Observations and invitations

Attached to the main administration building at the Santa Monica Airport in Southern California is an observation deck. It’s a wide concrete structure with a curved metal railing that allows excellent views of the area, reaching from the Hollywood sign in the northeast all the way around to the Pacific Ocean on the southwest. A bleacher style seating structure provides a reasonably comfortable place to sit and watch the action on the airport.

That’s where I met Adam and Zoe. Adam is a software designer who grew up in Santa Monica. He’s been stopping at the airport for much of his life to watch airplanes fly, daydream about becoming a pilot, and generally enjoy a sunny afternoon.

On the day I met him he had Zoe in tow. His 20-month-old daughter is as exuberant an aviation enthusiast as I’ve ever seen. She repeatedly pointed to the sky saying, “airpane,” mispronounced without the “l” in a way that 20-month-olds can get away with and still be incredibly cute in the process. She watched the aircraft taxi with a look of wonder on her face. She watched them land while wearing a big ol’ smile on her tiny face. And in the periods between any obvious activity she scanned the ramps, the runways, and the sky above, searching out the next airpane on her horizon.

It would be easy to dismiss the father and daughter pairing as lookie-loos who will never do more than hang onto the railing and perhaps buy a drink or a snack from the vending machine. But that would be a mistake. What Adam and Zoe truly are is far more important to the future of our industry, and it is incumbent upon us to recognize that and interact with them accordingly. And by accordingly I mean with a high degree of respect and exemplary customer service.

What Adam and Zoe actually represent is a multi-generational, aviation friendly family who are admittedly ignorant of what it takes to get personally involved in general aviation, but are very much interested in that possibility. I know this because I did the unthinkable. I talked to them. In fact, I went out of my way to engage them in conversation and get to know something about them.

While Adam is interested in learning to fly, and gave every indication that he has the means to follow through and complete his training, he doesn’t know the first thing about how to go about becoming a pilot. He’s completely in the dark on the topic of Part 61 training vs. Part 141. He’d never heard of accelerated training, and had never considered learning to fly in airspace that’s less congested and potentially less stressful, then transferring his newfound skills back to the airport near his home.

We had quite a talk — a talk that got Adam thinking that maybe his daydream could become a reality if he shifted his thinking a bit. A talk that got me pondering the future, too.

What does it say about us as an industry that a smart man, an accomplished man who wants to become a participant in our industry, is unaware of how to go about becoming a pilot — even after years of visiting the local airport? Adam made no secret about his wish to fly. I didn’t have to knock him down, twist his arm, or inject him with a top-secret truth serum to get him to talk. I simply asked something along the lines of, “Do you fly?” and had a conversation based on the answer to that very uncomplicated question.

There are six flight schools on the field in Santa Monica. I stumbled onto one when I was looking for the airport administration offices. The young CFI applicant I met there was friendly, outgoing, motivated, and helpful. He sent me in the right direction. But as I walked down the steps from the school’s classroom to the parking lot below he asked me, “Are you interested in learning to fly?”

These two random meetings have stuck with me since I left Santa Monica Municipal. Because I know for a fact that there is a helpful guy sitting in a flight school office who by now almost certainly has a freshly minted CFI ticket in his wallet. He is ready, willing, and able to help potential students get answers to their questions — if they would just walk into the school’s office and ask. At the same time, and I mean at the exact same time, not 100 yards away, is a potential student who is interested in learning to fly, able to afford the lessons, and is truly motivated to share his enthusiasm with his friends, co-workers, and family members. But he hasn’t found his way to a flight school front desk yet.

Do you see the opportunity I see? I hope so. I truly do.

We can blame Adam for not being a good customer. Or we can blame the flight school for not marketing themselves more effectively. Neither of those options gets us anywhere, however.

Instead, let me suggest that we all look outside the confines of our own self-imposed limitations and find a way to reach out to aviation enthusiasts in a way that is comfortable for us, and acceptable to them. That will result in progress of some sort. And progress is good.

Our new customers are out there. We just have to meet them on their own ground and talk to them in a way they can understand. Here’s hoping someone meets and provides that assistance to Adam before Zoe is old enough to go looking for those same answers on her own.


  1. Doyle Frost says

    I love these comments. But, one thing being seriously missed here is the “Unfriendly Airport” environment being developed as we discuss this. Our local airport up here is probably the most unfriendly place I know in this area. Armed guards to keep the public away from any planes, unfriendly glares from staff at the field, and nothing to promote the field to GA, only “commercial aviation,” and tourists coming and going in charter airlines. The local owner of the airport, the county, has expressed absolutely NO interest in GA, and does as much as they can legally get away with to discourage it. They spout all the platitudes they can come up with, but the answer is the same: general aviation does not fit anywhere in our plans. I have only flown a few hours since they moved to this airport, and had to travel out of state to find a CFI willing to share some time with me, at his own, private, airport. Now, he’s even had to sell out.

  2. says

    We need this -and we need to be reminded constantly!
    The change Jamie speaks of is coming to GA. One airport, one airplane, one aviator at a time. I’ve never been more optimistic about the future of our industry than I am right now. Not because of the way things are, but because I have met some amazing people doing amazing things for aviation. Once these ideas get traction, once they reach critical mass, the growth we seek, the growth we NEED, will come. Flight is still magical. Flying still makes sense. As long as those two things are true, we have hope.
    Keep reminding us Jamie! Every day!

  3. Donnie Underwood says

    What a good article.
    The aviaton industry is in dire need of a facelift.
    The flight training industry has a mentality now of- “I will be glad to teach you to fly if you ask me first”. I am full-time flight instructor by trade and I sometimes just shake my head at what I see. A good friend of mine once said- “Aviaton is the only industry that survives in spite of itself. Let’s do all we can to promote this industry and try to help people love it as much as we do.

    • says

      Donnie, not just getting “THEM” to love it – but BUYING it! Many folks would “love” to drive/own (want) a $150k imported sports car – but -get my drift? And like your friend said; “In spite of itself”‘!

  4. Kent Misegades says

    Jamie, my father worked for Douglas Aircraft at Santa Monica when I was born in 1957, but there is little there to remind visitors of the airfield’s illustrious history. The Art Deco terminal is one reminder of times when communities were proud of their airports. Now they want to shut this o e down. I would place part of the blame though on lazy adults these days, expecting to be spoon-fed. Kids in the 60s who wanted to fly made scratch-built balsa planes, U-Control from Cox, eventually found the route to an airstrip with their bikes, then clung onto the chain-link fence until someone noticed and offered them a simple job or a ride. Today you g adults have a million reasons not to push themselves a bit to do something like flying.

  5. says

    Jamie; You make very good points and cent$! The smaller FBO/flight school does little or “ZIP” in the way of marketing. advertising and public relations!
    I penned a three part series on the importance of your thesis on our site – get-aviation .com- “Marketing. Advertising, and Sales”, in April of this year. Hopefully, a less than successful operator at promoting and encouraging new business will benefit from the article.

    • says

      It seems strange that Adam was interested in learning to fly but wasn’t able to figure out where to start. I’d imagine anyone who has an interest in learning to fly probably also has access to the internet and could find nearly overwhelming quantities of information within seconds.

      Of course, having said that, the “personal touch” is always best. Good on ya for taking the time to talk with him.

      • says

        Rod; YES, one of the biggest “oversights” by smaller flight schools/FBO’s is the lack of OR importance of “personal selling”. Passion or “love ” for the product (flying) alone doesn’t mean one knows HOW to present it – PPC -product, presentation, and close!

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