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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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