Pilots are a population in decline. We are getting old and resting our wings, and it saddens me no end to watch the industry trawl yesterday’s fishing grounds for tomorrow’s pilots, most of whom have moved on to places unknown.
It’s almost as though general aviation is motoring toward the future with its eyes firmly focused on the rear view mirror. As good as it was, the 20th century is over, and it’s never coming back. Information rules in the 21st century, and what the GA does not know about its potential customers has always been its undoing.
In times past and present pilots don’t really exist until they have a student pilot certificate. This gets them into the FAA system, the only industry-wide source of population numbers. But here’s the rub: students don’t need a certificate until they solo. Until they acquire that piece of paper they’ve been invisible customers for six days, six months, or six years.
In the 21st century, making the count with a medical certificate is pretty much worthless information. Yes, it counts “active” pilots, but it misses those who don’t need medicals, sport pilots and those who fly balloons and gliders. Right now all GA knows is that the FAA issued these pilots a certificate, and that’s it.
What GA doesn’t know is the information that would enable the GA equivalent of Amazon or Netflix to recommend products and services tailored to individual interests. It doesn’t know what brought pilots to aviation, what kind of flying they do, what kind they would like to do, and how well the industry has been serving their needs.
Equally important is knowing how many customers left–and why–before getting their medical and seeing their way through to solo. And how many quit–and why–before taking their checkride.
Let’s face it, this century has replaced the dream of unlimited resources and growth with the reality of finite resources of all kinds. No industry–no business–can afford to alienate customers. They avoid it by learning everything they can about those they serve. If GA is going to have a future, it must do the same.
I can hear the chorus wailing now: This is impossible!
Hardly. If Amazon, Netflix, my Toyota service department, and the cigar shop can track my buddy’s favorite smokes, GA can do it. What may be impossible is the necessary cooperation and coordination among industry competitors obsessively focused on getting a bigger piece of a shrinking pie.
A Pilot Information Cooperative might be a good place to start. Those who contribute information about GA’s customers have access to it. The PIC’s inaugural members should be those who have first contact with prospective pilots, like AOPA’s Project Pilot and EAA’s Young Eagles. Getting flight schools (through NATA) and CFIs (through NAFI) on board is critical because they make GA’s first impression on newcomers.
There’s no denying that there are myriad details to address to make a PIC work, but in the 21st century, one need not look far to find a master of information technology and a customer relationship management guru willing to help save an industry.
And, yes, it would cost money. But over the past several decades how much has GA spent on past fishing trips like Be A Pilot, Learn to Fly, and all those that came before? At least this investment would offer better chances of catching–and keeping–new members of the pilot population. –Scott Spangler