Every industry effort to increase the pilot population, from Learn-to-Fly and Be-A-Pilot to the upcoming International Learn to Fly Day, has the same weak link that keeps a program from reaching its full potential: the flight schools, and their instructors, that must make the sale.
Before condemning CFIs for letting the aviation industry down, consider this, says Gary Bradshaw, president of Pilot Journey (left, with Mary Ann Rymer, at its kiosk in the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh Learn-to-Fly Discovery Center), a flight instructor and former flight school owner: “Being a flight instructor is a career path they’ve chosen, either to be a professional CFI or to build experience to follow another pilot career path. They never said I want to be a marketing professional.
“When I was a flight instructor, I sucked at [marketing], too,” Bradshaw says without apology. “I could not do what I wanted to. I had to start a company that focused on this aviation niche because my time was split.” Pilot Journey started in 2001 “with me in a bedroom, and now there are 14 of us” who provide the outreach marketing needs of more than 400 flight schools.
Pilot Journey sells $129.95 Discovery Flights, which include a two CD-ROM prep kit, on its website and does all the follow-up marketing, which includes surveys to both the school and customer, at no cost to participating schools. “We make our money on the Discovery Flights, and schools get $90″ to cover their operating costs, Bradshaw says. Prospects are Pilot Journey customers until they enroll in training.
Every aspect of the Pilot Journey program is based on statistics gathered through trial and error marketing. The Discovery Flight price point is a good example, Bradshaw says. Pilot Journey tried everything from $69 to $159. Follow-up email surveys showed that $100 separated one-time adventurers from serious prospects. At less than $100 one in 10 started training; at $129 it’s one in four, he says.
Suggesting better business practices is a value-added service. Flight instructors are passionate about aviation and want everyone to share the joy of flying. “Everything is expensive to them because they don’t make a lot of money, so they feel they have to make flying cheaper. But schools really need to be more concerned with making money and staying in business to serve those who can afford to become a pilot,” Bradshaw says, speaking from hard-learned lessons.
Pilot Journey reaches this target market in ways not often seen in aviation. Banging on HR doors are large companies like Kraft Foods and Ralston-Purina has added a Discovery Flight to the list of corporate rewards for middle and upper managers who make $100,000 or more, Bradshaw says.
“An individual school would never do that. I wouldn’t either if I was an individual school. I wouldn’t hop on a plane to meet with American Express for two days. (When the new catalog comes out you’ll see a Pilot Journey Discovery Flight as a reward program for your Amex card.) But Pilot Journey has 411 Discovery Flight Centers across the country where they can redeem their certificates. That magnitude helps us help the local school.”
That help includes the results of the 20-question online survey customers complete to get their Pilot Journey certificate of accomplishment. The questions quantify the Discovery Flight experience and each is worth so many points, Bradshaw says. Points awarded for customer service, CFI preparation, and whether the flight met expectations adds up to a “quality score or Q rating” that goes to the school.
“We also compare that Q score across 400 schools [to learn] what traits are resulting in the most new student starts,” information Pilot Journey shares with all schools . “We keep a record, a point system on all of our schools, and we can tell you who’s doing well and who’s not doing well.”
Everyone who buys a Discovery Flight gets nine follow-up emails designed to act on their desire to become a pilot. “One email shares the concept of the world is a smaller place and they will find themselves at destinations they wouldn’t normally go to. The rest of them are the soft sell of aviation. What it does for self-esteem, what it does for a positive impact on your life, the emotional side of being part of the few who can call themselves pilots. We explain to them that when you study hard and work hard to become a pilot that it’s so much fun that you will then realize that you can now do other things in life that you thought you couldn’t do,” Bradshaw says.
During the follow-up emails Pilot Journey asks customers to click on separate surveys, one if they have already signed up for pilot training, and another if they haven’t. “We’re really statisticians driven to understand the marketplace, which enhances out flight school partners.”
That partnership continues to grow. During EAA AirVenture Oshkosh Remos Aircraft announced the creation of its Remos Pilot Centers. And Pilot Journey has signed on to do the marketing, Bradshaw says, adding that “they’ll probably have about 80 by the end of next year.”
There is no Discovery Flight discount for sport pilots. “Our job is to motivate people, to make the investment worthwhile. Whether you’re flying a Remos GX LSA or a Bonanza, you’re a pilot. There is no difference. I drive a Honda Civic. I don’t drive a Mercedes. But I’m still a licensed driver and I can go from point A to point B. The byproduct of LSA is that more people will fly because it’s more affordable. Well great, let’s do it.” — Scott Spangler