Four tips to increase student retention

Ever since I began flight training in 2008, the same question regularly comes up around the airport. “Why aren’t more people coming out to learn to fly?” Given that I was still early in my lessons when first confronted with this industry-wide dilemma, I was baffled–learning to fly was simply the greatest life experience (and investment) possible. I was living my dream for what amounted to the cost of a short-term car payment (more on that later). So, why didn’t others feel the same way?

I started digging into this issue when soon enough my own “plight of flight” set in. Weather started hampering my schedule, and with a three-hour round-trip drive to the airport only to find upon arrival that crosswinds now exceeded the Thorpedo’s limitations, the process quickly grew old. If it were not for the great relationship with my CFI and genuine enjoyment drawn from every lesson (even those on the ground), Mother Nature combined with what soon became one mechanical obstacle after another surely would have shooed me away.

Now, five years later with close to 100 aviation lectures under my belt, I realize that cost itself is not the barrier, but rather, value determines commitment. “How much am I willing to pay to live my dream?” In other words, if it costs me $6,000 to get my sport pilot certificate (and that is what I paid), it is only expensive if I am having a lousy time. If the experience is great, it’s a bargain.

So, what are some things the flight training industry (and pilot community in general) can do to stop losing eight of every 10 students? Here are four ideas:

#1 Certificate vs. Experience: Learning to fly cannot be primarily the pursuit of a certificate. Instead, the focus needs to be on the enjoyment and experience of each and every lesson. Most people take tennis lessons in order to enjoy the game, not to become Roger Federer. The image of commercial aviation isn’t doing GA any favors, so setting that up as a motivator isn’t going to win often.

#2 Cost vs. Value: Even though statistics show that cost isn’t the major reason the majority of students drop out of flight training, we need to accept the fact that it will always cost a pretty penny. So, the only way to offset cost is to consistently provide value through great experiences. This means a professional operation (professionalism also communicates the sense of safety) with approachable but confident instructors and inspiring aircraft, including an exciting LSA, are necessary. Along with that, the price tag needs to work into a family budget. I found that if I take the $6,000 I spent to become a sport pilot and amortize it over 12 months (not far from the national average to earn one’s certificate), I spent $500/month to live my dream. I know people who pay more in car payments, and this is for just one year! All of a sudden, the value starts to make sense.

#3 “Anyone Can Do It” vs “You Can Do It”: I cringe every time I hear an advocacy organization or flight school say “anyone can do it.” Maybe anyone can, but not everyone can do it safely, and therefore not everyone should. But from a marketing point of view, “anyone can do it” is terribly short sighted. If I’m struggling with landings and have been told that “anyone can do it,” you can bet that my $6,000 is soon going to feel expensive since I’m feeling incapable of doing something that “anyone” can do. Rather, I’d like to be reinforced throughout by “you can do it.” Let’s not be afraid of exposing the challenge of aviation. A personal challenge is not a barrier to entry. In fact, it’s an incentive.

#4 We’re elite. There, I said it! I know that sounds pretentious and many shy away from the label, but let’s look at this in perspective. About 1 percent of the general population walks though the doors of a flight school and only 20 percent of them actually earn their license. So, we can talk about the 1 percent and 99 percent all we want, but in respect to aviation, we’re actually the .2 percent. Talk about being the exception. I’ll take that with honor and run with it. We work very hard to learn to fly, and equally hard to stay sharp and pursue our passion. The world would be a better place if more had the courage of their desires. Moreover, the skills that we acquire through flight training gives us an edge throughout most aspects of life. As I wrote once in Flight Training magazine, “Imagine if learning to fly were a requirement to graduate high school. American education probably wouldn’t be falling behind on the world’s stage.” It’s hard to argue that a pilot isn’t simply more aware than the average, and that gives an edge that permeates every aspect of life. Additionally, we defy Mother Nature every time we take to the skies. If one falls into the water, one naturally floats. Land provides a platform on which we naturally walk. But there is nothing natural about defying gravity, and if that doesn’t make us just a little elite, I don’t know what does. We have conquered nature, and are privileged to participate in one of humanity’s greatest achievements–aviation. Now that’s something worth promoting.

–Ravi, aviation speaker and musician

  • TLA

    I especially like point #3. And regarding #4, we can have a huge impact to the pilot population if we simply upped the success rate to 40% of people coming through the door.

    For the 60% who walk in the door and don’t become pilots, I think the industry is missing a huge opportunity. Just because a student doesn’t become a pilot doesn’t mean he can’t become an aircraft owner. I think we tend to market them as being mutually exclusive, but there are owners of large singles and light twins who hire pilots to fly them around.

    • Ravi “The Raviator”

      Great point TLA, thanks for the input.

  • Rebecca Gibson

    You are absolutely right, Ravi. I especially agree that each lesson should be as much of the goal as a certificate or rating. I had one student fly with me for five years with no intention of even soloing. She did it because she enjoyed our “adventures” together. She would have spent the money in casinos if she hadn’t spent it at my flight school.

    • Ravi “The Raviator”

      Thanks Rebecca…no doubt her “odds” were far better in the cockpit with you!

  • Jennifer

    Well said, Ravi! I especially like Point #4. In an era when political correctness demands that we apologize for anything of a higher level than what Joe Sixpack is willing to reach for, it’s refreshing to hear someone defend the importance of standards to the preservation of a culture worth having.
    Demanding greater investment while delivering more of the things/experiences that high-achieving students value, will encourage the desirable to self-select in and the weedy to self-select out. Even if aviation, like driving, “can” be for anybody, really, do we WANT “anybody” in the sky? What will that do for safety, pleasure, and the morale of those who are looking for the experiences that challenge them to grow?

    • Ravi “The Raviator”

      Thanks Jennifer! I appreciate your input and support.

  • Obie Young

    Ravi: You are on Target: 1. Learning to fly cannot be primarily the pursuit of a certificate. Instead, the focus needs to be on the enjoyment and experience of each and every lesson. 2 The way to offset cost is to consistently provide value through great experiences. 3.A personal challenge is not a barrier to entry. In fact, it’s an incentive. 4.We’re elite. (Pilots) In simple terms you have passion for Aviation. – That is what we should be selling – the passion. When people buy there “dream home” … they are buying the “dream”. *** OBIE ***

    • Ravi “The Raviator”

      Thanks Obie! As I always like to say, “Sell the Dream, Provide the Access.”

      • John

        Finally, someone gives up on being politically correct to get our story out. One of the big rewards for getting a pilot’s license is that you are in an elite group of travelers.

        • Ravi “The Raviator”

          Thanks for the support John!

  • Claudia Conteras

    Great Article. I like to share my story I started out flying with one goal in mind to fly for the airlines. Well as I got into aviation and started to fly small aircraft it was fun, really fun and such a stress reliever. Who has time to think about bills when up in the air?
    I joined a local pilot club, they have such a great impact on how much flying I do, I don’t own my own aircraft but most of the other members do. There is always someone willing to let me fly with them. I would encourage everyone to join a local flight club.
    I currently spend my afternoons instructing. I don’t think I want to pursue the airline path, I am looking more to the general aviation aspect of aviation.

    • Ravi “The Raviator”

      Thanks Claudia, that is good advice regarding the flying club. We must all try to be resourceful in order to keep the dream alive!

  • http://googlecrome Jim Dulin

    Like Claudia, I enjoy teaching. While flying Cobra gunships in Vietnam, crop dusting in Pawnees, and flying pipeline 17,000 hours was fun, instructing has been the most rewarding.

    For fifty years I have noticed that students come to the airport to learn by doing. We do them a great disservice if we spend more than just a very few minutes each flight demonstrating. Letting them see what the controls do by moving them while we talk them through it is much more effective and keeps the interest alive.

    Ravi’s first point is most relevant. It is not all about ratings and certificates. If we can just leave the piled higher and deeper (PHD, PPL, CPL, ATP, etc.) stuff until we have taught them to fly, we will establish tremendous loyalty to aviation whatever their final goal. That translates to as early a solo as possible. I have never allowed a student to fly more than ten hours without solo. Solo requires only the ability to safely make three takeoffs and three landings. Pretty simple stuff.

    • Ravi “The Raviator”

      Thanks Jim, I appreciate your input. Indeed, “learn by doing” is why we come.

  • StevieTimes

    You can tell me the cost isn’t too high, and point out the value, and I agree.

    However, try putting it in perspective; like a car drivers license. Tell a student driver it will cost them $7,000 to get their license. You can point to the value of a license all day long; it’s still really expensive. if the flying pursuit is “just for fun”, you have to really be motivated to commit.

    I don’t have a good answer; but if I got paid any less than I do now, I’d probably have to walk away from aviation.

    • Ravi “The Raviator”

      Stevie, thanks for your input. I agree that if you put it in that context, it is a tough sell. But, driving is largely utilitarian, and while the GA industry often tries to sell learning to fly on that basis, I don’t think it works for the exact reason you point out. I believe the value of learning to fly needs to be recognized as something more special than a driver’s license, and I’m with you on the need to be really motivated–that inspiration is what we need to “sell” in this industry.