AOPA FTSRI Offers Hope for GA’s Future

By Scott Spangler on August 26th, 2011

Given its  more than half century of tradition unimpeded by progress, I’ve always been cynical about the future of general aviation and its life’s blood, the flight training industry that educates new pilots. Then I attended the next-to-last regional meeting of the AOPA Flight Training Student Retention Initiative (FTSRI), held August 23 at the Hilton Garden Inn across the street from the Chicago-DuPage Airport. It offset my cynicism to the point where I think they have a 50-50 chance of making a difference.

FTSRIThe 2.5-hour meeting got off to a good start. About 50 people registered for the gathering, and 40 of them showed up. Disbursed at 10 tables, before the break I sat with three student pilots and a new private pilot. During the break, Jennifer Storm, who leads FTSRI, asked if I would relocate to even out a table occupied by a CFI, a student pilot, and a new private. Another gathering, which I did not attend, would be held the next day for CFIs and flight school operators, she said.

Both regional meetings operated with the same rules: Focus on what we can do, not what’s wrong. Yeah, I’ve heard that before, but the well structured and led program pulled it off! Before a break at the hour mark,  Storm PowerPointed AOPA’s research findings (see The Flight Training Experience: A survey of students, pilots, and instructors). Afterwards, each table would achieve consensus on a pertinent retention attribute and  propose a workable solution. With each shared solution, and news of AOPA efforts in beta test, a dory of hope started to float on my ocean of cynicism.

attributesAOPA’s qualitative and quantitative research distilled 11 first-order factors from 47 attributes that describe the optimal flight training experience. The 11 factors were subdivided into four groups, Educational Quality, Customer Focus, Community, and Information Sharing. From these each table agreed on what it saw as the preeminent factor/attribute in five areas—Education Quality: Instructor Support, Test Prep, Additional Resources & Instructor Effectiveness, Organized Lessons; Customer Focus; Community; and Information Sharing.

A member of each group recorded the consensus attribute and solution on a form collected afterwards, and a staffer took notes of the whole-group discussions about the shared solutions. Storm also asked pointed questions about ways AOPA or others better suited could put the solution into practice in ways both affordable and far reaching, often through an online component. In an informative interlude, Storm said all of AOPA’s flight training student retention information was in the process of being concentrated on AOPA’s Flight Training website.

By the AOPA Aviation Summit, September 22-24 in Hartford, Connecticut, the beta My Flight Training should be up, said Storm. Beyond connecting students to the community of aviators, it may well provide data to help increase retention before and after initial training. In customizing their page, students will input the dates and comments on such milestones as intro flights, initial solo, solo cross-county, and night flights. Along with it is the free Pilot in Command t-shirt. On its tail is a dotted line for its removal after the wearer’s initial solo.

This shirt is an essential component of AOPA’s effort because it resurrects one critical aviation tradition that seems to have gone by the wayside. Flying has been—and always will be—expensive, but people, as those in attendance proved, will pay the price if they find value in flying. Being shorn of a shirttail after successfully completing one of life’s more exacting challenges—initial solo flight—is the priceless ceremony that welcomes students into the ranks of pilots.

AOPA will hold one more regional FTSRI meeting in Dallas, and it will hold another Flight Training Symposium at its Aviation Summit. With this productive effort, which includes the rebirth of Flight School Business, a digital newsletter that serves their business needs, GA probably had a 50-50 chance for a future. What will make the difference is everyone’s participation. AOPA can’t do it alone. Remember the old saw about leading a horse to water. What will make the difference is all of our individual efforts. –Scott Spangler

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9 Responses to “AOPA FTSRI Offers Hope for GA’s Future”

  1. John F. Davis Says:

    Scott,

    AOPA really helped me out, Jennifer went to the mat to find me a plane when my Flight School kept moving them around so that I could net get enough time in the same plane I was training on. Jennifer kept in touch and I now have my Pilot Certificate. I have now purchased a Cessna XP and I am getting ready to fly “Abused Dogs” to good homes

    Take care Scott,

    John

  2. Mark C. Says:

    The shirt ain’t gonna do it. Although, I was happy a few weeks ago when I learned that my flight school celebrates solos with a picture on the bulletin board, not by hacking up my favorite pullover. FTSR is simple – progress, fun, future. The students must see progress, they must have fun learning (moving to solo & cross country as quickly as possible is a great way to accomplish that), and they must see a future. Learning to fly is hard, and no matter what, only the most motivated and capable students will finish – 50% is probably the best to hope for, and the other 50% really shouldn’t be pilots anyway. Right now about 20% finish, and I bet the bulk of the missing 30% quit because they realize that after all the effort, the best they can ever hope for is to be able to rent an a/c a couple hours a month, on someone else’s schedule, and burn some holes in the sky, and that’s a lousy return on investment. More affordable, capable aircraft, affordable hangar space, affordable maintenance, and less hassle with the FAA medical are the nearly insurmountable problems that really need to be addressed.

  3. Rodney Hall Says:

    During WWII they were trying to figure out how to increase the survivability of bombers. After studying the areas of most damage on the ones that returned it was proposed that these areas be armored. One bright engineer told them that the areas to be armored were the areas where the returning bombers had NOT been hit because the other areas were obviously survivable and presumably the planes hit in those other areas had not returned.
    Something similar needs to be done with flight training. It isn’t the pilots and student pilots that are in flight training that have the answers it is the ones that either don’t start or start and stop that we need to look at. Everytime a student stops we need to find out why. All to often a student stops and the instructor or school doesn’t even realize it until someone says “what happened to –“. No one follows up or calls or encourages or tries to resolve problems these are the things we need to do.

  4. Wes McKechnie Says:

    One thing that rarely if ever gets discussed in regards to this issue is that a lot of people who leave are doing so because they weed themselves out. The few times I recall that this has been addressed it’s in relation to “making it easier” to get a Pilot licence. It could also be a good thing that a number of these students stop. We forget or in the focus on marketing forget that learning to fly is not a capability everyone can master, it is difficult and challenging and pretending it’s not is disingunous. They, the student can reach this understanding through the training process, or their CFI’s. Even with all the expesive and extensive pre-screening of military and professional pilots, there is a washout rate once in training. I’m not saying that all the folks who do not complete their rating can’t master flying, but we don’t have any studies I’m aware of to provide the data regarding this, and that should be the baseline to depart from on seeing how much of a problem this is and it’s fixes.

  5. Robert Mark Says:

    Interesting points here all. I do wonder though about the cost of flying and the point made earlier by Mark.

    I’ve had some quit because they didn’t see the future … or they only saw it as renting a very expensive airplane occasionally … or a beat-up airplane occasionally … and finally said why bother.

    Some of my most successful students were folks who bought an airplane they wanted to use and simply needed me for the learning process.

    To me, one more issue we must wrestle with is offering pilots the transportation they need after they grab the license. If all I could ever do was rent a motorcycle after I learned to ride one years ago, I’ve have quite too.

  6. Tim Busch Says:

    Scott,

    Nice report. I attended the event on the following day and had a similar experience.

    Your final sentence holds the key to progress.

    Tim

  7. @williamAirways Says:

    Rodney Hall, I always follow up when a student quits. And I can tell you exactly what the problems were. Money issues. Life issues. And I’ve also observed that students don’t study. Honestly, you can tell the student what s/he needs to study on, CFIs can provide the structure, ground school, and additional flights, but, if the student isn’t coming to the airport prepared, there’s really little hope. And yes, the FOI says that the CFI is responsible in preparing the student but we can only do so much. I can’t force a student to read. I can’t force a student to study. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. All this talk about student pilot drop out makes me laugh. Everyone is making it the great mystery of aviation. We all know the answers to this problem, yet we’re all refusing to admit to the obvious. It takes a dedicated, well funded individual to become a good pilot. I emphasize “good” because there are ways to get through the system as a poor pilot.

    AOPA says the problem resides with CFIs. It’s so easy to point the finger at the CFIs. But I think the other half of the problem is the students, which AOPA conveniently dismisses. I hold firm to my theory that for a student to succeed, they need STEM. That stands for:

    Study
    Time
    Effort
    Money

    Any student that does not have all four throughout their training is destined for frustration, failure, or delay their flight training a good long time. If you have a student that wants it, they will succeed at it. It’s that simple.

    In response to Wes McKechnie:

    When I got my CFI ticket, the FAA inspector told me flat out that “…80% of the pilots out there don’t deserve to be pilots, so go out there and make good pilots”. So yes, I agree with you that it takes a certain individual to be a good pilot.

    In response to Rob Mark:

    I often think about the “utility” of the pilot certificate once obtained as a selling point, and I honestly can’t say it’s a great selling point. Consider this. Once a student receives their private pilot certificate, what can they do? Well, we all know it’s about $150/hr on the Hobbs to rent on average. About 0.2 of that time is STR (start/taxi/run-up) and then the waiting game begins at the hold short line if you’re at a busy airport. If you’re renting, there will always be that pressure to get the plane back in time or face late fees or disciplinary action from the owner/operator. You are also obligated to fly a certain amount of time for your reservation block. Take the plane for the weekend? Forget about it. Even if you belong to a flying club, there are membership dues, assessments, reservations conflicts and disputes, etc. So the best case is to own an airplane. And those who can afford to buy an airplane are well funded and don’t have these types of problems, albeit they do have to assume the full cost of operations; which supports your experience in the success rates of these people.

    The more “utility” you want out of an airplane, the more expensive it becomes. And how many people rent out PC-12 or Malibu or Meridians or Caravans on an hourly basis? I’m sure the insurance companies have put a stop to that. So utility? If you have the cash to buy the airplane, it’s there. But I suspect not many people do or can…at least, the people we’re talking about en mass.

    The very large majority of folks that I’ve encountered for flight training are of the recreational type. These people are not in it for a career or a business. They’re in it under the same premise that someone would take up scuba diving or karate. It’s something different to do. It’s something they think would be fun to do. It’s something they’ve always wanted to do. After all, flying an airplane is just like driving a boat, no? [add sarcasm here] At the end of the day, people who are interested will seek out flight training. And if they really want it, they will succeed. AOPA can rip all the t-shirts they want. But the horse has to come to the corral first with STEM. And that’s intrinsic to the student. I suspect this t-shirt project will be about as successful as their Project Pilot gig.

  8. Scott Spangler Says:

    William,

    Survey data presented at the confrence said 65 percent of student pilots were learning to fly for recreational reasons.

    CFIs were never singled out as the sole culprit of aviation’s problems; they are one of many, including flight schools and students themselves.

    Addressing students who don’t study was a rather protracted discussion with no practical solutions. Like you said, you can lead a horse…

    Perhaps the ultimate solution is to show the non-working student the door and do everything in our power to provide good value to STEM students.

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