Category Archives: Business Operations

Aviation as a Public Good / Socialism

There is this meme going around of a super rich guy updating a 747 with nearly obscene amenities. I say, hey, if you want to throw money around like that, and you don’t mind the headaches and wastafe, good for you… alas, another point of view is that spending with abandon is morally inferior and as such taxes need to be increased to at least put the brakes on doing so. The thing is, there is a much bigger issue at stake, and that is the issue of socialism / the public good vs a fee for service model as a means of funding.

The nations aviation infrastructure, a socialistic driven system, was built on other peoples money via some pretty high taxes over many decades… but in todays world, socialism is considered a grave evil, unlike the era of decades past, where it was also considered a grave evil, but with an exception carved out for govt funding of specific things for the public good. Alas, the public good model is getting slammed in a huge way today, and not without good reason. A couple big issues.

1, First, a few overly entitled wealthy individuals lobbied municipalities to build gold plated airports as a means of economic development. If said development activity came to light and was sustainable, ok, but far too often, its transient, leaving the local aviation community and taxpayers holding the bag for gold plating no one needs, often for decades. This often times puts aviation, which should be a public good in an evil place… which leads to…

2. No one wants to pay taxes anymore, even those who have built their enterprise often times with serious infrastructure support provided by uncle sam, at no, or very limited direct cost. The saying, I have mine, screw you rings very true in this. Many sacrifices were made by the greatest generation to get us to where we are today… and now that some have done very well, they no longer want to pay anywhere close to what the prior generations did to help them get there. There is a real push for fee for service, rather than socialism (ie aviation as a public good funded by fuel taxes as well as general revenue at the local, state, and fed levels as has been the case for many decades).

To add insult to injury Government has been complicit in this, throwing other peoples money around like it grows on trees… and being more than willing to gold plate things and/or offer govt guaranteed monopoly status for campaign donations.

As a pilot, a prior aviation business owner, and a user of Uncle Sams aviation services since the early 80’s, there is no way I could have accomplished anywhere near what I did had it not been for the aviation as a public good model. Such a model is one of the reasons why aviation is still somewhat viable in the US, as contrasted with much of the world which relies on the fee for service model.

Granted, one can argue that today’s world of global competition should obsolete the aviation as a public good model as its just too expensive. On the other hand, imagine what a few decades of fee for service could do to the substantial public investments we currently have… is trashing the investments of the greatest generation really worth the tax savings that might come about from doing so?

Would it not be better to surgically go in, and slash and burn the waste, the gold plating, and the monopolies? Such could save a boat load of money, and at the same time maintains very useful services… but this means campaign donors will squeal in a huge way.

I think some major squealing is a small price to pay, but then again I’m not running for office.

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.

Team Instruction Part 1 (going with the flow)

Virtually every place I have worked for over the years has engaged in team instruction. It could be a formal phase check with a different instructor. If could be a way of keeping the student on track when their primary CFI was out sick, on a charter, or otherwise unavailable. In other cases, it can be used to get a student through a learning plateau. Its a great way to foster a well rounded student through diversity of instructional techniques.

Communication and consistancy are key. As CFI’s we all have different ways of doing things, and in some cases, we may even consider one CFI’s approach to be totally wrong… However, we have to take a big picture view of this, and that is consistency for the students sake, even if it goes against our personal opinions and bias.

For example, I have always taken a dim view of 30 minute preflights. Other instructors seem to be pleased with such an approach. Now, if I’m working at a school that advocates a 30 minute preflight, then thats what I will teach to my primary students. If I’m working at a school that has a no lean policy below 5000 feet, then I will teach leaning as an academic exercise only. I will however take up these somewhat unusual practices with the chief instructor, or the owner in private. Their may be reasons why they wish to do these things. Such reasons may only be old wives tails, or they may be valid given other extenuating factors. Either way, they are the one paying the tab, and professionalism suggests I follow their lead even if I disagree. Of course this does not preclude going along with blatantly unsafe operating practices, nor breaking the law in order to please the boss.

The reason for this is not to be a wimp, but to provide a consistant and unified instructional environment for the student. Once they have their certificate or rating, at that time, if the owner of the flight school agrees, we can go into different ways of approaching flying. I think it is critical for every CFI candidate to be exposed to a wide variety of instructional and procedural techniques.

Continue reading Team Instruction Part 1 (going with the flow)

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?
Continue reading Aircraft Utilization – running a flight school