A tale of two flight schools

Flight schools — like many private buyers — are hyperfocused on, “What does an aircraft cost to operate?” Busy flight schools operating at high volume simply must track how all the pennies add up. In this post we asked US Aviation’s Scott Severen for additional info. Why US Aviation? While much of aviation has been down in the dumps, this Texas operation has been growing rapidly. Everybody is else down. They’re up. How to explain? Could it be the company’s willingness to embrace change?

Scott Severen

“Many factors drive the operational experience and maintenance costs in flight school,” wrote Scott. “If a facility is set up for a particular type of aircraft, with flight instructors knowing the aircraft intimately, with experienced mechanics well trained in the upkeep of that aircraft, and a parts department with well-established suppliers, then you can create a business model to work very efficiently.

“Let’s elaborate. Our flight school has over 70 aircraft, mostly Cessna 152s and 172s, (arguably the two most common training aircraft on the planet). To support the school, we employ over 20 full time A&P and IA mechanics, well versed in the venerable aircraft. Our flight instructors are steeped in General Aviation and very experienced with training students through to ATP. US Aviation’s well-rehearsed business is able to take advantage of existing systems, infrastructure, and the economies of scale associated with high volumes of repetitive work.

“Now, thanks to entrepreneurs smitten with aviation, US Aviation was introduced to a new type of aircraft. This plane is designed with new materials that require different maintenance training and methods, uses parts that are not yet flowing through established distribution channels, runs a reliable, mass produced, new technology engine but one that is foreign (literally and figuratively) to your mechanics. Put this in your existing business model and what happens? Your costs go up. The systems in place don’t match the new aircraft types, and that sector’s industry isn’t fully developed.

“Let’s imagine you have a flight school with a bunch of Light-Sport Aircraft — close to 100 of the top selling LSA (set aside the purchase cost for 100 new aircraft!). You and your staff know these aircraft well: a precondition to stay in business. The flight instructors have history teaching in Light-Sport and understand the customers. You know where to get parts even though there are not too many suppliers (you probably know most of them). Your systems are in place and the business works well. Suppose our theoretical flight school introduces a few Cessna 172s into the mix. The Rotax trained mechanics start scratching their heads, ‘Where’s the gearbox? How does the airplane fly with the engine barely running above idle? Look at the size of that oil filter!’ Your business is just not set up for this. You have to figure out how to create new systems and get new maintenance training. All the instructors need to transition from driving new sports cars to driving older sedans. Operating costs increase because it is a different business than the well-rehearsed (LSA) business you know so well.

“Our hypothetical flight school is passionate about aviation, in it for the long haul and wants to make it all work. Choosing to operate both businesses (Cessna 172s integrated into a large LSA flight school), leaders step up to the plate, bring in people that know the industry, get flight instructors passionate about their realm of flight, train mechanics to different technologies and watch the expenses reduce as both business models take off.”

What Scott describes in his parable is the situation at US Aviation, a big, growing, successful GA flight school bringing in “upstart” Light-Sport Aircraft. It isn’t easy, but they are determined to make it work because people like Scott Severen see the future of aviation with LSA being deeply involved. Thanks to Scott for this (hopefully ever less) rare viewpoint.

For more on Sport Pilot and Light-Sport Aircraft: ByDanJohnson.com


People who read this article also read articles on airparks, airshow, airshows, avgas, aviation fuel, aviation news, aircraft owner, avionics, buy a plane, FAA, fly-in, flying, general aviation, learn to fly, pilots, Light-Sport Aircraft, LSA, and Sport Pilot.


  1. Mike says

    Very interesting article that many flight school and aviation business management should pay attention to.  The key question on how this flight school is expanding, while other aviation entities are having a difficult time, is the answer “understanding business”!  Aviation needs a more professional approach to how we do business, meaning understanding the market, having a niche that has the profitability to sustain the business, and knowing how to market the product.  These standard practices in ANY business OUTSIDE aviation seems to be normal, but Aviation seems to think its all about passion, when reality its the other way around.

    I know most readers won’t understand this concept, but it is the fundamental reason why aviation suffers the way it does – we are our own worst enemy.  I am sure the Saturn car company had a passion for their cars, but in reality no one was spending any money buying them, and they went out of business.  In my opinion, aviation should be a flourishing business because recreational spending on boats, Harley Davidson motorcycles, large RV…big ticket items that cost money to own and maintain, is holding up much better than the aviation recreational business.  These industries spend the money in marketing and promotion to a target audience, whereby aviation expects the customer to have the same passion and excitement for the product as we have.  See how this has been working for us!  NOT!

    It is my contention that aviation is failing because of poor marketing and business strategies, based on emotion over reality.  If we decided to operate aviation as a business, we would have more customers and opportunities for everyone associated with aviation, and we wouldn’t be facing the problems of growth that we are facing at this time.  

    get-aviation.com has more “free” business strategies for aviation business than any other site on the web.

  2. Rod Beck says

    The point I was trying to make in my first comment was ALL the “passion” in the world is meaningless unless the BUSINESS objective is obtainable. I think a lot of aviation folks think that if one isn’t passionate, there indifferient or lack a driven motivation. Or is it maybe they just have matured to a higher level?

    Personally, I feel the LSA movement is the last bastone for the recreational segment of GA – maybe the US Aviation people are smart enough in “capitalizing” on it.

    Readers may find my article of March 31,”Aviation Business – Passion or Profit – A Conflict of Motives” at aviationbiz.us of interest.

    And as Leonard said, passion won’t put food on the table. Did someone say,”will fly for food”?

  3. Leonard Assante says

    Well, it is good to see both words used (“passion” and “business”) although I’d like to see a closer ratio. Maybe not 50/50, but 60/40? Businesses needs to understand the passion that aviators bring to their doors, but passion won’t put food on the table. It will take some degree of vision to integrate LSA into the rest of aviation, but it has been done before, and I know we have the know-how to do it again. (Remember when Cessna’s 120/140/150s were the new kids and A&Ps and flight schools were wondering how to integrate electrical systems, metal construction, radios and tricycle gear into the business model?) LSAs will transform the lower end of GA, but it will take more time than originally expected.  Kudos to Scott and US Aviation! You guys hiring?

  4. Rod Beck says

    Interesting – this article refered to the word “business” no less than 7 times – the word “passionate” only twice – is there a MESSAGE here?

    Have these folks found the ANSWER to sucess in GA – a little less passion and a great deal more business?

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