Aviation Needs to Sell the Sizzle, Not the Steak

By Robert Mark on April 28th, 2008

AOPA ran a Town Hall meeting in Chicago the other night and Phil Boyer asked the group a penetrating question. How do we convince more people to learn to fly? Despite being a flight instructor and a communicator all my life, I didn’t have a good answer. Phil was nice enough to find me at the end of the evening and tell me he’s a Jetwhine reader which was quite the compliment. Now I felt really motivated to give him an answer to his pilot population expansion question, but my mind was simply a blank.

After a trip I took this weekend though, I think I might have one of the many right answers to Phil’s question.TBM 850 1

I was invited to fly a Socata TBM850 from south Florida to Indiana a distance of about 950 NM. Socata is part of EADS group that also owns Airbus and Dassault. The TBM850 was provided by the folks at the EADS Flight Department at Fort Lauderdale’s Hollywood North Perry Airport, just north of my old stomping grounds at Miami Opa-Locka.

The TBM850 is the top-end of the new generation of owner flown propeller-driven airplanes. To the best of my knowledge, it is the fastest single-engine turbo-prop airplane flying and it’s a breeze for someone upgrading from a Bonanza or a Cessna 210, or even some of the older piston twins since the reliability of the PT-6 engine far exceeds its piston predecessors. All I needed to make a few hours in the TBM a reality was get myself to south Florida from Chicago.

Wayman Luy was the brave aviator Socata assigned to fly with me – thanks for that Wayman! 

During a lull in the flight, he got me thinking that a part of the answer to how we convince more people to learn to fly rests with us, people who already fly. But since few aviators have any marketing or sales background, we often don’t realize how important a personal recommendation from one of us can be to a potential aviator. We tend to think we possess a cool skill and often assume others will simply line up for lessons based on our aura, I guess.

Where’s the Meat?

This weekend’s trip made me realize I need to talk more about the benefits I experience from knowing how to fly, a bit of that sizzle and steak concept I learned in graduate school.

We all love flying airplanes or we wouldn’t continue I assume. But we often fly because becoming a pilot and maintaining our currency also helps us leap some business hurdle. This business case for learning to fly is an important one. In my case, I needed to fly from the Fort Lauderdale area to north central Indiana on Sunday, a trip that would be essentially a nightmare on the airlines with connections.

The American Advantage number I possess focused me on AA first of all for a ticket to get me to Florida. At first, all seemed well with a flight out of ORD to FLL that had me arriving around 4 PM the afternoon before the flight. The fare was reasonable, especially since it was one way.

Then came the call to my cell at 10 PM Saturday night before the flight. American canceled my MD-80 flight from O’Hare for “air traffic control,” reasons, which of course no one believed I’m sure some 14 hours before the flight was scheduled to depart ( you NATCA folks can comment on how often you’re blamed for this kind of thing too). The airlines could certainly make a few points with me if they simply told me the truth when the flights are scrubbed.

Since American decided on its own to reschedule me for a trip that included a stop through DFW and an eventual arrival in FLL close to midnight Saturday, I rescheduled myself to an earlier Saturday morning flight from Chicago. That phone call of course took half an hour to complete the night before I realized I now needed to rise at sunup to make my AA flight. But I made it to Florida, even though I had to sit in a middle seat because the airplane was full leaving ORD.

Out of Florida

We were set to depart Boca Raton (KBCT) in the TBM850 Sunday morning around 9 am. The weather out of south Florida was beautiful and the TBM screamed to FL 270 as we turned north toward Indiana already truing out at 305 knots. I can’t share all the details here since I’m writing a story for AIN about that and you’ll just have to read it there, I’m afraid.

I did get a pretty good workout with the new Garmin 1000 system on the TBM as we dodged a line of Thunderstorms around Atlanta and three hours and two minutes after wheels up at BCT, I landed in Muncie. Since President Bill Clinton was arriving at MIE soon after us, the U.S. Secret Service wanted us little airplane guys out of the way pronto. Now came to tough part of the trip … getting back to Chicago. The TBM needed to go east from MIE so Wayman and I were going to drive back to ORD so he could catch a flight back to Florida and I could pick up my car.

Then we had a bright idea. Why not drive to Indianapolis – 45 minutes away – and catch a flight. Wayman used his iPhone to check schedules. A one-way to ORD from IND was $375 if I caught the next flight. If I waited two more hours the fare dropped to a hundred bucks. I waited.

I knew the general directions to Indianapolis, so we hopped in the Impala and headed southwest out of MIE. It took us an hour and a half to IND, half of which we probably spent trying to find the airport since we had no map and there were no signs. The iPhone only helped some. The folks in the city assume you know where the airport is I guess. We didn’t.

After returning the rental car, We checked in and headed for the gate. Wayman was going to connect through DFW to get back to Miami around midnight. It was now about 3 PM. My flight left at 6 PM. My flight boarded on time and pulled away from the gate on time. When we pulled off into the runup pad for 5 Right though, I knew we were in trouble. The guy in the next seat heard me groan and asked what was going on. “We’re going to be sitting here awhile,” I said. Of course, he wanted to know how I knew. We start talking about flying airplanes and how I came to be sitting next to him.

“Learning to fly is really expensive isn’t it?” he asked. “All depends on how long you keep flying. Let’s see  eight to $10,000 amortized over 20 years. How does that sound?” I had him.

We eventually arrived at ORD about 6:35 local time. I mentioned to my neighbor that it had taken almost six hours from the time we left Muncie Airport until I arrived at ORD. It would have taken about 4 to 5 if I’d driven to ORD. In total this was about double what it took to fly from Florida to Indiana in the first place. “Wow,” was all he said. “You get really spoiled about all the time you save flying yourself,” I told him.

I took out my card and wrote the AOPA web site on the back. “Best 39 bucks you’ll ever spend,” I told him.

I figured I owed Phil Boyer anyway. One more member on the way I think Phil.


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20 Responses to “Aviation Needs to Sell the Sizzle, Not the Steak”

  1. Gary Bradshaw Says:

    Robert, I could not agree with you more. What I often see is that we think of the sizzle only of where we can fly and the things we can do. We also need to think of what being a pilot can do for our self esteem and our personal lives.

    Many times we men do not want to talk about the soft issues and that does not help. We find it hard to say “I felt better about myself when I got my pilot certificate” or “flying made me realize I could accomplish what I put my mind to”

    We try to tell people that on Pilot Journey and it seems to be working. The problem is the schools post “prices” and sell steak.

    Pilot Journey

  2. Robert Mark Says:

    Very few schools emply a sales and marketing staff either Gary. They simply give the job to some flight instructor who honestly just wants to fly airplanes. The people who run the schools simply don’t seem to make that connection.

    Maybe that’s because they are run by so many flight instructors.

  3. Fred Says:

    “Miami Opa-Locka”? No such thing. There is Opa-locka Executive Airport, which is not in Miami or in Opa-locka, and spelled without the capital “L” like you have it.

  4. Jason Miller Says:

    Interesting point!

    I started my flying “hobby” – after getting the private ticket – with the goal of achieving as many cross country flights as possible. Doing that for fun, and not with a set purpose such as business/travel, it eventually got old. I’d do a touchdown and taxi back and return right where I came from. The luster of that type of minimum-time trip wore off quickly.

    Once I realized that fact, I was unsure how I should spend my time in airplane. I knew I loved being up in flight, but needed another reason to do so after a while (beyond simple practice time). Not coming up with one, and college taking more and more time, I quit flying for 7 years.

    But after I got back into it I realized a great way to keep flying fresh – view it through the eyes of others. With that in mind I had a new goal – take as many people as possible on their first flight in a small plane.

    Since then I have tracked my first-flights count in my logbook and have gotten to around 17 so far. I work hard to give smooth flights with just the right amount of information – maybe one day one of those folks will take me up! :)

  5. Gig Giacona Says:

    The hardest part of recruiting new pilots is getting them through the door of the FBO/Flight School for the first time. Yet, every year many many people take a few lessons and then give up. The reasons range from money to bad instructors to unrealized expectations. If we could just get some of those folks that quit for whatever reason it would be a big bump in the pilot population.

    I’ve proposed just such a program more than once to the AOPA at least twice. Once via e-mail about a year ago and once in response to to the current request for ideas.

    Basically the idea is for the AOPA to contact FBOs and flight schools and get contact info on pilots that started their programs and then didn’t finish and then have AOPA and/or the local mentors program contact them.

  6. Gary Bradshaw Says:


    Once AOPA or someone contacted them what would they say?

    Then what would they do about what they were told?

    I would like to know more about your idea.


  7. Robert Mark Says:

    Oh Fred … c’mon I’m an old guy. When I was there, it was Miami Opa Locka. So I’m a little behind the times. I believe the Miami Dade folks still run the place though, don’t they?

    Now that I know you’re reading, I’m just going to call it OPF … I know that hasn’t changed.

    Thanks for your note.


  8. Robert Mark Says:


    What a good idea. Sort of a Young Eagles program for older eagles. I wonder how many other folks have thought of that.

    Has anyone decided they might want to take lessons after one of those flights?


  9. Robert Mark Says:


    The idea of following up with people who have terminated their training does sound like a no-brainer, doesn’t it?

    I go back to the point about flight school marketing. Our industry is not good with that ecause so many people involved in flight instruction are there because they want to fly, not sell.

    If the BMW guys left customers walk away as much as the folks in our industry do, they’d get canned. We put up with it.

  10. Jeffrey Sigmon Says:

    A follow up on why a student terminated their training is a great idea. I’m currently a Commercial student and I have seen more students drop out of the flight school then earn their Private ticket. I believe the most common reason you’ll find is unrealized expectations as Gig put it followed by money issues. The price continues to rise to rent airplanes which is not helping with gaining new students.

  11. Gig Giacona Says:

    Hell, Gary that’s what I pay the AOPA to come up with. :)

    But I’ll give it a shot by looking at the reasons for terminating training. But let’s keep in mind. If someone was just barely on the wrong side of the fence a call from someone at the AOPA might alone be enough to push them back over.

    Money… Not a lot we can do about this one except maybe but them in touch with a school that teaches LSA or is otherwise less expensive.

    Time… Here they might be shown that there are programs that fit better with their schedule like a 2 week course in FL, TX or AZ.

    CFI they don’t like/didn’t get along with… Introduction to another instructor or school.

    Unrealised Expectation… This one can either be the easiest or the hardest to deal with. Having the student talk to a pilot in a like situation. Something like the current Mentor program.

  12. Brad Elliott Says:

    I would have to say the romance of flying is no longer there(for the public eye). The airlines are mostly to blame for it by the experiences they give their customers as well as the way they treat their employees. Look at any given airline company (Southwest excluded) and every employee seems to hate their job. Listen to the Cpt’s briefing, they don’t have enthusiasm like they used too. I think that is the quickest way to reach out to others. Imagine if the captain explained what was happening on the intercom instead of leaving you in the dark.

    Personally, I always loved aviation but, just soloed last Friday. I happened to get extremely lucky by surrounding myself with others who bring the excitement back to flying everyday.

  13. Steve Perry Says:

    I’m an engineer. I think numbers and efficiency.

    It used to be I could fly my club’s Piper Archer at an average of 125mph over a short 1.5 hour trip that took 6 hours to drive thanks to the lack of any interstates except for about 50 miles of the trip. At the rate of $70/tach hour (this was 2004ish) the trip cost about $250 including ramp fees. It made for a long day, but it was one day.

    Compared to driving, which cost about $210 in mileage reimbursement and a hotel room for just one night($100+), flying was actually cheaper when just looking at dollars and cents. It also saved at least one full working day, more if you wanted to be in town at 8am and leave after 5pm without driving at ungodly hours of the night.

    The new job doesn’t let me fly myself while on business, unfortunately and I haven’t touched a plane in about 2 years as my priorities have changed and there isn’t a practical reason to keep current.

    Convincing insurers that properly trained pilots are on par with or less risky than the airlines would be the only thing that would let me get back into aviation. Unfortunately, the recent run of accidents at A.D. Williams Engineering in Canada doesn’t bode well for this. It was all over the engineering industry newsfeeds.

  14. Gary Bradshaw Says:

    Here at Pilot Journey we send out more Discovery Flight/ Intro Flight Coupons that Be a Pilot or AOPA.

    I think we would be in a good position to follow-up with students that stop the training.

    We will send an email to the last 10,000 student prospects and ask them if they quit to complete a survey or call us.

  15. Rob Mark Says:

    First of all Brad … hot dog on the solo. That is some accomplishment.

    Next … how about a photo that we can post here? What kind of airplane did oyu fly and from where?


  16. Robert Mark Says:

    Have any of you here visited Gary site a Pilot Journey? I just breezed past (sorry, short on time tonight Gary) but something he said up front grabbed me.

    “Learning to fly will change your life.” How many of us has that happened to. Quite a few I bet.

    I for one would like to hear how learning to fly changed people’s lives. C’mon … spill the beans.

  17. Pat Farmer Says:

    Something about flying: myself and the others that I have know that stay with it are CRAZY about it. I have loved planes since I was a little boy, and I am considered by most to be an aviation nut. A couple of my friends from high school that were airplane crazy like me are still flying as airline pilots.

    But really, do we want to expand the realm of pilots to the point that those that aren’t drawn to it naturally are getting into it? Is that really good for them and for aviation? Will they ever be as safe as those that eat, breathe and sleep aviation? Are they going to be inclined to stay with it?

  18. Rob Mark Says:

    “Do we want to expand the realm of pilots to the point that those that arent drawn to it naturally are getting into it? Is that really good for them and for aviation?

    Will they ever be as safe as those that eat, breathe and sleep aviation? Are they going to be inclined to stay with it?”

    I think they could be as motivated to become a good pilot Pat. They may not live and breath airplanes like I do, but that doesn’t mean they can be good pilots.

    Part of becoming and remaining a good pilot is based on the camaraderie of other pilots and instructors. Sometimes we don’t make learning to fly and they life after learning to fly very friendly.

    That needs to change.

  19. geraldz Says:

    AOPA purchased a study a few years ago entitled “Needle In A Haystack” in search of finding potential pilots. Unfortunately they excluded interviewing anyone earning less than $100,000 per year. That would have left me (and tens of thousands of potential pilots) out of the research. The EAA’s push for the sport pilot/light-sport aircraft rules have helped to jump-start general aviation, but unfortunately AOPA hasn’t helped get the word out. Apparently they believe that general aviation is only for doctors and lawyers.

  20. On the Record - Max Trescott … CFI, Entrepreneur - Jetwhine: Aviation Buzz and Bold Opinion Says:

    […] Knowing Max for just a short time has opened my eyes to the fact that I truly miss teaching people how to fly myself. That’s something I’m in the process of fixing even as we speak as well as picking up the Master CFI designation. That means Max created value for me in our relationship early on. And that’s what a good instructor must do as well, not simply be the person to train people to yank and bank, but be the lead to how valuable learning to fly will be in someone’s life, a topic I mentioned here a few weeks back. […]

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