The story behind the awards

As we embarked on the 2013 Flight Training Excellence Awards process we sought to build on the fantastic customer response in the nominations for the 2012 awards. Using the newfound knowledge that many flight training customers are willing to tell us about their experiences like they do for other services, we decided to change from a nomination process to a poll. We gave people a balanced mechanism to describe their experience, positive and negative.

Our reward is a look through the eyes of 3,375 consumers that show not only what constitutes a high-value training experience, but also lets us contrast that to those that had a low-value training experience. This consumer-derived report card will be presented at the Flight Training and Pilot Community Summit on October 9 in Fort Worth, Texas, and in Flight School Business communications. We hope this information will help you inform your decisions and priorities for your flight school.

With the new data collection mechanism of the poll we can show a distinct separation between the experiences that customer’s value and those that customers do not. We have used the separation to name not only the one “Best” and top 20 percent “Outstanding” in each category, but we will also able to recognize an “Honor Roll”.

Most consumers will only give a new hobby or leisure pursuit one try. If that experience doesn’t meet with their value expectation we will likely not get another chance as an industry to get them back. By acknowledging these schools and instructors on behalf of their customers we are helping to illuminate beacons that guide prospective pilots to experiences that will more likely result in not only a certificate, but lifelong pilots.

To the recipients of the 2013 awards thank you for converting on the one shot we as an industry had with your customers. We say congratulations, we hope you display your awards physically and electronically with pride and new customers find you because of your achievement. Keep up the good work and your customers will make you a 2014 award winner next year.

–Shannon Yeager, vice president of strategic initiatives, AOPA’s Center to Advance the Pilot Community

Create a positive CFI culture

Recently I had an opportunity to visit with the NTSB. Normally any visit with the NTSB would be under circumstances that none of us would like to be in, but this was different. I was invited to the NTSB training center by a flight school owner and his instructors. We had just eaten pizza and I was sitting in the classroom when I really began to see some of the secret sauce of this successful flight training business.

This flight training business has a yearly full-day CFI standardization workshop, but they also bring the group together once a month. The monthly meetings do have the usual updates for standardization and ongoing issues, but they go quite a bit farther. They take the time to really share and celebrate successes in a way that makes it obvious the staff feels like they are part of something important and meaningful. It was such an upbeat and inspiring meeting, I secretly wanted to fill out a job application.

This particular monthly meeting included the NTSB meeting, which consisted of a full program of looking at actual evidence of training accidents and a tour of the NTSB training “laboratory.” The obvious effort involved in putting the evening on and having it go beyond the day-to-day logistics and issues of training operations was obvious. The investment of time and energy in the CFI as a person and whole aviator has resulted in such a positive and supportive CFI culture that it overflows into a positive and supportive customer experience at this school.

The CFI is the face of a flight school and the face of aviation as a whole for our new pilots in training. Efforts that show school leadership has an interest and values its CFIs are modeling the behavior we expect to be projected by the CFI to our customers.  As humans we tend to emulate behaviors that are modeled for us. So you may not have the NTSB training center with the pieced together remains of TWA flight 800 in your backyard, but there is always some type of experience you can make available for your staff to feed their own desires as a pilot and a person.

What do you do to create a positive CFI culture?

–Shannon Yeager, AOPA vice president of strategic initiatives in the Center to Advance the Pilot Community


Project Flight School: An end and a beginning

When consultants Rod and Mike first met with Nayda and the folks at Cirrus Aviation, the plan was to spend a few month together going through the business from top to bottom. The consultants would suggest changes, and Cirrus Aviation would try those changes and report on their success. But the relationship didn’t last as long as expected. Nayda was trying to run a business and be attentive to the consultant’s needs, and the consultants believed things were happening fast enough. Here’s Nadya’s take on the situation:

So the consulting relationship has come to an end a little prematurely. Quite alright, as I have learned several valuable lessons from the experience. First let’s talk about what a good consulting relationship should be. This is my second time getting consulting from an outside company and I have learned each time what I don’’t want in a consulting relationship next time around–just like an ex-boyfriend. And staying in line with that, learning what I do want, as well. First and foremost is a two-way street of communication. I want a company to come in and assess my needs by listening to me, looking at our existing business model, and then applying their expertise into the equation. Both experiences I’ve had have been in reverse order. In hindsight, my insight and my expertise is very important in this equation. I think a successful consultant will do more listening than speaking, more input than output, particularly in the discovery phase.

Point two is something that Mike mentioned and that is never to reveal our pricing. This is something I have done in good faith with the highest ethical intentions in mind and it has only created an absolute nightmare. I have customers line iteming me to death, and getting lost in such minutia, that they lose the whole point of their training: proficiency and competency. I am taking the line item back out of our marketing materials and I’’m getting smart about it. Mike said sell the emotional side of things. He’’s absolutely right. I know it, I’’ve said it, and I’’ve even trained my staff to sell the sizzle not the steak. But I need to take it a step further, and I fully intend to.

Before they parted ways Rod and Mike gave Nayda a list of priorities they believed would help turn around the business. Much of this is an extension of issues the two sides had already discussed, but it helps illuminate their vision of how the consulting process went, and how Nayda should continue.

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Project Flight School: The test subject

The process of business optimization is underway at Cirrus Aviation in Sarasota, Florida. Various best-practice tactics will be tried and their outcomes will be updated here on a regular basis.

Below is a short note from Nayda Cattin of Cirrus Aviation talking about how she sees her business and how she sees this opportunity to share her experiences through Project Flight School.

–Shannon Yeager, vice president, strategic initiatives of AOPA’s Center to Advance the Pilot Community


I would like to give everyone some insight as to where I stand currently, where I’ve been, and where I’d like to go.

Where I stand: I am on a teetering point on a daily basis of drowning in my business. I have many ideas I’d like to see come to fruition, and I have zero time to do so. I run a small business, and I wear almost every hat there is, except turning wrenches and flying planes. I am ultra-stressed, extremely spread thin, and heavily burdened by regulation. I know that fellow flight school owners feel the same pressure and stress. I know that fellow flight school owners are scared that their livelihoods can be dissolved in the split second of a grumpy inspector’s decision. I know that fellow flight school owners would love to implement marketing ideas if only they have the time and money. So I think represent this group well, in many ways.

Where I’ve been: We’ve been profitable–once. Once. We’ve been broke sometimes. We barely make it all of the time. We have seen the ups and downs of volume and had to change staffing to keep costs under control. We are seeing an increase in business now, and with a skeleton crew it is tough. We are trying to be true to our words and to our honor, and to give excellent service with half the resources that we need. We are scared to hire more because of the ups and downs. We just hired three more people. It is not enough.

We have had business consultants come into our business when we were profitable and we could afford it. We paid stupid amounts of money to have them tell us nothing. They wasted my time, crunching numbers over weeks, only to find the result that my mathematically genius husband spouted off the top of his head in the beginning. We had them give us Powerpoints, tell how great they were, tell us how great we were, teach us procedures for keeping track of our business financially, etc.

Where I’d like to go: I have several items on my mind that I would like to see come into practice. I need the expertise of someone outside of my realm to help me make these things happen. I am looking to the consultants for help on this. As we have begun this process they have given me so many things that I am honesty feeling overwhelmed. I also have some major items around the corner that I would like to market. They are extremely exciting and will really change some of our marketing strategies and some of our appeal as a flight school in the state, as well as the Southeast region.

So I will prioritize, get the business in the door, make sure I am compliant with the feds, make my customers smile, and implement some of these new ideas. While I am a swan gliding above water, my feet are kicking crazily underneath.

I think there are some valuable things that can come out of this project. I would like to see this work so that my entire industry can benefit! I am willing to put my time into it. I am the first person to be disgruntled and jaded by AOPA, Civil Air Patrol, and EAA. However, times are changing and I recognize they are changing. They are finally realizing what needs to happen in this industry for it to survive and I am honored to be a part of this project.

Project Flight School: An introduction and perspective

The Center to Advance the Pilot Community would like to introduce Project Flight School. The Center has arranged to have business consultants work directly with a flight school. Our goal is to discover if applied business principles can make a difference in the success of a flight school, and we are putting that concept to the test in the real world. No matter the outcome we will gain actionable insight through the process.. So look for video, blogs and articles about Project Flight School in Flight School Business, the Flight School Business Facebook page, and the FSB Learning Curve blog. We invite members of the flight school community to follow, weigh in, and make suggestions during this project as it unfolds over the next eight months. In other words, there will be plenty of opportunity to become a part of the dialogue.

The main players for our first Project Flight School will be Mike Dempsey, Rod Beck, and Nayda Cattin. Mike and Rob are businessmen who have seen success both outside and inside aviation and believe that flight schools can be profitable. They will be introducing themselves through blog posts during this project. Additionally you can look at their company’s blog to get a feel of their perspective. Nayda Cattin is the co-owner and business manager of Cirrus Aviation flight school in Sarasota Florida. She has been in business for 18 years and we will be posting a video introduction to her flight school, maintenance, and pilot shop operations.

Why is the Center to Advance the Pilot Community involved with the business of flight schools? Here is my perspective sitting in the copilot’s seat next to Adam Smith as we line up on the centerline and push in the throttle. I am feeling both humble before the complexity of the flight in front of us and confident that we will be successful on this mission. We have goals to assist all along the pilot continuum from reengaging certificate holders to bolstering the number of pilots in training. I agree with many who have said the CFI is at the center of the largest opportunity we have to make an impact on sustaining the pilot community. We will be contributing directly to CFIs in a number of ways. What my background in business, education, and instructing lifestyle pursuits SCUBA Diving and Skydiving has also shown me is that the experience of customers is often impacted by other things in the overall training environment. So to this end it is in the best interest of the current and future pilot community that we have both successful CFIs and successful flight schools.

In talking to flight schools, some define success a little differently than  I always had in business. Many told me they were successful because they were still in business. While that sentiment seems to be widespread among aviation businesses, to those of us  from other industries success is being profitable. People have shown there is money to be made in aviation. From the Center’s perspective, if your business is in a better financial situation you will be in a position to offer a better value experience to aviation’s newest pilots and keep the current pilots engaged through improved facilities, selectivity/matching of instructors, aircraft, and more attention available to devote to customer and flying community experiences. The value of the pilot experience is what will get pilots to complete training and stay active, especially as we compete with other value experiences such as riding motorcycles and boating. Just because we love aviation doesn’t mean we can’t show the value in our environment and services, which can make our businesses profitable.

–Shannon Yeager, vice president of strategic initiatives

Make your own great instructors

The thrill of explaining what makes an airplane fly, what the flight controls do, and going over a thorough preflight while your new student eagerly awaits their chance behind the controls is an honor. That excitement you feel from that forty-forth touchdown, when your student actually pulled the airplane into the proper flare with the nose aligned with the centerline, is hard to explain. The ecstatic energy you feel when your student, after his first solo, shuts down the airplane, opens the door, has a huge smile on his red face, and says, “That was awesome!” These are just the beginning of the fulfillment that comes with being a flight instructor.

Airline, corporate, and military pilots were all taught by someone. That someone that changed their lives forever was a flight instructor. The FAA knows the importance of a flight instructor. A person who wants to become a flight instructor has to pass two written exams and many go directly to the Flight Standards District Office for the practical checkride. These examiners at the FSDO aren’t playing around either. They expect the examinee to be a meteorologist, mechanic, physicist, psychologist, and teaching professional.

Left to right: Greenville-based instructor William Bowen, Spartanburg-based instructor Adam Lockamy, Director of Operations Michele Rash, Chief Flight Instructor Cyndy Hollman, and Shane Martin, operations and future CFI

As more people realize the importance of quality flight instruction, there is a growing demand for professional flight instructors. In the past some people may have thought, “I’m just a flight instructor.” But now really good flight instructors are sought out and paid top dollar for their contribution to aviation.

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