The buzz in the industry these days has to do with AOPA's findings that why we thought student pilots quit before they had a certificate in their hands was all wet. Turns out that the biggest obstacle to finishing up isn't cash after all, as we’d all assumed. This is very good news for a number of reasons.
For decades there have been numerous efforts by various aviation groups to do something about the alarmingly low number of what are referred to as "student starts," that is, the number of people who decide to drive out to the airport, go for a flight and sign up for flying lessons. The idea behind these programs has been pretty much the same: The future of general aviation is inextricably linked to the number of people who participate in the activity, so the more people we get to take that first lesson, the more people we'll have in aviation down the road. The logic seems inescapable, and so does the remedy: create programs to motivate non-pilots to sign up for lessons.
The only problem is, these programs — and there have been around a half dozen of them over the years — simply don't work. A few years back the Be A Pilot program proved this once again. After years of heavy industry involvement during some very profitable years for manufacturers, the Be A Pilot program resulted in an increase in students starts so small that it would easily be explained by other factors. It seemed, in fact, that it would have been far cheaper for the industry, instead of running ads and printing signs, to have just paid for the flight training for every one of the students that the industry seemingly generated by the Be a Pilot program.
When it was abandoned, the coalition members supporting Be A Pilot were a bit disheartened to see their efforts come to naught. Direct marketing didn't work. A very respectable television campaign didn't work. Marketing assistance to local flight schools didn't work. Was there anything the industry could do to get prospects out to the airport?
This year AOPA finally came to the problem from a completely different angle. Instead of trying to get more students started in flying, they decided to figure out a way to keep more student pilots flying after they start.
Doubtless by now you've heard the statistic that 80 percent of student pilots don't continue with their training after they get started. It's a remarkable figure, one that seems to jump out at you. But, shockingly, no one has tackled it head on before, and it was AOPA that decided to go that route. It's a remarkably sensible approach. After all, if you can cut the attrition rate by 10 percent, then the results of the program will surpass those of any learn-to-fly initiative to date.
I spoke with Jennifer Storm from AOPA about the program. Storm, who is the director of flight training initiatives for AOPA, has been working on this program and points out that the directive is not to raise funds or generate new members but simply to improve retention.
To this end, the organization commissioned a study to find out why students were dropping out and, just as importantly, what motivates them to keep training.
While none of the reasons they gave were anything out of the ordinary in and of themselves, the overall picture the responses paint is remarkable. While cost was the biggest downside, it was far from being the only factor students took into account when assessing their training.
One message that came through loud and clear is that students want high quality interactions with their flight instructors, whom they expect to be helpful and well organized. They want their lessons to be of "high value," which I take to mean to the point and helpful toward reaching their goals. They also expressed a strong desire to feel part of a community of pilots and not be some lone student pilot braving the inevitable struggles on their own. They even expressed a desire to be able to schedule flying to suit their needs, to be able to hit milestones that demonstrate progress.
I don't know about you, but I would have put my money on cost as being the biggest factor in determining a student's likelihood of sticking it out. The fact that cost is not king, that there are positives that outweight cost, is good news, because the price of training isn't coming down any time soon. That students expect good things from their CFIs shouldn't surprise either. But high expectations presents challenges that are tough to meet. Getting and keeping quality CFIs on a flight instructor’s salary has long been a challenge for schools. (Perhaps how to do that could be a focus of AOPA's next major study.)
But the study made clear that there was much flight schools could do to enhance the experience for its student pilots. For one, make them feel they're a part of the gang. Barbeques, seminars, fly outs … there are a lot of community building activities that can be done free, cheap, or even at a profit. And a couple of the incentives noted prominently, like friendly, courteous help and clean airplanes, cost little or nothing.
If I had to reduce the findings to one statement it would be that customers expect to be treated well and to get what they're paying for, which is to get the thrill and reward of learning to fly. They should expect nothing less.
AOPA has now set about to put these findings into action, to create strategies and tools that flight schools can use to keep more of their students flying. It will be years before we know how successful the program was, if we can ever really tell at all, but if it helps cut losses by even 5 percent, the program will be a huge success.