More than 100 flight training professionals, from CFIs to educational content providers to flight training device and aircraft manufacturers, gathered in Long Beach, Calif., on Wednesday, Nov. 10, to attend a daylong Flight Training Summit sponsored by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s (AOPA’s) Flight Training magazine.
During the day, they heard new research into why student pilots drop out, and discussed how to help more of them complete their training. The summit meeting was the first public step in AOPA’s Flight Training Student Retention Initiative.
“This is the beginning of a national conversation on growing the pilot population,” said AOPA President and CEO Craig Fuller. “It is something that will affect all of us for years to come. I believe we can make a difference to the future of general aviation, but only by working together.”
The high turnout indicated the widespread understanding that there are challenges facing the flight training industry and belief that something must be done about it.
“The fact that we had to add extra seats today speaks to the fact that we have the passion and desire to make a change,” said Jennifer Storm, AOPA’s director of public relations and leader of the Flight Training Student Retention Initiative team.
The packed meeting began with a detailed look at results of an extensive, independent study commissioned by AOPA and conducted by opinion research consultants, APCO Insight. APCO Insight Chairman Mark Benson led the research project and presented the results to the summit participants.
Rather than simply conduct a customer satisfaction survey, Benson and the research team created a statistical model for a more in-depth understanding of the student pilot experience.
They began with qualitative research, conducting focus groups in different regions of the country to identify the things that affect the flight training experience. Participants included student pilots (including students who had stopped training), pilots, flight instructors, and flight school managers.
After the focus groups, the team conducted a quantitative survey of 1,000 respondents, including flight instructors, pilots, student pilots, and lapsed student pilots. The survey has a 3% margin of error.
The survey tested 67 attributes identified in the focus groups. Of those, 47 were found to be statistically valid. The 47 attributes grouped into 11 discrete factors that affect the student pilot experience. Those 11 factors fall into four broader categories or themes.
Perhaps the single most significant finding with implications throughout the flight training community is that despite the industry’s shortcomings – and there were many – the experience of flight remains an inherently positive one which can overcome many of the negative aspects.
“That finding alone is of huge importance because it gives us something we can build on,” said Fuller. “It means student pilots want to like the experience.”
Conventional wisdom has been that time and cost are the driving factors in a student pilot’s decision to continue or drop flight training. But the four broad themes of the statistical model paint a different picture in which educational quality has the biggest impact.
Five of the 11 factors are directly related to educational quality with respect to both individual instructor effectiveness and flight school support for and management of instructors: effective instruction; organized lessons; flight school policies that support and maximize instructor effectiveness; providing additional resources; and test preparation.
Not surprisingly, cost is a factor. But student pilots are more concerned about getting good value with the money they spend than about the actual dollars and cents amount. They want to know that the flight school and instructors put the students’ interests first and look for ways to minimize cost and maximize the effectiveness of every dollar spent. Factors like flight simulators and well-maintained aircraft that are available to fit the student’s schedule affect this perception.
Information sharing is another key factor. Student pilots feel at a disadvantage when choosing a flight school and instructor, or even when determining whether they can afford to learn to fly, because the flight schools and instructors have a great deal of knowledge that the student pilots do not – such as the school’s student success rate and realistic estimates of what it will cost to earn a certificate.
Finally, there is a clear desire for a sense of community, of belonging to a special group with unique skills. As anyone who has earned a certificate knows, the community exists. The research suggests that flight schools could enhance the training experience by taking more steps to draw student pilots into the community that can provide additional encouragement and support.
Following the presentation, participants broke into five groups and spent the rest of the day discussing ways to meet student pilot expectations in the four broader categories: Educational Quality, subdivided into instructor effectiveness and instructor support; Customer Focus; Community; and Information Sharing.
Benson later noted that it was both interesting and rewarding to see the research being put to immediate and effective use.
Throughout the day, the working groups showed a serious intention to fix the system and did not shy away from considering the tougher potential solutions, such as accreditation for both flight schools and flight instructors. At the same time, participants recognized that in order for instructors to meet higher standards, they would need additional training and mentoring.
The groups suggested a greater commitment to continuing contact with students and a need to recognize the students’ accomplishments. There was also a strong sense that the curriculum needs to be reformed. And they suggested that a way for flight schools to demonstrate their commitment to providing increased value for students would be a better integration of ground and flight simulator training tools to reduce cost.
“The work done by the participants in the Flight Training Summit is important and valuable,” said Fuller. “But it is a first step, and today’s meeting was the first of many discussions we, as an industry, must have if we are to identify and implement solutions that help student pilots earn their certificates. AOPA will do its part to facilitate those discussions and share the findings, but it will take a long time and a lot of collaboration to fix problems that have become so deeply entrenched.”
For more information: AOPA.org