Flight Training’s Future Needs Unified Plan

By Scott Spangler on September 6th, 2010

JetWhine_LTF-Sign When it comes to the future of flight training in America, I have some good news, and some not so good news. The good news is that given the attendance at the panel discussion of this subject, held the Saturday of EAA AirVenture, flight instructors care. Of the roughly 80 folks in the audience, a show of hands revealed that all but a few were CFIs.

The not so good news is that while the five-member panel (including yours truly) accurately itemized the challenges flight training now faces, the  solutions were but ideas scattered like seeds. But perhaps the panel’s indirect agreement on those challenges  will create an environment in which those idea seeds can grow.

With me on the panel were Russ Still of Online Ground School; Kent Lovelace, who leads the John D. Odegard School of Aeronautics at the University of North Dakota; Eric Radtke, president of Sporty’s Academy; and NAFI Executive Director Jason Blair. In our own words, we all agreed that becoming a pilot is no longer a popular option today, which calls for a business model optimized for a niche rather than a mass market. As Still said, the old model of “getting a building, putting out a sign, and waiting for people to walk through the door clearly doesn’t work any more.”

The moderator, NAFI Mentor Editor Greg Laslo, asked what can be done to reduce training costs. Seating order put me up first, and my answer was a simple and honest “nothing.” Everything costs more today—insurance, gas and oil, maintenance, and personnel costs—and you can’t roll back the clock. Indirectly, the others agreed. The said components like ground school options and simulator use can mitigate the cost, but nothing will substantially reduce it. Financing is needed, especially for those pursuing aviation as a career.

Sky Patrol Manual None of us had any ideas how to secure this financing, however. And even if that was available, it still wouldn’t bring students through the doors. After a short tangent on the possibility that flight training might evolve into a system were students train for their desired flying mission—recreation, personal transportation, or a career—Radtke watered the garden of ideas: Creating personalized learning experiences tailored to a student’s particular needs is only of half of the solution. “The challenge is that flight training still has to fulfill a number of antiquated requirements.”

Digesting all of this later, herein, I realized is the key: training innovations are held hostage by the current time-equals-experience certification requirements. The future of flight training must be built on a foundation of new FAA requirements that have been tailored to the 21st century. If the industry waits for the FAA to do this, it’ll never happen because FAA reacts to stuff. Being proactive is not in its charter, and realistically, that’s the way it should be.

So, if flight training wants to have a future, it must put aside its individual desires for a larger piece of a shrinking pie, close ranks from top to bottom, and develop certification requirements and a training model that work as a unified system that meet today’s needs of pilots who fly for fun or profit. Certainly this would be no easy undertaking, but nothing worthwhile ever is. And once the unified group has its plan in place, with all the details hammered out and most of the problems solved, it needs to beat on the FAA’s door, and keep beating until it achieves a successful reaction.

A hint of what that system might look like revealed itself in the disconnected comments of the panel. Flight training in the future would be proficiency based and mission oriented. It would be modular, so pilots would take the training that would give them more quickly achieved goals, not to mention the pilot privileges they desire, from solo, to carrying passengers in controlled airspace, to night and instrument flight, to cross-country, and all the rest.

Perhaps the most difficult obstacle to overcome is the prospect of change. No one likes change, but the future of flight training, not to mention aviation itself, depends on it. Without a wise, measured, comprehensive, and unanimous plan for what flight training should become, oblivion is unavoidable. –Scott Spangler


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22 Responses to “Flight Training’s Future Needs Unified Plan”

  1. Tim Busch Says:

    Flight Trainings Unified Plan
    By Tim Busch on September 8, 2010

    Aviation has never enjoyed the technology adoption curve that most products, such as cars, computers, and cell phones have gone through in becoming mainstream products. Were still waiting for the Henry Ford moment when affordable, mass-produced aircraft become available and flight training is something we do as a right of passage, just like Drivers Education class. Can we get there? Absolutely. But we need to change, and change is hard. Deal with it.

    We have two root-cause problems:
    First: affordable aircraft. There are secondary problems associated with affordable aircraft, such as high insurance rates. Ask an actuarial. Theyll tell you. Get more numbers, your rates will come down. Another secondary problem: fuel prices. Again, this is a volume problem. Buy more fuel & the rates will come down. Volume solves the cost problem.Economics 101.

    How do we solve this problem? Someone needs to take a large financial risk to build a factory capable of volume production of aircraft. An LSA would be a great candidate because it addresses the largest potential market. Target production rates might be 25,000, 50,000 or more per year with hand touch labor under 100 hours. Currently we think in terms of 2,000 per year and hand touch labor is about 1000 hours. I wont trivialize it. This is a big deal.millions. But the result is the cost of the aircraft can be driven down dramatically. Top-of-the-line LSAs can cost $50k, instead of $150k. Of course, we cant take an if we build it, they will come approach. In parallel, we need to develop the market. Thats where root-cause problem number 2 comes in: Flight Training.

    Flight training today is a marathon exercise. IF you can afford it, you then spend three to twelve months enduring a string of newbie flight instructors and antique aircraft, not to mention the weather. Many quit because they dont have the patience.

    We must turn flight training into a mainstream activity. Flight training should be available to every 17-18 year old. This is an instant gratification society. We need to be thinking in terms of weeks. With the advent of Sport Pilot, it is realistic to complete a license in two weeks. Simulator classrooms can provide a total immersion environment to a room full of potential pilots. Take them through an entire training program before ever setting foot in an airplane. Upon completion, put them in the aircraft and I guarantee that a 20 hour Sport Pilot will become the norm. Using a mass-produced LSA and the high usage of a classroom environment, 1000 hour per year aircraft usage will keep costs down.

    How far down? I have created spreadsheets comparing the cost of Drivers Education class (between $500 and $1000) to Flyers Education class based on the above assumptions, and can realistically predict Sport Pilot training well under $2000.

    Advanced Flyers Ed class would include Private Pilot, Instrument Pilot training, and beyond. People today do not take Drivers Ed to become bus drivers. We need to get over the Pilot = Airlines attitude. The only way aviation can survive is to make Pilots = Everyone.

    Ok investors. Lets talk. No more whining among the masses. Change is hard. Get over it. Let’s do what it takes to change aviation.

    Tim Busch

  2. Rick Matthews Says:

    The flight training industry, as an industry in itself, is irrelevant. There I said it.

    That is, it is not the end-all nor the litmus test for the survival of aviation.

    FT does serve a good purpose in being the only real logical base for statistical data gathering in order to have some numbers in some columns so anybody can prognosticate stuff.

    As I read into this discussion, the agenda seems to be how the Flight Training industry, as an industry itself, should position itself to survive.

    Wrong viewpoint, unless you are stuck inside that box and cant get out, where the conversations are basically how to rearrange things better inside the box.

    Step back.WAY backget away from convention and tradition and excuses and clichs way back, and watch this

    People or, a mass market dont go to the airport to support the flight training industry. Sorry, thats not reality! If this steps on toes and slaps a few egos around, then let it.

    People go to the flight school because it is the only gateway to get what they really want the ability and privilege to fly a plane of their own to enhance their life.

    How well CFIs are trained or what their personality is like is irrelevant! What the FAA/DOT/government of any kind does or says is irrelevant!

    None of these things are at the core of the problem, yet their presumed importance have pushed things that arent problems into the forefront as problems. Therefore the real core remains hidden.

    What GA needs and GA is where it all begins are Aviation Visitor Centers. Not FBOs where the general public still doesnt even understand the acronym (oh but the industry relishes acronyms).

    An Aviation Visitor Center is an orientation center, much like going to a place you wish to enjoy and stopping off at a Visitor Center to get oriented, to learn more about something ahead of time in order to appreciate even more that which the prospect is about to experience.

    Another analogy could be the showroom of a auto dealer. The prospect walks in wanting a vehicle to serve a need or to enhance his life. He wants to learn more about what there is to offer, and the anticipated costs of doing so before committing. You could come up with other examples, but there needs to be some aviation showrooms developed.

    The Aviation Visitor Center. Volunteer-staffed by people that are passionate about aviation, but they are honest to the visitor about the Risks, Costs, and Opportunities available. Remember the drop-out statistics you mentioned before 70%?

    This is why it is so high there is currently no orientation as to what a person honestly needs to know before going into FT, and therefore the would-be pilot goes into it blind, hits snags, questions his initial desires, doubts creep in, he does home saying to himself why didnt somebody tell that?

    Something has to be done to KEEP that customer coming back. That is one thing: a clear plan and full understanding as to the Risks, Costs, and Opportunities. CFIs do not do that because they NEED the flight time. FT owners do not do that because they NEED the business from the prospect as long as he can before he quits.

    The clerk behind the FBO desk does not do that, because the prospect represents just somebody else contributing to the clutter in the lounge.

    As a result, disenchantment creeps in. Doubt what I am saying? What was that dropout rate again, please?

    To have a cadre of experienced, pleasant, courteous people to act as Mentors to guide the embryo through the you sure you want to do this? processIS THE SOLUTION.

    It will bring layers upon layers of new business to aviation a business level that is desperately needed. Mentors do not sell FT. They dont sell anything. They need to tell the truth.

    Yes it will cost on average $5000 to get your private license if you rent and do it within 3-4 months. Yes it is risky as you are working with a third dimension now featuring the forces of lift and gravity. Yes airplanes are expensive once you get licensed, and expect to pay $30,000 or more for a decent one. And yes that is like putting a sports car in your driveway.

    Can you do all this? No? Then come back later in life when you can so you wont be another statistic, spooking yourself from ever wanting to try it again!

    Aviation Mentorsfacilitated through a local Aviation Visitor Center. There it is.

    AOPA has gotten close on this one with its Project Pilot Mentor program. I have been one for years, love it, and have had a split difference: I would encourage the prospect to not enter the program if certain Risks, Costs, or Opportunities were not understood or accepted. I lost a few. I am thankful for that.

    But guess what? They are not statistics. They will come back later when it is more appropriate, and this time it will stick. AOPAs program is too at large, however. The Mentors need to be at the airport where everything else is. This is where the prospect goes firstto see, smell, hear, touch, and to feed the desire.

    Think about this: all through aviation history this scenario has played out, and what does the prospect do? Walks over to the lineman, the FBO counter babe, flight school secretary, or hot shot pilot who gives him a ride filled with stressful maneuvers. The prospect gets disillusioned because real aviation has not been presented, or oriented properly.

    Not practical, you say? Then well find a way to make it practical! Otherwise, leave things just the way they are and more decades of empty panel discussions such as the one Scott writes about will come and go. Status quo.

    Lets leave things alone. Hey, lets rearrange the box again.

    Rick Matthews

  3. Scott Spangler Says:

    Interesting comments and suggestions, but both are predicated on flying once again becoming a mass market endeavor. Sorry, but it ain’t going to happen.

    If you doubt this, look at other industries, which is the best way to collectively address different companies competing in the same market place.

    Take TV, for example. Compare today’s audience numbers with those of the 1970s, the dying days of the aviation mass market. Then, tens of millions of people watched a relative handful of shows broadcast when cable was in its infancy, satellite was a gleam in the entrepeneaur’s eye, and online was one step past science fiction.

    Today, the audience of hit shows is usually measured in single digits. Despite all that marketers have tried, the mass market is dead for just about every industry. The key now is to stand out in the crowd of niche’s.

    Given this reality, and the nature of the financial industry, no one is going to hold hands with an OEM and jump off the cliff to build LSA–or any other aircraft, for that matter–by the tens of thousands.

    No matter what anyone does, there’s no market for them. And the price of fuel will only continue to rise. The supply and demand equation of economics 101 works, but an important variable in both sides of the equation is availability. Petroleum is a finite resource, and so are the number of people interested in flying. We need to consume them wisely.

    An interesting concept of the airport visitor centers. I remember when you found state visitor centers at almost every main road that crossed the border. Now, you’re lucky to find them on the major interstates. And when I’ve stopped at them, as recently as two weeks ago on a trip to Ohio, the information counters were, for the most part, empty; bathrooms were the primary destinations.

    Need drives terrestial travelers to visitor centers. What will get them to the airports? And where are you going to get the volunteers to run them, especially when most Americans care little about GA?

    My best guess for what you’ll end up with is the situation at many of the small museums located at GA airports nationwide: a valiant last stand by a group of aviation enthusiasts born during the depression and who came of age during World War II, and some of their children.

    Call it an epiphany, but it suddenly strikes me that general avaition today is much like the all-volunteer military. No one has to join; it is an occupation for those with the interest or the need.

    The nation, obviously, has a need, and what it takes to enlist the needed people can be easily measured at the pay and benefits. Or look at the GI Bill. When I got out of the Navy in 1978, my monthly GI Bill college reward for six years service was $312 a month. (But then I served when the draft made service–and military conflict–imiportant to every 18-year-old male). Today, the GI Bill pays full tuition, even if the vet is going to Harvard. (If you doubt this, check out http://www.newsweek.com/2009/04/17/a-few-good-universities.html)

    General aviation doesn’t have the resources to make a similar enticement to new pilot recruits. So all we’re left with is the opportunity to make general aviation the best niche activity it can be and serve its small number of participants to the best of our ability, and hope that they stay with us. As any instrustry will tell you, all consumers are fickle and have short attention spans. And with so many niche interests and activities ready to consume the consumer’s time and money, change is inevitable. So we can either adapt to it, or we can cling to old, ineffective efforts of past mass market dreams.

  4. Bill Says:

    The qualifications based instruction and the full course in the simulator first, is exactly what the major airlines are doing (and have been doing) for some time now. In this environment, time is money, BIG money! And airplane training is not only expensive but often impractical.
    The first time a new jet airline pilot sets foot in the airplane, it’s got passengers on it.

    It’s called Advanced Qualification Program (AQP). You’ll find the advisory circular describing the whole thing here: http://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/advisory_circulars/index.cfm/go/document.information/documentID/23190

  5. Tim Busch Says:

    Great comments Rick! I agree. Bravo! Look at the Harley Davidson “movement”. You almost can hear the harp music when you enter the stores. WELCOME the newbies!

    Scott, depressing. One of my mechanics talks about taking all the old aluminum airplanes and melting them into beer cans. I don’t know how anyone could stay in an industry with an Eeyore view of the world. At the end of the day, I have to disagree with everything you said, or we all need to get out and shut down the industry. I refuse.

    Bill, correct. The airline industry meets its needs. Now the rest of aviation needs to do the same (I refuse to use GA or FBO acronyms anymore).


  6. Rick Matthews Says:

    Rob thank you for an excellent blog site and an excellent topic. Thank you for the Bold Opinion promise, because that could very well be what it takes to wake us up into a new world of possibilities.

    Scotts response above is enlightening and appreciated, although it sounds a bit defeatistwith apologies. But, allow me to encourage the readers with some new thought.

    Re: Mass market. Where there is a mass, there will always be a potential mass market for anything that has the ability to enhance lives.

    Re: Aviation and the mass market. You are right, it really never was nor will it be enjoyed by the EVERYBODY, but look at how significant aviation has become to the percentage of the masses it HAS reached. We are dealing with perceptions and perceptions are subjective, i.e., not always what it we think it is.

    Re: OEMs and LSAs with most new LSAs coming from Eastern Europe or China still topping $100K, does anybody really think this is doing the industry any favors? When I go to Sebring [LSA Expo] I only hear cries of anguish from the show-goers, not sighs of relief. Where is the real benefit of SP/LSA? My big-picture solution to the aircraft cost problem will be covered more in-depth in an upcoming Jetwhine blog, but for now suffice to say that the industrys naivete in selling an aircraft to individuals instead of working up partnership groups is old school, and in-the-same-ole-box.

    Re: Valiant Last Stand i.e. what you get when there is indifference and apathy on the part of insiders, and we all think we have better things to do besides being positive ambassadors for this industry we love. If the cultural mindset is that of lets share our love of flying, and consequently everybody puts in some time at the Aviation Visitor Center [details that smart people can figure out I am just a lowly visionary!], then instead of the Last Stand we have a Cool Aid Stand at GA airports. There, we will find a much less confusing, much more purposeful means of building new friendships with the mass market at large then promote aviation, promote EAA, AOPA, NBAA, EIEIO, etc. Then watch amazing things happen

    My own epiphany was simply this: Today, somewhere, somebody is going to turn 16. He/she will want to go to the airport to sign up for lessons. Somewhere, a man who has put off owning an airplane while the kids grow up and the college loans were being paid is now ready to pursue HIS dream. Somewhere, a man has lost his medical after flying King Airs for decades, but has been told about Sport Pilot. Emotionally, it is gut wrenching for him because he was convinced it was over, but if he had somebody to encourage him, and a place to go hang out while getting encouragement, the gleam in his eye yet lives, and the industry still benefits from his presence. Point is: there is a mass market. All of the current pilots, all former pilots, all those quitters, and all those wannabe pilots constitute a mass market of sorts. The way we choose to package and promote aviation these days in todays new market era will be the turning point of either a) turning our backs on aviation growth, or b) working together on a more personal approach to regaining prosperity.

  7. Matt Cadwell Says:

    The problem with suggesting that flight training be as natural to a 17/18 year old as getting a drivers license or changing the measurement of experience is putting the cart before the horse.

    The fact is that only about 15% of flight schools nationwide make any decent attempt at getting and keeping customers. I’m talking about basic customer retention practices here. We conduct and have actual market research to back these numbers up.

    Lets convince flight school owners and operators that they need to catch up with the sales and marketing norms that are found in all other industries. Then we can talk about a world where teenagers get their PPL with their drivers license, FAA hours requirements are reformed, and volunteer staffed visitors centers are established.

    Lets offer them Sales & Marketing 101 to get them up to speed with the rest of industry. The “if you build it, they will come” mentality died about 10 years ago.

    –Matt Cadwell

  8. Rick Matthews Says:

    Matt, I agreed with you until the first line of your third paragraph.


    This puts the responsibility for increased aviation student-stsrts on FT. This is a poor place to put that onus as they are not equipped nor do they have the mindset to market. Even I, the consummate positive thinker, will admit that from a common sense point of view this cannot be done. Marketing 101 for FT? Don’t make them do that – they will resist as that is not in their DNA anyway. Try getting an engineer to close a sale! Flight schools, like most any school, simply expect people to show up on their doorstep and go all the way. CFIs and owners are usually good people with a passion for teaching while eeking out a living at it, not building up an industry.

    The Aviation Visitor Center concept is the solution. It will take a while to design and implement, but it would take marketing pressure off of all businesses on the field. This would consolidate marketing or promotion (or, in most cases, add marketing in areas where there is none at all) and create a single point-of-contact clearinghouse of information to council and BENEFIT the prospect walking in off the street. Remember: success in getting those dropout rates down comes from better initial orientation of what to expect.

    Let’s let the flight schools and freelancers all do what they do best: share their love of flying and teach new people. It’s up to all of US to see that their students are truly ready and qualified, so that they won’t become another statistic.

    Good stuff – keep it going.

  9. Scott Spangler Says:

    Neither depressed or defeated on the future of aviation, I’m a realist, so no apologies are needed. Aviation isn’t dying–we’re killing it with antiquated procedures and practices.

    During this conversations we’ve mentioned many of the ways we’re killing aviation, and responsibility belongs to us all, not just flight schools, who are the first — and most imporant — contact prospective flyers have with aviation.

    Excusing flight schools and their staffs honestly exercising basic marketing and customer service skills just because they’d rather fly is a large part of what caused our current situation.

    In any activity, no matter how large or small, everyone has to contribute to the whole by “selling” it to potential customers no matter what their job description. As for an engineer’s inability to close the sale, don’t tell that to Hal Shevers, the Purdue mechanical engineer and new CFI who started Sporty’s 49.5 years ago by selling aviation band radios out of the trunk of his car at Lunken Airport.

    You’re right that an market of any size has mass, but avaition needs to recalibrate its aspirations. And it could effectively double its customer base by eliminating the dropout rates.

    There are no hard numbers, but many agree that anecdotally, roughly 6 of 10 people who start learning to fly quit before they solo, which is when most of them get their student pilot certificate and show up on a verifiable count. Of those who get a student pilot certificate, maybe three or four actually get a sport, recreational, or private pilot certificate.

    You’re right, somewhere out there is a 16 year old longing to fly or a new empty nester ready to take his turn and fly. And given the state o aviation today, their odds of the realizing their dreams are against them — unless aviation changes the way it does business, and that includes how we train pilots, which was the point of my post.

    I agree withot reservation that AQM is the way to go with those who want to fly for personal transportation or a career. But it is antipodal to the purpose of recreational flight. If people who want to fly for fun wanted sim time, they’ll power up Microsoft Flight Simulator or X-Plane.

    And today’s 60-year-old time-based pilot training requirements aren’t making this any easier. Until we come up with a better, more modular set of training requirements that allows new pilots to acqire the skills needed for the type of flying they want to do, and flight schools and instructors modernize their business and educational practices, we’ll continue to kill aviation.

    And let’s give up the impossible panacea of cheaper aircraft. In the grand scheme of things, it is an inconsequential component compared to the alienation of roughly three-quarters of aspiring aviators. Besides, no durable good today is cheaper than it was in days past, especially in a shrinking marketplace.

    As for the LSA marketplace, expect the number of manufacturers to shrink as well. The situation today isn’t much different than it was in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

    Aviation then was still in its adolsecence, and there were a lot of companies making airplanes. When times got tough, natural selection thinned that herd.

    Like I said, I’m a realist. While we’re working on aviation’s other problems, we all can strive to reduce the dropout rate for one important reason beyond the acquisition of another desparately needed participant.

    Word of mouth is a key element of marketing, especially among customers. I’ve read that the orations of a single customer influence the decisions of up to 10 potential customers. And then remember that aviation stymies the dreams of up to three-quaters of its most ardant customers.

    As I said earlier, avaition is not dying–we’re killing it.

  10. @williamAirways Says:

    Aviation Visitor Center. Sounds nice on paper. Honestly, in this age, where Al Gore provided us with the Interwebs, building up an AVC with brick and mortar is just old school thinking. Your AVCs already exist. Every flight school has information about how to become a pilot on their web sites. AOPA and EAA provides this information. FAA provides this information. How to become a pilot information is out there, everywhere, on the Interwebs. As I’d like to say, “f***king Google it slacker”.

    Okay, so let’s have reality settle in here. A 16/17 year old is NOT going to have the cash to sport a private pilot flight training program, even if its done under Part 61. Their cash comes from mom and dad. The national average salary of individuals is $75,000 before taxes. What do you think is left after mortgage/rent payments, food, bills, etc. The problem with the “mass market” is that the mass market has very little disposable income. Last I checked, unemployment is at 9.6%, and that’s an *average* which means some are far worse. Plenty of foreclosures and folks walking away from their mortgages out there. The target market you’re looking at resides in the upper middle class and that elusive 1% of the population who seem to have all the money. Somehow I think the 1% aren’t the ones looking for flight training; more like they’re building flight departments for their corporations, looking to hire the existing talents out there.

    It comes down to money. Flying is expensive. Airplane rental rates are expensive. CFI rates these days are $50/hour or more. I heard some guy in Atlanta charges $140/hour. Really? I’m giving free flight training to people and they still can’t complete the course work because of something called “other aspects of their lives” getting in the way. Let’s face it, the people who *really* want to be pilots are very few and far between. There’s a reason why less than 1% of this country’s population are pilots. (Hrm…there’s that 1% number again…)

    With regard to flight training, Scott Spangler mentioned a change in methodology to develop “better, more modular set of training requirements that allows new pilots to acquire the skills needed for the type of flying they want to do”. It already exists. It’s called scenario based training. Yes, it is still based on the existing rules that dates back to the CAB (I think, I could be wrong on this), but it addresses the mission type training that fits that type of flying the customer will ultimately conduct.

    I do agree with Scott that “we’re killing” aviation. But let’s define who “we” are first before we can come up with a solution. Everyone here is focusing on ONE solution. Well, honestly, aviation has many fronts that require solutions of their own.

    I think the aviation industry fails to recognize that a good part of the problem is folks simply don’t have money to dick around with airplanes. It’s frigging expensive, and people know that they can have a lot of fun doing something else, multiple times over, for the same cost as an hour of flight training. Getting that pilot’s certificate is just the beginning. No one talks about the “maintenance cost” of being a pilot. You HAVE TO fly to stay proficient. That costs money. You HAVE TO get a BFR. That costs money. You have to get a medical certificate. That costs money. You have to get charts, rent the airplane (or pay the tie down/hangar fees), insurance, fuel, etc. It all costs money!

    I love going to these expos and conventions where you discover the price tag of airplanes and avionics and such. Sure, can I pay you in gum? It’s the new triple layered kind.

    Where is everyone getting their money from? Money is where the problem is. And unless you can reduce the cost of this activity, it will always be an activity for the rich. Period. So your “mass market” really isn’t that massive at the end of the day.

    Oh, and I’ll say this again, there are actually people who could care less about becoming a pilot. I mean like really could care less about it. It never occurred to them, and when exposed to fun flights like island hopping in the Northeast or going to fun destinations, they’re more interested in the destination and have very little regard for the actual flight. The only person excited about the flying, well, was me, the pilot. When given a choice between paying big money and dedicating time and hard studying to become a pilot vs. http://www.jetblue.com ten clicks and you got a plane ticket for a fraction of the cost, well, I think we all can do math. Plus, flying yourself in these sewing machines (and corporate jets) have a point of diminishing returns. I can fly cheaper on airliners than I can when I’m the pilot. Now tell me why someone would want to do it the expensive way again? You better have love and passion for flight, otherwise, you’re just a passenger with money to spend elsewhere for a lot more enjoyment.

    I am a realist, like Scott is on this topic. How do “we” fix it? Start by giving away flight instruction and airplane time. I think you’ll find that the next problem besides money is motivation/dedication/interest. And that’s a lot harder to solve.

    Note: Al Gore, Interwebs, and other sarcastic remarks are purely used to add (dry) humor to this post.

  11. Rick Matthews Says:

    In regards to the comment above, I am sorry this constructive conversation has to resort to sarcasm and profanity to get one’s point across. Usually that is indicative of either one of two things: a) an inability to express oneself adequately in the arena of ideas, or b) there is some obvious deep-rooted passion there in something he cares deeply about. Assuming (b) to be the case for now, I would like to respond if I may.

    First of, I did not detect much in the way of real improvement…or positive much of anything for that matter.

    Secondly, you only offer cynical, caustic comment to some common-sense proposals for some reason, maybe because “it can’t be done”….what was that dropout rate again?

    Thirdly, there is too much unnecessary arguing going on – myself included – regarding the definition of “mass market”. As I mentioned in an earlier post, perception is what one wants it to be, I supposed. You chose to shoot holes in my examples of what happens in real life. Not sure why? Consider this fact, though: there are currently close to 700,000 ACTIVE pilots in the FAA register – those with active medicals, basically. Is that a mass market? Probably not. But it is a market. Enough to be catered to by the likes of something called Sun N Fun and Oshkosh. The logical extension is, I have been told, to multiply that figure by a factor of two to get the total number of those who let the medical expire, or are flying without medicals, or others ways to get in, outside the count. That brings the “market” up to, say, 1.5M.

    Still not a mass market, I admit, but you know what? I think it is possible to have those numbers significantly higher if some things changed.

    The difference is in attitude – an attitude about the industry, and an attitude in how we conduct ourselves in it.

    Industry – If we choose to have a defeatist, negative, cynical attitude, then maybe it is time to move on to another industry rather than souring the milk for those who find it to be satisfying. Alternatively, if we choose to have a positive outlook to the point we are willing to work for good change and actually do it, then guess who benefits? Everybody.

    Individually – If we choose to approach aviation, instruction, or business with profanity and sarcasm and complaining while we’re exposed to the customer/flying public, then we will reap what we sow. (What was that dropout rate again?)

    If we chose to conduct ourselves professionally, as ambassadors, get behind AOPA and EAA chapters and other groups to promote the airport and make the industry attractive, we will benefit.

    Nobody has ever suggested new brick and mortar for AVC’s. In fact, that possibility of a solution has only been very recently proposed. Every thing that exists originally began as an idea. If is a good, good people get behind it and find ways to make it so.

    I would ask that there be more encouragement of positive ideas for change instead of tearing good ideas apart for the sake of the status quo…or ego preservation.

    I love the quote, “He who says it cannot be done should not interrupt those doing it…”

  12. @williamAirways Says:

    Rick, you can preach all you want. Reality is, no money, no game. And I didn’t shoot down anyone’s ideas. I’m simply pointing out what already exists today. If you want to spend the money and brick up an AVC, go ahead. It’s not my money, and I’m certainly not going to stop you.

    Check your numbers, by the way. There aren’t over 700,000. According to the FAA, 2009 saw less than 600,000 active pilots. And those who lost their medicals can’t qualify to fly LSA without jumping over some serious hurdles with CAMI.

    I’m simply pointing out that the market is small, and it doesn’t include the “mass” as many folks like to believe. We can’t just brick up flight schools like McDonald’s and expect mass paying customers like McDonald’s.

    Sorry about the profanity and sarcasm. If you can’t deal with it, don’t read it. Not all of us play the politically correct game. And I’m sorry that I’m not as eloquent with my words compared to a scholar like yourself. Please, give me lessons and advice as they are welcome.

  13. Scott Spangler Says:

    Okay, everyone. Let us all sit back and take a deep breath or two.

    It seems clear that everyone in this conversation is passionate about the need for a viable and sustainable future for aviation.

    And it seems that how we must work together to achieve this also seems clear, even through we are looking at the solutions like blind guys feeling up an elephant. (Okay, sorry about that one.)

    I think all would agree that there are many problems to solve and many ways to solve them. And we must agree that some problems we cannont solve, like the cost of flying, in any meaningful way because it is held hostage, if you will, by the financial environment in which is exists.

    Perhaps we also should agree that there is no one solution to aviation’s problems, and that it will not happen overnight. It took us roughly 60 years to get here, but unless we start now, nothing will change.

    And we can all start now by, as someone said earlier, by being honest but positive supporters of aviation at every turn. And we have to subvert our individual preferences and predispositions for the benefit of the whole.

    In other words, you may thing the sport and/or recreational pilot certificicates are a joke, but they are still viable options for people who want to fly. If all they want to do is take their kids or grandkids for a flight around the neighborhood on a nice weekend, why should have have to spend $10,000 for a private pilot certificate to do it?

    Finally, we have to be honest with ourselves. Flying is expensive. Flying is not for everyone. Those infected with the flying bug will sacrafice much for it, so it is our solemn responsibility to support them, regardless of our prejudices and preferences. If we can do these simple things, aviation has a chance.

  14. Tim Busch Says:

    Scott, I believe what we’re seeing is perspective differences. For those who think in the present (and past), aviation is not for everyone and it’s expensive…TODAY. All true, no argument there.

    Visionaries aren’t worried about the present. Paint a picture, then describe and work a plan to get there.

    Those two perspectives are often incompatible. I get that. I will continue doing what I can to help improve the industry.

    Signing off….

  15. Ian Twombly Says:

    Good comments, and a few ideas I haven’t heard before. I want to take one of Scott’s points and blow it out a bit.

    70 percent. That’s the figure I’ve come to settle on for the number of people who quit flight training. It’s a sobering figure. And if you can stop some of that flow out of the funnel, you’ll go a long way to solving the issue of a dwindling pilot population. But how to do it?

    First, cost is not the issue. Don’t believe me? Survey your nonpilot friends and ask them how much it costs to get a pilot certificate. I bet most answer a lot more than the real figure. There’s a reason we’ve been pegged as a rich man’s hobby–people think it’s expensive. So the vast majority of people aren’t quitting because of money.

    Take money out and you come down to a few very specific problems. Either people run out of time and support or something in the process discourages them. In my opinion, most people quit because of something associated directly with their training. Either they get discouraged, they feel they are being ripped off, it becomes a chore instead of being fun, or they feel the quality of instruction isn’t up to par. All of these problems are our fault and could easily be remedied.

    I remember during orientation at my first job when I was 16 we had to watch a video about customer service. In it, they said for every customer you turn off in some way, that customer tells three of his or her friends not to shop there anymore. When 70 percent of people quit, that is a huge trickle down problem. And yet, the majority of flight schools do nothing to stop the flow.

    That brings up another interesting point. Ask a local flight school how many students they have, how many hours a month the airplanes fly, how many people are dropping out, and how many prospects they convert, and I would wager $5 they don’t know the answers to those questions.

    In short, we are terrible at the business of education students and selling our product. Flight training should be fun, the airport should be welcoming, and the customer should always feel like he or she is in control of their training.

    Those are just my opinions. AOPA is concerned about the issue too, and the association has taken some initial steps to try and identify why people are quitting. Stayed tuned to Flight Training magazine as we talk more about this very important topic in the future.

    Ian Twombly
    Deputy Editor, Flight Training magazine

  16. Rick Matthews Says:

    That was a breath of fresh air – thank you. I have enjoyed your insightful writing for years in the AOPA family of magazines. As a Project Pilot Mentor, I came to similar conclusions years ago regarding the inability (or is it unwillingness?) of flight schools to educate the public as to the risks, costs, and opportunities associated with becoming a pilot, which only contributes to the dropout rate.

    Your opinions are good ones, as they are based on professional observations while “in it”. Good observations lead to good opinions, which lead to great ideas, which lead to solutions, etc.

    While it’s not likely we’ll all be building brick-n-mortar Aviation Visitor Centers nation-wide any time soon, the concept merits some serious industry consideration. Even from a figurative point of view, an “AVC” could be whatever that prospect sees when he first pulls off the highway. What does he see? The “FBO”? (and please, dear God, let’s please stop using that term, which has confused generations of people since the War…what is wrong with something relateable like “Flight Center”?) Is the place welcoming? Friendly? The people he has first contact with – are they honest and knowledgeable?

    Yes, I have devoted more than one sleepless night working on solutions that would benefit and sustain the industry if we could only reduce that dropout rate. There are some serious solutions in the making, like broader fractional ownership and better simulator requirements. Each deserves serious consideration in lieu of stubbornly protecting the “way it has always been done”. That, as Scott so aptly puts it above, could be the basis of “WE are killing it”.

  17. Tim Busch Says:

    Great comments Ian. We certainly need to keep more customers in the funnel AND grow the funnel (more customers).

    We did some experimentation with price and can confirm your suspicions that price isn’t the issue. You said it exactly right: those who don’t know assume flight training is much more expensive than it is, and always express surprise that it is as affordable as it is. The typical problem is time. Customers want and need to get licensed quickly in order to keep the excitement and perceived value of training. Dragging it out lowers retention dramatically.

    I agree that most schools don’t know how to run as a business (I’d like to believe we’re an exception, because I CAN answer those questions).

    I would hope schools would be open-minded enough to accept outside help in growing their businesses. We’re all in this together.

    Still thinking about the AYC concept….gotta work on that. I like it.


  18. Scott Spangler Says:

    Thanks, Ian, for the heads-up on the upcoming information in Flight Training.

    Not to stir things up, but part of me thinks that the current challenges aviation is now facing will result in a stronger, more efficient — and customer savy — airport businesses.

    The problems we’ve been talking about for the many words have been around for a long time, certainly well before we lauched Flight Training in 1989.

    What we now face is the aviation equivilent of whatever killed the dinosaurs, and natural selection (companies who’ve adapted to the current environment and can answer the questions that Ian posed) will survive and make the species stronger.

  19. @williamAirways Says:

    Finish the sentence please, Mr. Twombly. Money is not the issue for…who? I know for a FACT that there are pilots who *can’t* complete their training because they can’t come up with the money. I also know that you can pretty much exclude everyone below the poverty line and a good deal of people in the middle class who can’t afford to drop this kind of cash on becoming a pilot.

    I know pilots out there who are looking for the cheapest possible flying. I’ve also seen pilots switching equipment type to fly because of a difference of $5/hour. Well why is this? Could it be that because money *is* a factor? I also know pilots who have taken flying completely out of their budget. Money is not the problem? I have a potential student who have not been able to get started because money is an issue. I also can’t begin to tell you how fast someone drops their CFI because I’m willing to drop my CFI fee, which is 60% below the market to begin with. Money isn’t an issue?

    Flying and becoming a pilot is an elitist pursuit. It is reachable to those who have the money to do it. $8,000 – $14,000 may not be a lot of money to drop on pilot training for you, but it is a LOT of money for someone who doesn’t have it but have the desire to.

    I can tell you right now that 3 out of the last 4 students that I have had in the past year dropped out because money was the issue. I’d love to detail their specific situations but it would be unethical of me to do so. They were all great students and were well on their way, but…no dough, no show.

    Finally, there are people who go into flight training and discover that it is a lot more expensive than they initially thought or were told. One of my biggest pet peeves is a flight school/instructor who advertises the “cost” of flight training based on the FAA minimum required aeronautical experience. Take private pilot for instance. Regs say 40 hours. The national average is almost twice that. So that’s almost twice the cost than what was initially thought and/or planned for by the student. Each student is different so their hours to completion will be different. But flight schools/instructors also know that if they present the real numbers, they’ll more likely lose the student. So it’s better to get *some* money than nothing because after all, rent and bills have to be paid. This is one of the oldest wool to pull over students’ eyes out there. And it has to stop.

    Yes, money is an issue. As John King queried at the beginning of the King Schools private pilot training video, “What makes an airplane fly? MONEY!” It’s a fact, and if you want to dismiss it, well, good luck solving this problem.

    Respectfully submitted.

  20. Ian Twombly Says:

    Don’t misunderstand. I have no doubt there are people who quit training because they don’t have the money. But it’s not the cause of the epidemic.

    Take the medical example. Patients might get sick from a certain drug, but that doesn’t mean the drug isn’t approved on a large scale. I think money is the same problem in flight training. Perhaps a more refined way of saying it is that I don’t believe money is the THE problem, as many have tried to claim. Golf is expensive. Boating is very expensive. Buying an RV, now THAT’s expensive. But yet people do them all in large numbers. Why?

    Regarding your specific points, $8,000 to $14,000 is a lot of money for me. But if I didn’t have it, I’d seek out sport training, which is much cheaper. Or I’d look at buying into a share of a 150 and trading out flight time for instruction, or some other creative avenue. And it certainly doesn’t surprise me that people go to cheaper instructors. Rich people would do that too.

  21. @williamAirways Says:

    Ian, I hate to continuously be the dark side of the force here but here’s the problem with all those other activities that you mentioned.

    Golf. There’s a one time expense associated with purchasing a set of clubs that can last a very long time with very little expense in maintenance and repair. The balls, well, you can find them cheaper by the dozen as they say. A round of golf can be expensive but there are *many* courses that are very cheap and offers the player a day in the sun for 4 plus hours over 18 holes. I personally have recently been a part of an 18 hole venture with two golf carts where four people participated, and enjoyed a full day of golf for less than an hour of flight instruction (plane included). I think you will agree that this is certainly not as expensive compared to flight training. (More than 1 hour for the same money used for flight training.)

    Boating. The initial cost of the boat is expensive, no doubt. But there are boats you can purchase for the same price as a used Skyhawk or Archer. If you are the rich person to own that boat, you certainly have the ability, and perhaps desire, to offer other people to share the boating experience. To these people, the ride is pretty much free or very nearly so. But there’s one amazing thing about boating that you simply cannot do with an airplane. You can park that baby in the bay with a boat load of people, enjoy the sun, swim, go fishing, BBQ, clamming, etc. all cost less than a couple of hours of instruction which assures a FULL DAY of enjoyment for many people! In my experience, having 4 people in a Skyhawk was a means to an end for my passengers who could care less about the flight. They just want to get to the destination and get on that boat! To them, the short flight was a short lived novelty. (More than 1 hour for the same money used for flight training.)

    RV. People live in RVs. People don’t live in their airplanes (typically). So in this regard, an RV is a mobile home with an infrastructure that can support a very long lasting, adventurous life style which offers a lot more to the individual and his/her family, dollar for dollar. The owner of an RV has the ability and potential to spend 24 hours in it. With an airplane, not so much. (More than 1 hour for the same money used for flight training.)

    So the answer to your question of “why” is simple. Opportunity cost. There is a world of activities out there that are *much* cheaper to do and more desirable to do than becoming a pilot and flying. Now, I personally don’t get it because flying is just awesome! However, I have to say that in my years of being a pilot, I’ve noticed that a good majority of the people I know think it’s cool, but would never get involved with it for reasons stemming from money to time to zero desire to do so.

    You will have to agree that given $200, one has the ability to put together a nice BBQ dinner at the park, shared by 10 people for 4 hours or more, building relationships with each other and having a memorable time. If one were to do this 40 times a year (using 40 hours of flight training as a baseline), the relationships between these people could be considerable, and even profitable! In the aviation industry, yes, you are networking, but I have to tell you, I’ve found it to be an elitist mentality with some very elitist attitudes, and often times, the pleasantries don’t translate to what you believe to be genuine. (More than 1 hour for the same money used for flight training.)

    Many of my friends can have a great time with people locally, doing fun things, go on road trips for less money than the cost of flight training (hour for hour comparison), many times over, building great memories. In flight training, you’re building a relationship with your instructor, maybe multiple instructors, who you do not know personally (initially), and may not want to know after you get into your flight training. (More than 1 hour for the same money used for flight training.)

    I’ve taken my friends flying to do the proverbial $100 brunch/lunch/dinner flights and they are think it’s “cool” but…none of them would consider become a pilot. When asked why, I have received three responses that are typical:

    1. not in the budget
    2. no interest
    3. “my wife would kill me” or “my wife will never go for it”
    4. no time

    and my recent favorite one:

    5. “flying is for ‘other’ people”

    The last one was interesting. The thought behind this after I dug into it was that they believe that flying is for the elite, that “ordinary” people have no business doing it.

    I agree that money is not *the* problem. But it is a considerable problem. I just did an unscientific poll on Twitter, and while the number of respondents were low, every single one of them said that money was an issue in their primary training or current training for an instrument rating. Not a single respondent said money was not an issue to them. Now why is that? If money isn’t an issue, then why is WAI, the 99’s, and other organizations work so hard to provide scholarships?

    I think there are people out there who have the dream, but to a majority of them, that’s all it is, and that’s all it will ever be. There are four qualities that a student must possess in order to be successful in flight training. I’m sure you’ve heard of STEM. But it doesn’t stand for what you think it does. My definition of STEM is:


    Take out one of these factors, and the student fails to launch. This problem of pilot shortage is big. But to discount the money factor is unrealistic. But it certainly is an interesting topic to collaborate on! :)

  22. Matt Cadwell Says:

    Folks, all the discussion (while interesting) is taking up valuable time where you could be doing things and achieving goals.

    We’re already dedicated to helping flight schools bulk up their sales and marketing toolbox, and we’ve been very successful in helping flight schools get and keep more students. A few other innovators are also walking the walk in respect to other aspects of industry change. Lets go out and do something. True innovators remove themselves from the fireside chat and go make a difference.

    -Matt Cadwell

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