If general aviation ran like Publix Super Markets

Southerners are familiar with the name Publix. The supermarket chain is more than a thousand stores strong, with something in the neighborhood of 150,000 employees. They embrace a family friendly attitude from top to bottom in their business model, and prize superior customer service above price. It’s a formula that works, and has worked amazingly well for more than 80 years.

The Publix chain of supermarkets wasn’t founded by a consortium of monied elitists or a multi-national corporation based in Europe. It started as a single store in 1930, founded by an independent grocer who made the bold decision to open up his shop next door to a chain store.

That store placement wasn’t accidental, either. The man who developed the idea of Publix supermarkets and implemented it so flawlessly had been the store manager at that chain market, until he was insulted by upper management so badly that he decided to compete with them rather than continue to work for them and be diminished as an unappreciated employee.

That disgruntled store manager was named George Jenkins, and he knew something that his former employer apparently didn’t — people shop where they feel they’re appreciated, and employees feel loyalty to a company that believes loyalty is a two-way street. Those simple paradigms of business led George Jenkins and his little start-up company on a journey that has been on a rocket-powered upward trajectory for generations.

Now it might seem crazy to open up your undercapitalized, small time, mom and pop shop right next door to a chain store that has resources and pricing advantages that you just can’t match. It wasn’t, though. George Jenkins not only survived in that first Publix store, he thrived. He worked hard, paid close attention to his customers, and grew the business at every opportunity.

The chain store went bust, by the way. They closed down the shop that George went into competition with, done in by the exceptional quality of service that customers could avail themselves of just one door away.

How is it, you may ask, that George Jenkins, a simple grocery store manager, could develop a business model that would succeed in good times and in bad? What made his method of designing and running a store so successful when others who had greater potential squandered their opportunities and failed in the long run? Well, to be honest, the full answer to that question is a long one that requires multiple Powerpoint presentations, an executive summary printed on high quality paper in full color, a minimum of three consulting firms, and a catered lunch to fully explain it. The short answer is close to accurate though: He bagged groceries.

Seriously! George Jenkins bagged groceries for his customers. Not just in the beginning when he was a hard-working, highly ambitious 23 year old running a small shop and trying to make a good impression during the depths of the Great Depression, either. George was still bagging groceries as a means of market research when he was well into middle age, even though he was the big man at a company that was growing by leaps and bounds.

A share of Publix stock purchased in 1958 was worth $2.50. By 1969 that share was worth $44. Yeah, that’s success no matter how you slice it.

That’s a critical feature in the success of Publix, too. George believed that not only should the customer feel as if they matter, so should the employees. Because of that belief, the issuance of Publix stock became a feature of employment at the company. Today, Publix is the largest employee-owned company in the United States, with sales in the neighborhood of $27 billion. And the only way you can get a share of Publix stock is to work there.

Yep, that bag boy and the kid behind the deli counter are looking pretty good, financially.

Now contrast that story with any start-up in the aviation industry today. The Great Depression was worse than our current conditions are. There is no big national chain looming over most of us, intimidating us and trying to steal our precious customers. And there is no reason we can’t incentivize working at our companies with a perk that would make every pilot, mechanic, and manager in the industry at least consider sending their resume our way.

Sure, it’s a tough road when you get into business. That’s especially true when you get into a niche business like aviation, where most of the population doesn’t see themselves playing a role or even caring about us for the most part. But we matter, and we know it. So let me encourage you to take a page from George Jenkins’ book, or Bill Gates’ or any one of a hundred success stories in businesses that came out of nowhere to lead their respective industries.

We can reinvent our industry. We can build a clientèle that will fill our schedules and order books for generations, and we can encourage an employee base that will be happy at work for a long, long time. All we need to do is know we can do it, set our minds to finding success in the market, and put ourselves out there to start bagging groceries and talking to our customers every day.

If a 23-year-old kid with a high-school education could figure this out, we can too. Let’s make it happen.

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 FlightMonkeys.com. You can reach him at Jamie@GeneralAviationNews.com.




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  1. Rod Beck says

    To jpfrass and others who have experienced a LESS than “hospitable” welcome when inquiring about flight training and whats WRONG or missing:

    1.No organized sells system, i.e greeting,”interview/presentation”, prospect form filled out, and follow-up to determine interest, first /second lesson, etc
    2. Not “quailifing” the motive for learning to fly – career, pleasure, business, etc and financial means to pursue the sport/private license. This can be established by “asking”; “Can you allogate/budget “X” ($1,500/mo?) and about the time say for 2-3 lessons per week”? The response will TELL you: 1. What their financial ABILITY is 2. His/her willingness (number of lessons) to COMMIT to. Now, these “answers” are the “framework’; He/she replies; “I can afford the $1,500, no problem and I can make the time for 6-8 lessons a month” – bingo – you (FBO/flight school) have a REAL serious student/customer who has BOTH the ABILITY ($$$) and the TIME (6-8 hrs/mo) to devote! This is NOT the “impulse” Discovery Flight that merely is “something to do” in leiu of the beach,Great Adventure, etc. BUT a truly MOTIVATED student/customer, who may very well purchase an aircraft, maintenance, fuel and other products and services – a future ‘lifetime” GA customer!

    And in the case of “jpfrass” – this is, I would guess, much of the reason for lower student starts and what may become a future LLLOONNNGGG term GA consumer.

    Bottom line: the ill equipped local FBO/flight school wasn’t asute enough to reconize this potential – why; frankly,not having a clue of how ANY business works!

    As Jamie and readers have commented; customer service is sorely lacking, and in particular, at the small FBO/flight school; but as Mike pointed out, to a business minded person, such as the founder of Publix or Safeway, who I would guess wasn’t “anamored” with fruits or steaks, KNEW that superior customer service was one of MANY vital PARTS of the delivery of their products to the consumer!

  2. Mike says

    As an additional note on the customer service aspect of General Aviation business.  There is no doubt better customer service would be highly appreciated, but the real problem is business principles and fundamentals.  These principles would entail customer service along with…lets try this sometime, MARKETING and SALES ability!  

    Because so often the aviation entity, whether it is a flight school, FBO, etc. is so underfunded, the promotion of expanding and growing the business is never considered.  The belief that the customer knows who we are, is a very common statement, and is totally wrong.  As the customer base dwindles, and the business is less profitable, there is a decrease in the quality of service, and the owner isn’t as enthusiastic about the business as they once were.

    Marketing and sales ability requires people who understand the emotional value of the product, and know how to grow a small business.  Too often, the aviation operator/owner has aviation experience and knowledge about airplanes, but really doesn’t get the business aspects of growing a business.  Unfortunately it leaves our industry with fewer pilots, fewer opportunities, and a more difficult future.

    http://www.get-aviation.com  We mean business!

  3. Jpfraas says

    I agree! I walked into a local fbo, and though I had budgeted $5500 for private pilot training, was given half answers to my questions, and no response to an e-mail 

    • says

      Fantastic piece, Christine. You beat me to the punch and wrote a very good blog post making a very similar comparison five months ago.

      It’s encouraging to know I’m not the only one who has made the connection. Customer service matters – a lot!

  4. Rod Beck says

    Jason; The “schools” , ERAU, UND, ATP, etc you referred to are ALL professional/degree/vocational and I don’t think Jamie was referring to those who may earn $22k (high!). These airline “want-a be’s” have a NEED – no degree/FAA credentials – no job – simple!

    I suggest you take a look around at the smaller or “Mom and Pop” FBO/fight school, etc, and you’ll find, unless based in a high density market, most are one step from closure, or in denial, do to a lack of recreational aviation business (demand), and perhaps an aged fleet of aircraft, shady maintenance, poor customer service by a CSR who thinks a J-3 and G-5 are the names of two rock groups, are contributing factors.

    My take is as the “passion” of being in the GA busines wanes and when it becomes a downward financial sprial, many operators wish they had keep their corporate job and decided to take a “second” on their home to finance their “dream’ – now a nightmare, end up taking out their frustration, resentment and anger on the aviation consumer or customer – poor attitude and even poorer service result!

    This disgruntled FBO/flight school atmosphere then lends itself to less and less business income, and the community will once again have an ad in TAP or Barnstormers: FBO Wanted – and yet another lover  “passionate” about aviation, and LESS about their financial well being, will be taking their place.

    And that, my freind, IS whats wrong with the GA business!

  5. says

    I am the president of a small company that manufactures FAA/PMA windshields and windows for GA aircraft in Michigan.   Things that I have come to realize is Aircraft people in general are some of the best people around. I know there are many companies that really do not have good customer service, we try to strive for that customer service and make the best parts we can.  I believe that small companies like mine keep the wheels turning in GA, by keeping aircraft in the air. 

    Here are the problems I see with Aviation, and why aviation is the way that it is today.

    1) The price of new aircraft.  I was told years ago, back in the early 1980’s, when the huge increase occurred was because approximately Half of the price of the aircraft was for insurance.  Suggestion: There needs to be reforms in the Courts to protect manufacturers from frivelous lawsuits. 

    2) Because the price of New aircraft means less new aircraft are being produced than are damaged from storms or from accidents, and from exporting. therefore it is a dieing breed.  Every year the population of aircraft is decreasing, making a once vibrant business harder to sustain. 

    3) The Media has created an unwarranted fear into flying.  They will report on every accident in aviation.  They say it is because it is so uncommon, however it creates a stigma that flying is unsafe, when the reality is that flying is much safer than driving a car by the numbers. 

    4) With the advent of more governmental oversight of parts suppliers (It is almost like the Feds come into a business and will not leave until they find a problem to be fixed.)   Now airports are tacking on Landing fees, some still offer landing for free if you purchase Fuel.   But the more expensive it gets, the less able people are going to be able to afford flying.

    5) I imagine if I sat here long enough I could come up with several more problems I see, but time is not permitting.

    The Up side of aviation is the EAA and their young eagles program to get kids interested in flight.   My son absolutely loved his first plane ride in an L-16, we need to encourage and show to the younger generations that flight is practical and fun. 

  6. Jason says

    It’s definitely valid to say that there has to be a market for flight training for a flight school to survive.  Isn’t there a huge market though?  ERAU, UND, All ATPs and many others are packed.  At $22K for terrible hours, being a regional airline pilot is a terrible job.  People still do it though, don’t they?  Airplane sales seem slow and many companies are in financial trouble, but Cirrus, Cessna and others are still selling half-million dollar piston singles who want to fly them for pleasure and business.

    I’ve rented, trained, flown for work and flown my own plane through dozens of FBOs/flight schools/flying clubs across the country.  There are a lot of beat-up planes out there at shady places run by disinterested desk clerks who don’t seem to know a thing about aviation or care about us as pilots or customers.  There are also a lot of really great places out there though.  I’ve noticed both types and I only go back to one of them.  I have been known to intentionally pay a little more for fuel at a place where I know the service is going to be amazing…especially if I have friends or family on board.

    I think this article makes a good point and that the market exists.  Thanks for the insights.

  7. says

    I can appreciate your points, Mike and Rod. I would respectfully suggest that the point of this piece is not a comparison of the size of the market that visits grocery stores as opposed to those who frequent aviation businesses. Rather, it is an illustration that in a fixed market (of any type) superior service will trump price in the marketplace. Price is a factor, there’s no doubt of that. But customer service is a critical component in any industry, and aviation tends to fall down on that point for the exact reasons you suggest – we see it as a moot point. Too often aviation businesses take the position that they will provide better customer service when they make more money. I say that’s backward thinking.

    DIsneyWorld is a rousing success. It’s expensive, many people have to travel great distances to get there, it’s often crowded, and the lines to ride your favorite rides can be considerable in length. Yet people go, and they go in huge numbers. Why do they go? Because it’s fun, they can participate with their friends and family, and they feel that they’re appreciated while they’re in the confines of the park.

    Make no mistake, lax customer service is a massive issue in general aviation. When we take a potential customer and turn them into a disgruntled ex-customer, we’ve done a disservice to the industry, our communities, and our economy. 
    What we need most is a change in attitude. That’s cheap, easy, and quick to fix. The only variable is…how many of us are willing to take the George Jenkins approach and dig in hard to make general aviation as attractive, available, and desirable as possible to our customer base – no matter who they might be.

    • Bob says


  8. Mike says


    I was speaking to Rod Beck on the
    phone, when the content of your post became a topic of discussion.
    As Aviation Business Consultants, we approach aviation business from
    a perspective that there has to be a customer base that can support a
    business, whereby the business is profitable. If the business is
    profitable, you often get an increase in the quality of customer
    service, because you then can afford to hire the talent that “gets
    it” from the ones that really don’t.

    I believe your analogy is flawed with
    respect to Publix offering a superior service at a higher price, and
    the aviation consumer learning to fly approaches this in the same
    manner I.E. the high price of flying is ok…because we provide good
    customer service. Not to say that customer service isn’t important,
    but what aviation really needs to figure out, is that if the money
    isn’t there, it isn’t going to happen.

    I think your reference to the founder
    of Publix…no matter how hard he worked, would have never made it in
    the grocery business, no matter how tight the niche was, if he
    didn’t have a large enough customer base to support his business.
    That customer base was from people who, no matter what, needed
    groceries and found a more pleasant experience and decided it was
    worth the extra price. Had he been in the buggy whip business
    exclusively, and at the time when the horse was used for
    transportation, he would probably have been successful. However,
    after the automobile became THE way of transportation, the buggy whip
    business would probably not have made it.  No customer base, no money.

    The problem confronting aviation, is
    that recruiting good talent into the business is getting more difficult,
    and that is because the profitability in a lot of areas just isn’t
    there. If the profitability isn’t there, like a flight school, it is
    hard to keep good talent because most people want a nice lifestyle
    and if it isn’t there, they will want bigger and better things.
    Personally, I LOVED flight instructing but I found that working the
    odd hours and weekends when people were available, was ok but most of
    my college classmates were making triple my income and had weekends
    off. If I could have matched their income while flight instructing,
    I would have been satisfied for a while long, and perhaps would be
    doing it today. However, not a lot of profitability means low
    pay…ridiculous pay for the responsibility, and that in a nutshell,
    is aviations problem!

    http://www.get-aviation.com  We mean Business!

  9. Rod Beck says

    About 1,400 out of 1,400 of the population NEED food; about 1,300 out of 1,400 have a “NEED” for a car; however, only about ONE in 1,400 have a need (WANT) for GA.

    So, if I understand the premise of your article, IF superb “customer service” by the Aviation Retail Provider (FBO, flight school, etc) is a principle reason that many fail, then “filling” this void would INCREASE demand equating to the demand for food or cars – is this a SSTTTRREEETTTCCCHHH?

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