Flight School: Increasing Retention

How can busy flight schools make their students feel like they belong, that they’re one of the family?

Eric Radtke is an airline transport pilot, Gold Seal flight instructor, advanced ground instructor and NAFI-accredited Master Flight Instructor. Eric has been involved in aviation education since 1998 and currently serves as president and chief instructor of Sporty’s Academy — the educational arm of Sporty’s Pilot Shop. He says:

It's impossible to estimate how many student pilots are lost because they feel like an intrusion into a flight school's operations. As evidenced by the recent data from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's Flight Training Student Retention Initiative on the abysmal retention rate the flight training industry has experienced, flight schools must welcome everyone coming to the airport into the aviation community.

Simple, creative, inexpensive excuses to bring people together at the airport — cookouts, coffee and donuts, corn roasts, etc. — create venues that allow student pilots to interact with other community members on an informal basis. Customers have the opportunity to meet others pursuing a pilot certificate so they quickly learn they’re not alone. A support network is a powerful force.

Other techniques for creating a sense of community include blogging or providing any other central location for free advice, dispersing information and sharing stories highlighting the fun in general aviation. Safety seminars and open houses are also popular events. Active participation in social media, including Facebook and Twitter, is a must because it keeps customers close to the airport at all times.

Sporty's Academy also honors learn-to-fly milestones by presenting awards and plaques. Signage, newsletters and news releases about each student to the local media guarantee that the customers understand the importance of their accomplishments. The publicity doesn't hurt either.

Being part of the community means honoring its traditions. That includes the cutting of the shirttail after the student solos. We go one step further by framing that shirttail so the student will have it as a memento forever. And we also sound an alert throughout the building after the first solo so we can have a crowd on hand to give the occasion its due celebration.

The best advice I can provide — try something new!

Julie Boatman Filucci has been part of the aviation industry for 25 years, first as a student pilot, then as a flight instructor, a technical writer and editor at Jeppesen Sanderson, and a technical editor for AOPA Pilot magazine. She currently works for Cessna as manager of the Cessna Pilot Center program. She holds a CFI-I and an ATP certificate with a Douglas DC-3 type rating. She says:

First, you have to think about what a family — a good one — does for its members. You celebrate birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and the fun times together. You share concerns, struggles and sorrows along the way. You spend time together, whether physically or via social networks or the good old-fashioned telephone.

A flight school can mimic many of these same characteristics, and it doesn’t have to cost much — or anything. We celebrate milestones such as the first solo throughout much of the flight training community, with traditions such as the cutting of a shirttail or the dunking of the new pilot in a pool. A flight school can modernize these traditions by using photos and video to create mementos for the customer. A frame with a photo is a nice gift, but it won’t make the customer really feel a sense of belonging unless it’s presented around to other members of the community. A movie night or pizza party can be just the place to share these achievements.

Flight schools can also help their customers feel supported during the challenging times by setting up a mentoring program. Each student should have someone aside from the instructor whom he or she can go to and share concerns or frustrations. The student should feel like he or she can approach an instructor with these concerns, but talking them over with another person can help the student frame the issue and feel more confident that he or she is not alone in the process.

The flight school can also build a virtual community that its customers and instructors can use to share comments and photos. We use the Cessna Pilot Center page on Facebook to provide a greater community for the customers of our CPCs, and for anyone who wants to learn to fly. Many of our CPCs have Facebook pages of their own, and it's a thrill to see all of the first solos, cross-country adventures and events from throughout the network.

Pia Bergqvist joined FLYING in December 2010. A passionate aviator, Pia started flying in 1999 and quickly obtained her single- and multi-engine commercial, instrument and instructor ratings. After a decade of working in general aviation, Pia has accumulated almost 3,000 hours of flight time in nearly 40 different types of aircraft.

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