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.