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