Winners and losers

Regardless of what kind of business you are in, there is one common component that has massive influence on whether you experience economic success or disaster. That component is known as the customer. Yep, customers are the magic elixir of business, regardless of whether you’re selling toothpaste, muscle cars, or flight lessons. In the end it’s all about the customer.

If you have a growing customer base, or an exceedingly loyal customer base, the odds are excellent that you’ll be in good shape. All you have to do is crunch some numbers, make sure you’re pricing your product or service at a rate that provides a reasonable margin of profit, and you’re in business — successfully.

Taken from another perspective, if your customer base is dwindling, or your customers are not exceedingly loyal, you’re in a tough spot. If you don’t turn the economics of the situation around, you’re going to go down like the Titanic, and the sucking sound you hear in the final phase will be your investment saying goodbye, permanently.

Now honestly, no matter how much you love aviation, or how enamored you are of the idea of being airborne on a crisp morning, with blue skies that stretch for miles and full fuel tanks — doesn’t the general aviation market look a lot closer to the second scenario than the first? Yeah, it does.

Let’s turn this ship around. We’ve been screwing around on the periphery of our customer base’s radar for long enough. It’s time to get serious, get busy, and work together to make this industry the powerhouse it ought to be. Heck, let’s make it the success it deserves to be.

Follow me on this one. My way of thinking may be a little weird, but it’s absolutely valid, I assure you. If your industry is baseball, you’re solid. A kid can buy a bat or a ball or a glove almost anywhere. Sporting goods stores, department stores, and even dollar stores all carry baseball equipment of some type and the industry thrives. If you’re in the musical instrument business you’re in the same boat. You can buy a guitar, or a keyboard, or a pair of maracas almost anywhere — and people do. The same goes for car parts, groceries, plumbing supplies, gardening tools, and a big long list of other products and services.

If you’re selling flight training, however, your customer has to come to the airport to even know you exist. That hasn’t been working out too well for us over the past few decades. So let’s admit that we made a wrong turn and get back on the path to success.

Where are the customers? My friend Kevin Garrison, who is not only a ruggedly handsome man and a talented writer, but holds more ratings than I do, makes a great point. Back in the old days, when he was a boy, the local flight school put a C-150 in the local mall and staffed the display with a human being who could answer questions and schedule lessons. That’s shocking news, I know. But his hometown isn’t considerably different than any other corner of the world. If it was a success there, it will be a success in your neighborhood, too.

Go where the customers are and let them see the airplane up close. Let them touch it, sit in it, and ask all the questions they want to ask. Give them real answers, too. You can do that. And if you do, you’ll find customers, I have no doubt.

My other friend (I only have the two) Eric Crump makes the very valid point that social media is a great tool for advertising and communication that is largely under-utilized. Now Eric is a Part 141 ground school chief, so he knows a thing or two about finding flight students. Consequently, I listen to him when he talks. He’s also 25 years younger than I am, so I respect the fact that he talks to his peers in a whole different way than I might talk to mine. We’re of different generations. That’s a good thing, by the way.

If general aviation is going to find its feet in the coming decades, it’s going to do it by getting off our collective butts, getting off the airfield, and getting into the center of town. When we get their we’re going to have to hold up a big neon sign that says, “Ask me how you can learn to fly.” And then we’re going to have to hang around and answer questions for as long as prospective flight students want to ask them.

Now that particular advertising line is going to work for some people, but it’s not going to work for everyone. So we’re going to have to dig deep and come up with some creative alternatives. Advertising campaigns that read, “Can anyone fly – no! Can you fly? Maybe,” might seem counter-productive. Truthfully, it might be counter-productive for some prospective customers, too. But it may grab the attention of others and get them to stop at your display, sit in your simulator, and try their first takeoff with an instructor by their side.

We have options. That’s the good news. But we’re in a rut and it’s time that we admitted it. No, let me take that back. It’s way past time that we admitted it. We’re through the looking glass at this point and we either have to start building our numbers or accept that we’re going to be at the mercy of the whims of the non-pilot community — and they’re generally not all that understanding of us, as I recall.

So let’s get creative. Let’s get united. And let’s start to really, seriously, get out to where the customers are and start selling general aviation as the fantastic resource and recreational pursuit that we know it to be.

 Jamie Beckett is a CFI and A&P mechanic who stepped into the political arena in an effort to promote and protect GA at his local airport. He is also a founding partner and regular contributor to You can reach him at



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  1. Rod Beck says

    NEED is a bigger priority than WANT – nough said! All others kindly read (or again) my earlier comment.

  2. Mark C. says

    Hmm. I don’t see it. The only people who will become customers are those who WANT to fly. That’s prerequisite #1. While you might get a few prospects, some demo rides, and a little interest from advertising and trying to generate interest, only those who want it badly enough will put in the effort and endure the expense of becoming pilots. I don’t know what the answer is, but the real problem is that probably 50% of those who really do want it, walk away either because they’re intimidated by the ridiculous FAA medical process, or the cost. The medical issue could be fixed, we all know the problems there. Cost is another issue, I learned to fly cheap and I fly cheap and it’s still really expensive, only a few people will be willing and able to devote 10 – 30% of their annual income to a hobby, and very few who have the resources to pay for flight training are looking at a career change to flying, they’re not going to take a 50% pay cut to go fly FO for a regional and hope they don’t lose their seniority when the airline goes belly up. I have a friend who is a truck driver, he thought he might prefer being a pilot. Then he found out that he’d have to spend an amount equal to paying for a quality college education, just to meet the minimum requirements for one of the entry level flying jobs, which even if he managed to beat out the competition and get the job, would then pay less than he currently makes driving for a medium sized freight company, have worse hours, more time away from his family, and more risk that he’ll lose his job as he ages and has some minor medical issue. So he looked at recreational flying, but the TCO on a 4-place certified a/c is prohibitive. So he looked at renting, but the hassles involved in renting away from the local FBO turned him off, and the minimum hours per day requirement to rent and go somewhere made that too expensive an option. He’s not crazy about spending $300+ every couple months to go essentially nowhere on a part-day rental, so now he’s looking into homebuilts, but again, a 4-place a/c with minimal instrumentation will run close to the cost of his annual salary, not to mention still having to pay hangar costs, insurance, etc., even when he’s not flying. So now he says to me “I don’t love flying as much as you do” and will probably let go of the dream. It’s a small market because it’s expensive and difficult, and it’s expensive at least partly because it’s a small market. Catch-22.

  3. Frank R. Sandoval says

    WRITE on, Mr. Beckett. As you say, we need to get creative, get out off our comfort zone in our saddles, watch our attitude indicator, and understand that if you clean the water trough every day, and fill it with fresh water, you can lead any horse to it and eventually it will drink.  

  4. Rod Beck says

    Now your talking Jamie, however, keep this in mind; general aviation has and NEVER will be needed or wanted by the masses – what the “industry” needs to come to terms with is this: 1. WHO is our best VOLUME customer 2.WHO has the greatest need 3. WHO has the POTENTIAL to be a “lifetime” customer. And,in marketing terms, a TARGETED audience.
    The “mall idea” is OK, tried that in 1972 and 75 at 4 major NJ malls – mostly patroned by an “upper middle class” clientele. Rather costly, taking an aircraft out of service, transporting, plus staffing and brochures; not really very cost effective.
    On the contempory social media; does it PRODUCE real “buyers”? – I dought it – it provides “pre sale” information – the “close” is accomplished at the flight school by a real LIVE sales – yes, a sales person, not a laptop!
    And laslty, in all do respect to those with 20 type rating and 100,000 hours; this ISN’T, contrary to popular belief, what makes one an EFFECTIVE sales person; I would rather have someone with extensive retail sales experience AND a “private” who can make convincing sales presentations – a lot more flight courses would be sold – the real acid test is “making the deal”!
    Mike Dempsey and myself have been hipping much of what your saying for some time – now we just have to get the “horse to drink”!  See us

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