One size does not fit all

Imagine walking into a restaurant, sitting down, grabbing a menu, and finding only a single item listed there. One entree, that’s it. And let’s limit it to only one size of that entree. You don’t get to choose between the 6 ounce steak, the 9 ounce, or the 12 ounce. It’s the 12-ounce version or nothing.

What are the odds you’d go back there again?

Now move that same scenario to other businesses you frequent. Consider the clothing store that offers one style of clothing, in one color, and one size. That’s it. It’s a one-size-fits-all store, take it or leave it. I’ll bet most of us would be willing to leave it.

At the home improvement store I frequent there are at least half a dozen hammers of different sizes, with different claw shapes, of differing weights, and various prices. At the coffee shop I get to choose from an almost unimaginably large assortment of beverages, both hot and cold, with added flavors, whipped cream, colorful names, and exotic blends of beans. At the supermarket I can pick my frozen pizza from a freezer stocked with dozens of alternatives. And the beer aisle offers so much choice I often have to spend several minutes deciding which of the brewmasters best to try out this time around. Where ever I go the options are seemingly endless. And so I go to those places to shop and socialize. I’m a customer.

That’s not usually true at the airport. More often than not the airport is a one-size-fits all sort of deal. Sure, there are multiple flight schools, but they all fly pretty much the same aircraft and charge more or less the same rates. If you’re thinking about learning to fly and get it in your head that an intro flight would be worthwhile, the airplane, the cost, and the length of the experience will be essentially the same no matter which counter you saunter up to.

All this makes me wonder why we can’t do a bit better. A little creativity goes a long way when marketing a product, a service, or an idea. So let’s at least consider the possibility of developing some individuality in our approach to offering aviation services. Let’s make the customer the most important variable in play, and amend our price chart to fit their needs rather than the other way around — as we so often do today.

Imagine a customer walking up to the counter with a bit of trepidation. They’ve never flown before but the idea excites them. A friend at work told them they can actually learn to fly if they want to, and they can do it locally at the general aviation airport only a few miles from their house. As the customer approaches the counter, palms damp with anticipation, maybe their mouth is a little dry, they ask the most important question of the day, “Excuse me, do you offer introductory flight lessons here?”

The employee on the other side of the counter is friendly, smiling, neatly dressed and ready for action, “Yes we do. I can help you schedule a flight with one of our flight instructors if you would like.”

This is where the customer asks the most important question of the interaction, “How much does it cost?”

In my perfect totally imaginary world, the employee answers this way, “Well, that depends on what sort of airplane you’d like to fly and how long you’d like to be up there. We have quite a few options. If you’ll walk out onto the ramp with me I can show you the airplanes, familiarize you with your options, and answer any questions you might have.”

Ahhh, now we’re talking customer service. The potential new student has options. In fact, he or she has plenty of options. They’re going to walk out onto the ramp in the company of a trained employee who has made it clear they’re going to try to help the customer make a selection that best fits their budget, and schedule, and dreams. That’s something they’ve probably never experienced before and didn’t envision as a likely outcome of their first visit to the airport. Now we’re talking salesmanship, in the best possible sense of the term.

Too often we hear stories of new potential students who show up at the airport, get a brief and non-negotiable one-size-fits-all answer to their initial few questions, and leave without ever seeing an aircraft up close. We can fix that with a simple attitude adjustment and a few minutes with a calculator. Yes we can.

Ironically, the best and the brightest at this exact type of customer service may be the old guard, the classics, the biplane and taildragger operators. Unlike the average flight school they offer choices that appeal to a broader range of customers.

If they only operate a single aircraft, they offer flights of varying lengths, to accommodate wallets of various thicknesses. If they operate more than one aircraft they make clear distinctions between the rates charged for the Cub as opposed to the Stearman, or the TravelAir, or the New Standard, or the Waco. They customize what they have to offer to meet the hopes and dreams of the customers who come through their door, or tent flap.

As an industry we could learn a thing or two from those folks. Let’s make 2014 the year we dedicate ourselves to doing just that, shall we?



  1. Steve says

    Keith was very correct in his first comment…the new person does not know the difference and needs to get the best first flight possible to get him really hooked. We have 2 aircraft for rent/training..a 172 and 150. LSAs are too expensive for the small local places where many come to start. We talk with the perspective student, offer the intro in the appropriate a/c ( many times dictated by their size and weight), and get them with an instructor on a mutually agreeable schedule. We do explain the requirements and cost…reality is reality. Remember, the FAA dictates the minimum requirements and the reason people have higher costs is because of their schedule dragging out the training…although weather does have an impact. Also, not all of the new students are young computer and video game savey, many are much older so newer fancy panels don’t matter that much…..remember they do not know what they do not know. Lastly, th ed vast majority of rental and reasonably priced aircraft are in the same group as the newer style aircraft. Most people we are attracting these days (not just at our airport) are going to be weekend renters on a limited budget (larger pilot mills notwithstanding), so they are seeking a good aircraft at a reasonable rental rate….something hard to do in newer equipment of any type. Small airports like ours attract people….in friendly, hometown atmospheres complete with locals doing hangar flying and not the sometimes intimidating setting of modern fancy facilities.

    • says

      H Steve, I believe , if that’s you, you asked if you could use a promo idea ; reason to learn to fly and obtain a license, from an earlier edition? Given your small and limited potential market as you state, the “demographics” will often dictate the fleet mix of the operator, and the degree of social fellowship (hangar flying, etc) at one’s particular GA airport. Have you consider a “non-flying” (paying -minimal cost) sort of club membership for those who have little funds available to fly BUT have an interest to “rub elbows” with those of like (airplanes) interest?

  2. says

    You did well, Jamie. You opened a can of worms. That’s good! We’ll never solve the declining pilot population until we confront our failings (and just so I don’t sound like I’m preaching, I include myself among those who have failed).

    You left two things out of your discussion. One is the Sport Pilot certificate, which costs a fraction of a Private but which is too-often disdained by those who don’t understand it and who have long forgotten their own start as a student. Someone can pursue a Sport Pilot certificate and achieve it for less than $4,000. They can then learn more and move up or find contentment in being a Sport Pilot … and I find NOTHING wrong with that.

    The second thing is that too often flight schools offer 20-30-40 year-old aircraft. If you went to rent a car and they offered you a 1987 Buick Roadmaster with a few nicks on it, would you think that rental car outfit had their act together? Younger folks who manage their way past the 10-foot-high chain link airport security fence with “Stay Back” signs on it are likely to find an unpolished salesman/flight instructor who shows them a 1974 Cessna 150. Even if it’s in great shape, it is unlikely to impress the young software writer, doctor, or banker (to pick a few professions that might be able to afford the cost). I’d like to say flight schools ought to use a brand new LSA with state-of-the-art everything in it, but that won’t work for many cash-strapped flight schools. We need aero clubs or partnership programs or local membership chapters or organizations (perhaps like Aviation Access Project) that can help people (or flight schools) acquire newer aircraft. They don’t have to be a hot new LSA but they ought to be less than 20 years old (and, honestly, even a 15-year-old airplane is something of a put-off to many potential buyers.).

    We don’t need better training programs or more rules to make flying achievable and safe enough for new students. We do pretty well now though we must remain vigilant. We DO need better businesses with more sales training and the financing to acquire newer aircraft. Lastly — perhaps like Mr. Reagan once said of the Berlin Wall — we need to tear down those big black fences and make airports more welcoming. TSA regulations probably prevent that at big city airports but we still have lots of charming local airports that are more inviting. Yes, they’re further away from metro centers but that is ultimately a marketing problem. Boats still sell in town even when lakes may be an hour or more away. Snowmobiles sell even if you need to transport them hours away to trails where they can be used.

    Our entire industry needs to think outside our little sandbox or we’ll see the pilot population continue to decline. Thanks for bringing awareness to one of the problems, Jamie — and Happy New Year to all. Fly safely!

    • says

      Jamie, Dan and others: Agree; the LSA IS the last bastone for recreational aviation – the less than “marketing oriented” flight schools better get with the program and start learning how to SELL or get someone who can!

    • says

      I’m with you on the LSA front, Dan. There is absolutely a place on the menu of available aircraft for LSAs, both legacy models and the new breed. Variety of options will appeal to an ever widening audience. And an ever widening audience of customers would be a welcome change from my perspective.

      See you in Sebring for the US Sport Aviation Expo. Can’t wait for the 16th!

  3. Anonymous says

    I started my training in 172 but really hated it. I was lucky that the club I was training at had a great choice of airplanes: 152, 172, pipers and even SR20. After my first flight on piper I was hooked. Piper felt like a real airplane with much better view and nicer handling than 172 which was like a bunch of parts bolted together. If not for that one flight in piper I would have stopped my flight training. Now I am looking forward to getting checked out in Cirrus next year. I am very happy that I can avoid 172s and can rent an airplane that has pretty new avionics and even leather interior. I really love it when I can enjoy scenery and not have that smell that old airplane stink and look at discolored plastic panels from 60s that are falling apart.
    So YES for choice and double YES for airplanes that can be enjoyed by people who have sense of smell.

    • says

      And “thank you” Anonymous; no need to be shy – nothing to be ashamed of when touting the reality or truth! Or do you just feel you must please EVERYONE and not offend SOMEONE?
      And that folks is the beauty of this fine country – freedom of CHOICE – at least for now!

  4. Keith Wood says

    I’m not sure that a choice of aircraft is a good idea.

    The intro student has no clue of the difference between them — a Cessna 150 is the same as a 421, except there are more windows and another propeller on the big plane. He is expecting someone who understands this stuff to make the right choice for him, the same as if he were taking his first horseback ride, and trusts the stables. He wants “We’ll put you on Suzie, hold here and climb on” instead of “We’ll try you on Fireball, I’ll hold onto him while you put on these spurs.”

    Unless you’re REALLY going to let him intro in that Gulfstream (“Fireball”) sitting out there, you’re going to have to limit his options, and this will be a distraction. Instead of offering the smorgasbord, start him in the 172 (“Suzie”) and tell him that he’ll be able to step up to these other planes if he likes his first flight.

    He’s already afraid that he’s not smart enough to do this — which is reinforced when the instructor tries to impress him with his knowledge, rather than show how easy it really is.

    Students don’t never-come-back because they were bored in the 150, they never-come-back because they were overwhelmed by a panel which seems suitable for a 757 flight deck, all the stuff that had to be done just to get off the ground, by how far behind the plane they were during the flight . . .in other words, the one experience convinced them that flying is for Buzz Aldrin, and they can’t hack it.

    Start them simple! TELL them what they’re going to fly, and they know that they’re in good hands, you’ve done this for so many others that there are no surprises.

    Options for length of flight are a great idea, especially if there are scenic visits to nearby spots. After all, that’s why he wants to fly in the first place, to go places and see things in a new way. “We have the basic half hour, or if you like, we have the extended introduction, where you fly the plane up to the lake and back!” It doesn’t even have to be that much, I’ve known instructors who didn’t consider an intro flight complete until they had circled the student’s house a couple of times and connected the flying experience to the world he already knew. Those were the instructors that you only saw a couple of minutes at a time, while they were finishing up with one student as the next one waited his or her turn.

    • says

      You make an interesting point, Keith. Although I can’t help notice that it is the same logic being followed by so many under-performing FBO and flight school businesses.

      Can you share with the rest of us an industry that limits its customers to a single option and thrives as a result. That business model may work somewhere, but I have been unable to find it.

      There’s nothing wrong with a flight school that keeps a Champ, a C-150, and a C-172 on the flight line. The same can be said for the school that uses a Cub, a PA-28-140, and a PA-28-236 on the flight line. The customer can see distinct differences in the aircraft, and the price to fly them.

      If we continue to treat our customers as if they are too ignorant to choose the aircraft they want to fly, they will continue to treat us as if we are too ignorant to deserve them to spend money in our shop. Stalemate. That’s not a recipe for success as I see it.

      • says

        Jamie; YES – very good observation on “choice”! Nothing ticks me more , and I bet I’m not alone here, is when you go into a strange eatery and you ask for a “small” Coke – “Sorry, we only have large, sir”!
        On the aircraft fleet”mix” – I would say this depends on the VOLUME of total demand; that said, however, I believe some “contemporary” form of an LSA bird of sorts makes both sense and cent$ in the more higher density markets.
        Choice # 1. Generic 150/152/172 Choice #2. LSA (and NOT a “resurrected” Cub!)

      • Keith Wood says


        I’ll give you three examples of thriving industries which limit customer choice: driver education, truck-driver training and motorcycle training. Not one of these has any shortage of students, even though most are looking for the Cobra, the Peterbilt or the BMW, not the Toyota, Kenworth or Kawasaki that is what they are offered for training.

        That first flight, it’s the FLIGHT that counts, not the airplane. The simpler the plane, the easier for the instructor to give them the confidence that their dream is within reach — and without that confidence, they will never come back. Once they have a couple of hours of training, then the choices might be offered to those who are ready. Until then, they’re counting on the experts providing the best plane for the purpose, just as the student driver, truck trainee or motorcycle novice accepts what their instructor offers.

        • says

          Mr. Wood;
          Then how do you explain WHY, MacDonalds’, Wendy’s and Burger King, ALSO have alternatives (choices) other the traditional “hamburger” on their menu’s?

          Your second paragraph, however, does make “sense”; the simpler the bird on the initial experience regarding “new” students has merit – get them hooked first!That said, however, most smart folks will recognize they’ll prefer to be trained in a Tecnam Bravo, Sport Cruiser, or newer Skyhawk, and that any “Cub” looks like something that belongs in a museum!

  5. Joseph says

    There are also a lot of low cost options the flight school can add. Set up a computer with three monitors, yoke, pedals, radio, and trim panel. Nothing certified, nothing intended to be certified. Offer this free to potential clients to try out, go over what tasks one would hope to see in the first lesson with this simulator. Though PC flight sims are not the best for stick/rudder skills, they do have all the right parts to learn the instruments and language. If possible set it up to match your actual planes. (there are a lot of people on the internet that will build a model for you for very little, maybe even for exchange for a few flight hours if they are local). You may even find that going through a lesson first on this cheap simulator ($1500 at most) with your students before you start burning avgas will greatly add to their progress and enjoyment. I think the reason instructors don’t do pre-lessons on un-certified simulators is because they are there to build hours to move to the airlines. Once they are a client the pre-lessons can be offered at low cost before each real flight.

    Speaking of instructors many are there to step to the airline — unfortunately they usually are not the most inspiring to students. It may be true that they are there to get hours but the students should never feel like the instructor really only wants you to pay to pad their log book. When possible find at least one instructor that is there to be an instructor not a time builder for your flight school. This will greatly increase your retention rates. Also don’t be afraid to communicate with students via email. Offer a message board or email list for your students to answer one another questions (or use one of the existing ones, just make sure your instructors also sign up so they can answer the hard ones or correct misguided answers)

  6. says

    Imagine the Client (a less condescending term than “student”) walking in to a friendly-LOOKING and FEELING place and being greeted warmly. If he is driving down airport road for the first time, he may not know what questions to ask, but we do: What is the Dream? What is the emotion that got him out of bed and into the car? Was it to go spend lots of money on flight training to support the flight training industry? No, folks!!!! NO!!! He has something else on his mind. Find out what it is! Most of the time he is there hiding some strong emotional desire to explore this thing – he is thinking about flying his family or using it in business. He is thinking about what it would be like to OWN something. He is thinking about making a childhood dream come true. There is no glory in dreaming about what it would be like to take instruction and renting old planes! That’s nothing but a barrier to that REAL dream.

    Instead he is driven to a beater on the flight line he can rent, which will put him on the road to nowhere. Sorry, it’s the truth. Think 80% dropout rate. Jamie said it perfectly in the “That Depends” paragraph above. Too many possibilities and requirements for someone who just arrived off airport road for the first time.

    I challenge the readers to consider life from the eyes of that prospective client walking in the door. He’s there with an emotion and a desire, and it’s probably NOT to buy FLIGHT TRAINING to support the FLIGHT TRAINING INDUSTRY. Once the industry finally, FINALLY understands that simple principle, the 80% dropout rate will drop to 25%. They’re doing that at the Aviation Access Project. This opium-like addiction we have created for ourselves to sell renting via schools and clubs have contributed to the downward spiral, don’t you think? Have you really really thought about that? I contend, and insist, that creating a nation of aircraft owners – even share-owners – will result in industry stability, growth, prosperity, and a LOT more happiness on the part of everyone.

    Jamie already writes beautifully and eloquently about a positive future for aviation. Now it is time for the rest of us to live up to that vision. Thank you again, Jamie, for a brilliant analysis of what is, and what is possible.

    • Keith Wood says

      If “Student” is seen as “condescending,” that’s OUR fault, for thinking that being a student is something less than the experience really should be.

      A client is someone who’s taking an airplane ride. A student is someone who’s learning to GIVE the airplane ride.

      I saw a sign on an FBO wall which listed the various kinds of pilot, briefly explaining each type. At the bottom, in bold letters, was “Student Pilot: The pilot that all of these others once were.”

    • says

      Mr. Matthews;
      You seem to be “hell bent” on the “OWNER first” marketing theme of getting MORE folks committed to GA by buying a fractional (however, great concept and cost effective) early in their flying experience. That said, I think this will work IF tied in with competent management/marketing (sale skills!) at the smaller FBO or non-career community/county flight school level. I suggest you and the other marketing guru’s at Aviation Access, do a “silent shopper” survey, (inquiry about flying lessons) to about 20-25 schools nationally and THEN comeback and tell me how MANY have sold you on learning to fly – if they can’t even do that, then how do you expect them to sell a $30-40K fractional aircraft ownership? Instructors AREN”T effective sales people, nor do they CARE to be – ask Ralph Hood, noted GA speaker and writer, on this very topic and considered a credible source – and then get back to me if you will?
      And lastly, will you please stop trying to be the “Billy Graham” of GA – selling or hyping the “religion” isn’t it going to put more $$ in the plate – BTY, that post is already filled!

  7. Donnie Underwood says

    Another very good article that speaks to one of the problems in aviation. Let’s all try to make 2014 one of the best years for aviation. That is one of my New Year’s resolutions. We as pilots should try to promote it everytime we can instead of letting the so-called ” alphabet groups” take all the glory and then beg for our money so that their journalists can fly new and exotic planes, and then write about it while we try to find the money to rent a 40 year old Cessna 150.

  8. Glenn Darr says

    Yes, having various different models of aircraft for training is nice. Some schools that have a “large fortune” might be able to afford this variety. Most schools and training situations can’t have 10 different airplanes sitting on the ramp waiting for students. Again, like for most of us, it comes down to how much money do we have for this flying enterprise.

  9. Kent Misegades says

    This is what many of us have been saying about aviation fuel for years, yet our aviation alphabet groups insist on a one-size-fits-all, lead-free, drop-in replacement for Avgas. The result is $9 Avgas and a shocking drop in flying activity. Free markets will figure this out and provide more and better options. Since most airports are government – owned and many have highly-restrictive rules protecting their single FBO, this situation is not likely to change until the alphabets insist on it.

  10. John Wesley says

    Show me the counter, at the local airport and the chances are if they even have a counter, they don’t offer flight training. If they do offer it, it will probably be on a schedule that most working stiffs can’t meet.

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