Does the Aviation Industry Really Care About Pilot Population Growth?

By Scott Spangler on August 6th, 2010

JW-AV-6Given the underwhelming participation at an 1130  panel discussion about the subject the Saturday of AirVenture Oshkosh, the general answer must be a big, boldfaced NO.

For the discussion of  How to Grow the Pilot Population, just seven of the nearly 100 seats in the Learn to Fly Discovery Center’s presentation area  were occupied, by 2.5 reporters and 3.5 independent flight instructors (JetWhine Editor Rob Mark was, as usual, the multitasker). The National Association of Flight Instructors organized the panel, and its chairman, Ken Hoffman, completed the audience.

Some industry members proved that they truly care about pilot population growth by participating in the panel. The moderator, NAFI Mentor Editor Greg Laslo, introduced them from the audience’s left to right:

Julie Filucci, a long-time CFI, manages the Cessna Pilot Center program, and she handed out a friendly, informative learn-to-fly booklet, You Were Never Destined to be a Passenger. With more than three decades in the flight training industry, Bob Anderson manages the Remos Aircraft Sport Pilot Center program. Jennifer Storm is AOPA’s director of public relations—and a flight instructor. Eric Radtke is president (and chief flight instructor) of Sporty’s Academy. And Jason Blair, NAFI’s executive director, is a CFI, designated pilot examiner, and flight school owner.

The panel started the discussion by itemizing the challenges facing pilot population growth, starting with cost and the lack of role models, the modern-day equivalents of Lindbergh and Earhart, and finishing with an abysmal dropout rate, an anecdotal figure that ranges between 70 and 80 percent.  Then it transitioned to what each member was doing to meet these challenges.

Citing the FAA’s prediction of fewer than 60,000 student pilots next year, Radtke said “learning to fly is no longer cool, so we have to get creative.” Sporty’s has been overcoming the intimidating amount of time and effort needed to become a pilot by focusing on achieving goals, like solo and cross-country flight, that are building blocks to certification as a sport or recreational pilot.

The panel agreed that light-sport aircraft, with their lower operating costs and modern systems, play a key role in attracting and retaining new students. Blair added that retaining current pilots, and returning lapsed aviators to the fold, would also slow the declining pilot numbers. (What affect the sharp decline of international students training in the US after 9/11 has on the pilot population didn’t occur to anyone in the audience or on the panel until after the forum.)

Noting that flight schools are not good at sales, overcoming that challenge might be the most difficult because it requires a cultural shift, said Anderson. The airport is an intimidating place, he said, which is why the Remos centers have had success by offering “Free Pilot Aptitude Tests” at shopping malls with a VFR simulator, which leads to a 5-hour “try before you buy” flight training package.

No matter how good they are, there are some aspects of learning to fly that no school or instructor can control, like the weather, Filucci said. Still, schools need to keep students coming to the airport for regular lessons. Giving an example of a student scheduled for three lessons a week, she said only two of them might be in an airplane, with the third in a flight training device or classroom.

Flight training as a one-size-fits-all effort no longer works, Radtke says, the learning experience must be customized to the student’s personal goals and schedules. Undertaking and enforcing this takes dedication and time, and to increase the pilot population it must be the norm at flight schools, not the exception.

If there was a consensus, it was that in the second century of powered flight—every customer counts. Whether they be a prospective pilot, active aviator, or lapsed aeronaut, every member of the pilot community counts because they sustain the aviation industry. And to keep their business, the industry must show pilots that it cares about them and is doing something to reduce the challenges they must overcome.  If not, those potential and past pilots will find something more productive to do with their time and money. –Scott Spangler

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8 Responses to “Does the Aviation Industry Really Care About Pilot Population Growth?”

  1. Chuck Morrow Says:

    Selling Learn To Fly is like selling Learn To Drive a 45 ft. RV Motor Home. So now what? Flying isn’t about physical and mental capacity. It’s no longer a badge for Boy Scouts or remembering John Wayne in a movie. Flying must become a Life Style, a social forum as happy to share with outers as Tennis and Golf or Motorcycle and car clubs. And of course the message has to go to town, starting with Malls and County Fairs. Eventually all Learn To Fly will need to be one marketing company serving all airplane manufacturers. Yes, local FBO’s never have been absorbed in selling, but now do airline pilots sell tickets. Two different worlds. Society now demands service, confort, and style. Flying is a Country Club, accept it and don’t blame selling on young guys trying to build time. They have their hands full. One National Association for marketing General Aviation is now required. All airplanes working together is the only option. Hangar flying on Saturday morning in broken down chair was, it’s over. Fly to see Grandma is a buggy whip, get past it. We need Social Civilians who can use flying to socialize and travel together. Learn from the motorcycle industry. Chuck

  2. Steve C. Says:

    It’s unfortunate that the turnout was so poor. Perhaps the crowd is not really in denial that $8-$10 avgas threatens to end the fun soon?

    If I can get past that particular gloomy thought, here are a few thoughts:

    * Pilot training needs to be relevant to what people actually want to do. I suggest that most potential pilots really don’t want to be airline pilots. We need to adjust to that. Chuck has a point, air-caravan socializing goes a long way.

    * Scenario-based training needs to be mainstream. Make training activities relevant, meaningful and, above all, fun. Yes, it’s hard and requires imagination and motivation on the part of the instructor.

    * Make sure flying (and training) can fit the customer’s schedule, not the other way around. 8-5 operations are fine for professional pilot candidates, but not for fun/reward seekers.

    * Flying the fleet of existing airplanes has to be made socially acceptable. Half-million dollar glass-paneled fiberglass airplanes are nice (and profitable) and everything, but the vast majority of potential customers can never touch them. Light-sport airplanes are initially going to seem like toys to the uninitiated (where small may equal dangerous in their mind). Deal with that. Give a 35-year old PA28 decent paint and an interior, with modern VFR-only moving map nav, and it will be at least appealing and affordable.

    * Flying will never be like driving, and that’s a part of the draw. Most of the new students I deal with really like the fact that it requires such mental immersion (to the point that your head is cleared of everyday noise), and that makes it an escape that they didn’t expect going in. Sell that…

    * Support and encourage clubs, especially those with a wide range of equipment.

    * Get local fun things going like a regional “poker run” established with an alternate rain-date, and get folks involved, and seats filled (within limits, of course).

    And more…

  3. Robert Mark Says:

    A national Learn-to-Fly marketing company is an intriguing idea. While I’m sure none of the manufacturers would enjoy giving up that control – although they did to some degree with the other LTF programs – let’s be serious … none of them have worked anyway.

    You also hit the nail on the head with the need to stop trying to turn flight instructors into marketing people. They’re terrible at it for the most part because they don’t want to sell. They just want to fly.

    But we also spend a great deal of time talking about all of this, don’t we? Even at Oshkosh I walked out after the Future of Flight Training seminar asking Scott the same question … now what?

    Plenty of talk, but very little action while the clock keeps ticking.

  4. Does the Aviation Industry Really Care About Pilot Population Growth? | General Aviation Blog Says:

    [...] If there was a consensus, it was that in the second century of powered flight—every customer counts. Whether they be a prospective pilot, active aviator, or lapsed aeronaut, every member of the pilot community counts because they sustain the aviation industry. And to keep their business, the industry must show pilots that it cares about them and is doing something to reduce the challenges they must overcome.  If not, those potential and past pilots will find something more productive to do with their time and money. –Scott Spangler [...]

  5. Ron Amundson Says:

    A flight instructor is rarely a good closer, its outside their scope… but as a marketing evangelist, I don’t think you can find anyone better. A consumer products company would about die to find someone who eats, breathes and lives their product, such just doesn’t happen like what happens when folks get bitten by aviation.

    Tell a CFI to telemarket, and you will get eyes that could about shoot you out of the sky. Tell a CFI, that during their downtime, you’d like them to hangerfly on the phone, that you will pay them, and you have a list of numbers of folks (ex-students, lapsed students, prospective students etc) many will be more than willing to engage.

    The issue is not turning the CFI into a salesguy, but to leverage their enthusiasm another way… and then have a separate guy as a closer/sales guy.

  6. Playing Jeopardy with Aviation’s Future - Jetwhine: Aviation Buzz and Bold Opinion Says:

    [...] we all walked away from the discussion with the same thought … now what? Considering the lousy turnout, as Scott Spangler mentioned last week, I left wondering how anything we spoke about could in any way affect how the management types view [...]

  7. Alex S Says:

    “…those potential and past pilots will find something more productive to do with their time and money”

    That’s maybe exactly the problem – the flying is just not productive for the time and money it takes. Really – why fly? It is after all terribly expensive – rent is expensive, ownership even more, fuel costs are through the roof, small “airports” are often looking like an abandoned landfills – unattended and with no services – arriving there is far from glamorous life style, worrying about your bladder – too, risk to be killed in a light airplane per mile travelled 3 times higher than in the car, etc., etc.

    I’m a 53-old student pilot nearing checkride as a fixed wing Sport Pilot :) And I’m doing it now just because I still can afford it and I like it. I plan not to drop out and see it through for a license. But I’m not sure what will happen next. LSAs are rare to be found for rent. And it would be even costlier to rent for a flycation as opposed to flying around a patch. Costs of ownership are hard to justify and to incorporate a plane into some resemblance of a life-style (as I did for 15 years with my sailboat) is almost impossible – which is confirmed by my wife’s – “first mate”‘s loud protests :)

    “Life-style” allure goes to celebrities and globalization nouvoriches personal jets nowadays and glitzy FBOs and airports catering to them. GA is dying together with America’s middle class. And that’s probably the real reason why I’m doing this now – as a sentimental last piligrimage to the fading “good old America” it will never be again… When developers bulldoze the last small airport and the aluminum from last chattering cessna from the previous century will be recycled into some celebrity’s personal jet I can look at the sky with jet contrails leading hundreds miles to the nearest airport and say: “I remember times when even I could fly….” :) :)

  8. Frank J Says:

    I have to agree with Alex S.

    I lived the days of GA back in the 60′s when I took my first lessons and it was expensive but still affordable ($25 dual instruction, brand new Cessna’s were selling for about $15k). My first pilot log (I still have it) cost $1. It cost me a week of part time work to afford a single lesson…but I did it and loved it.

    For me, the thrill has never gone away, but the cost has now become so exteme that there is no thrill as soon as I come back down to earth. Yeah, I’ve seen and tried out the LSA available and I know what limitations are being placed on “sport” pilots. I wouldn’t want any of it if I were starting over…and real aircraft costs? Absolutely ridiculous are the only words that appropriately fit.

    Anyone in their right mind will see the costs as well as the new limits on most GA pilots placed on them by every govt. organization (except for possibly the Federal Housing Authority) and decide to play the latest MS Flight Simulator game instead.

    Note: MS Flight Sim only costs about $60…not $400,000….and at least with a game you don’t stand to lose everything you have invested on the off-chance that some anal govt. official decides you put your left wing over a class B airspace line…or you didn’t lock your plane up when you left to find something to eat….or you made the mistake of throwing toilet paper out your aircraft window and you are now classed as a terrorist.

    Don’t get me wrong, I will always love to fly, but I will always understand the ones that don’t want to. The non-fun side of it is dealing with every Tom-Dick and Harry on the ground that thinks he knows better, wants to have a say in who can fly and who can’t or worse yet…wants to charge you more because you’re up there and he/she isn’t.

    We’ve legislated and costed the thrill out of GA aviation and then have the thickness to wonder the heck why are kids don’t like or want it.

    Face facts, GA aviation has become a sad little restricted ghost of what it used to be.

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