most aircraft should be flying 100 hours/month at a minimum, and 200 is golden. So now, that folks think I’m crazy, or that this can only occur at an air college program, lets get on with how to make it work.

First of all, maintenance: 100 hour inspections and all maintenance can be scheduled at night, thus minimizing flight interruptions. We used to start 100 hour inspections in the late afternoon/early evening Unless we ran into parts problems, most of the time we were done by 2AM. Since we did 100 hour inspections every 2-3 weeks, we would document items that were getting worn, such that they could be replaced at the next 100 hour, or in the next 200 hours depending on the wear rate. This kept us from having to stock lots of tires, brake parts, and other consumable maintenance items.

Secondly, pre-scheduling. Unlike today, we would have our students schedule the airplane for more than just the next lesson. This alone, kept the schedule pretty full.

Thirdly, night flight: There is no reason not to teach instrument flying at night, and to include significant night dual during the later hours of private pilot training. It keeps the aircraft available for VFR students, and intro flights during the daylight hours. In addition, for most students, proficiency at night operations really solidifies their day operations. Of course this is a matter of instructor judgement… but I will tell you that doing 720 degree turns at night as a 15 hour student pilot, sure made it a lot easier to do them during the daytime hours.

Fourth, sell, sell, and sell some more: One days when the weather was bad, it was time to get on the horn and make 10-20 calls. We’d call potential students, current students, and students who had completed training. These were not scripted activities, but more a check in sort of like “this is Ron from Valley Aviation, hows it going, how was your last flight, how are the kids etc, followed up by some banter, and then asking if they would like to schedule some recurrent training, or try out a new aircraft, or if nothing else, sn invite to stop on out, have some coffee, and fly the hanger.

Fifth hanger flying: Our hanger had people there from 7AM-7PM most of the time… . The coffee, and the atomic bomb shelter candy, and donuts were always available. (Although the coffee generally was not too good after 2PM!). It was always interesting to come back and find out some of our students were doing the selling for us… The local police, and business owners of the community often times would stop in for a chat every few days. What this did was create an aviation community across a wide spectra of society. It might be the 15 year old kid one day, talking to a retired grey beard, or a big corp wheel taking with a farmer, but all had this one goal in mind, flying. I think too many FBO’s go the corp way today, and their is no oppurtunity for the hanger to be flown… and it does affect aircraft utilization, and the financial performance of the flight school.

Sadly, what i see today in aviation is a lack of proactive marketing such as occured 20 years ago. The flight school no longer has the high utilization rates, so it has to raise hourly rates to cover the fixed costs. This in turn keeps many of the 15 year olds away from the airport, and its a serious deterrant to the young man with a familiy.

However, should a flight school market aggresively, their is still a huge potnential to make money in the business. I just don’t understand why it doesn’t happen anymore. Has time building become such a focus that business no longer matters to CFI’s? Sure, a CFI doesn’t like making $8-$10/hour to make coffee, cold call, pump fuel, answer phones, wrench planes, clean the john, or do whatever, just to be on site. However, the same CFI is going to be the one with a full plate of students in short order, as he was there to sell. Ask yourself, who makes a better flight school salesman, a CFI, or the line guy who has 4 airplanes backed up, or the receptionist who is trying to hold the place together, or the manager/owner who has his own plate full… Its the CFI, the one who can do all the grunt work as needed, yet stop in an instant to talk with a potential client should one walk in the door. Its the CFI who is cleaning the floor that can pop in with a quick answer to the guys flying the hanger, that gets 3 new students for a proficiency training program. Its the CFI who was there, when a fellow CFI’s student had a bad day, and needed a confidence boost, rather than to give up.

Such actions are true professionalism, and are not demeaning in the least… unless of course, you don’t want to make money in the flight school business. Then it may be fine to be on call, show up just for a few students now and then, and provide no help whatsoever to all the other people that make a flight school successful. Its your choice, what shall you do?
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