For as long as I can remember, the powers-that-be in general aviation have been worrying that there are too few new pilots. Recently, AOPA said as many as 80 percent of prospects who start flying lessons never get a certificate. That seems like a pretty low completion rate. Maintaining the flow of money to keep flying is certainly one major factor, but I suspect another underlying factor is that what students want and what flight schools want is not the same thing.
Of course, not all students want the same thing, either. Some are looking for adventure, some want to fly for business and practical reasons, some are on a career track. Ideally every flight school should take the time to determine what each student wants, and find the way to best meet those needs. For the adventurer, a sense of fun and shared community may be essential. The practical flyer may want to maximize simulator time and take a weekend class to get the knowledge test done. Every student probably would benefit from more time spent on the ground, with CFIs clearly explaining each lesson and debriefing afterward.
AOPA's study found that many students feel flight schools are not meeting those needs. Part of the problem may be that CFIs and flight schools chase the bottom line. Sure, cookouts and movie nights at the hangar might go a long way to enhance a new pilot's experience, but they won't enhance profits. For time-building CFIs, hours spent on the ground tutoring students are not very productive. Flight-school managers can't maximize income by moving students to completion and out the door as quickly as possible. GA is not alone in this -- the emphasis on profit crowds out all other interests in most work places today, with disheartening effects on workers as well as customers.
It's hard for business operators to take the longer-term view of creating a business that will grow over time with a satisfied customer base, rather than focusing on the short-term effort to maximize returns. But in some sectors, the concept of a "triple bottom line" is gaining traction. The triple bottom line represents an effort to factor in not only dollars but the impact a business has on quality of life. Along with profit, the company's impact on its community, its workers, and the environment are factored in as important returns on investment. It's a way to think about an escape from pure economics to value other by-products of a well-run business that can grow sustainably over time.
Andrew Savitz, author of The Triple Bottom Line, says the traditional single-focus on profit isn't working anymore, and the more holistic view is the way to grow. "Executives today must take the time to think hard about the social, economic, political, environmental and cultural transformation that business is undergoing, and decide how their companies will participate," he says. "If they don't, they will misunderstand and be blindsided by some of the most powerful trends and changes affecting their industry."
It's not hard to see how this approach could lead to more user-friendly flight schools, with a greater emphasis on creating communities of pilots who share a love of flying. Would this also lead to better retention rates, more rentals, a growing customer base? It might. And it might at least create a little more happiness in the world -- and it's hard to put a price on that.