Here’s a pertinent and timely question for you to ponder. What does general aviation have in common with the Christmas shopping season? The answer is unfortunately both depressing and obvious — Nothing.
Let’s set about changing that. You and me. Right now. Today.
Black Friday rolls around at the tail end of this week. That name signifies the point when retailers switch from using red ink to record numbers in their ledgers to the much more desirable black ink. It also marks the kickoff to the modern tradition of the Christmas shopping season. An economic frenzy of spending drives our economy even as it frays our nerves. And in all that mayhem, general aviation is virtually non-existent in the minds of most shoppers.
As you and your family prowl the malls and shopping centers of America, I encourage you to take note of the almost complete absence of aviation offerings in the stores you frequent. Nary a flight bag or an E6B can be found. Scarves and iPads, sure, they’re around every corner. But those aren’t exclusively aviation-oriented products. In fact, far more non-pilots than pilots make use of them.
That is the crux of our problem as an industry. Families and individuals are headed out shopping and we know it. They’re primed to buy, some to part with dollars in order to impress their friends, family, and co-workers, others to express their affection and dedication to a relationship via a financial transaction. They’re looking for something amazing. Something adventurous and exciting, something that will be memorable and appreciated. They’re looking. They’re searching. But they won’t stumble upon the most adventurous, exciting, and memorable offering available to them.
Not unless they happen to turn off the main road, venture through the airport fence, replete with festive signs reading “No Trespassing,” “Keep Out,” and “Violators will be Prosecuted,” and make their way to the front desk of a business they never heard of, selling products and services they don’t understand. That’s not exactly how the Sears catalog became the favorite holiday reading material of children from coast to coast, or how WalMart supplanted it as the largest retailer in the history of humankind.
Now put on your thinking cap with me and consider a completely different Christmas shopping season.
What if those same shoppers encountered a kiosk at the mall, operated on behalf of the local airport businesses? Imagine the interest in a selection of gift certificates that could be redeemed for discovery flights, simulator time, flight reviews, ground school classes, and even flight instruction that would lead to a sport or private pilot certificate. How many people in your town might venture a hundred dollars for a short local flight that would absolutely wow the intended recipient? Are there parents in town who would considered gifting their fledgling college student with a ground school class? Is there a spouse or two who might throw down a little plastic rectangle and put enough cash on deposit to earn a certificate or add a rating for the one they love?
In short, what if we put general aviation right out there with the furry bunnies, the cell phone cases, and the wide screen televisions? Might sales improve? Yes, I think they might. Would we reach a new audience of potential pilots who never envisioned themselves in the cockpit? I have no doubt we would.
Thirty years ago personal computers came on the scene and made their way into shops that traditionally sold toys, stereo systems, and household items. The average consumer had no idea what they would do with a computer. Many laughed at the idea. How preposterous. What could be the point of a computer in the home?
Thirty years later there are few of us who don’t have a computer on our desk at work. We likely have another at home. Most of us have one in our pocket, a tiny device that has taken the place of the telephone, the stereo system, a camera, a video tape recorder, and a television. Plus, it can access the Internet from pretty much where ever we are on the planet. And all that happened because each year more and more people realized that a personal computer did indeed make sense. It really could fit into our lives and make them better, easier, more interesting, and convenient.
For those of us who work in retail, maybe this is the year to contact the local FBO or flight school to see if we can work out an arrangement to add a series of products and services to our inventory that will attract and amaze the customers we see this holiday season. Just because you work in a shoe store doesn’t mean you can’t sell gift certificates to fly with the local biplane ride operator. Perhaps a barber shop or two will put a poster in the window offering discovery flights at the nearest flight school. If we’re really lucky, maybe a few creative bankers will work a deal to offer ground school and flight training packages to their customers who might be interested.
The personal computer might have been invented and initially manufactured in a garage, but the world doesn’t shop for them by driving through the suburbs looking for a gathering of geeks to tip them off. Similarly, we know the world is not going to beat a path to the airport gate in a frenzied attempt to learn to fly — but we also know aviation appeals to a much wider audience than we currently reach.
So let’s shake up our game plan. Let’s take the products and services to the shoppers rather than bemoaning another year where they don’t come to us.
Our customers are out there. We just need to be creative enough and dedicated enough to go find them. So let’s do that. Let’s do it this year. Now. Because we can. And wouldn’t a string of new pilots be a great New Year’s gift?