Guest Blog: CFIs Need to Step Up

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Call me a glutton for punishment, but Iíve logged more than 4000 hours as a civilian primary flight instructor.† Iíve worked in both Part 61 and 141 schools and owned and operated one in the frozen tundra of eastern Michigan.† Currently Iím an instructor at a 142 school, which means I train pilots to go high and fast, but my heart is in ensconced behind a propeller.†

Thereís been a lot of talk about how to fix the dwindling pilot population.† Most of it has centered on the aircraft or potential students.† Build a better trainer and they will come. Throw in the fancy gadgets to attract generation Y. The real problem, in my view is the instructors and thatís something thatís fixable now.

Although the primary focus is the transfer of a tangible skill, the instructorís secondary job is to sell a product.† Far too many instructors fall short when it comes to lead generation and customer retention.† Many instructors make the argument that the flight school is responsible for marketing and promotion.† Flight school owners have some culpability, true, but imagine if a realtor used the same logic.† The most successful salespeople self-promote themselves and their industry.† Unfortunately, instructors are taught technical skills, but rarely receive customer service training.

A potential student pilot has to be convinced that flight training is a good investment.† One rarely complains about cost when the value is realized. The candidate must feel the benefit outweighs the cost.† Excluding competing interests for the sake of flying has to be justified. Sometimes the benefit is financial-- as in using an aircraft for business.† Other times itís psychological; shortening travel time and not having to jam liquids in a see-through quart size baggie.† Or maybe itís just fun-- grabbing an FBO-provided golf cart to drive across the runway for some of the finest barbeque in Texas.†

Iíve trained everyone from high net worth individuals in their brand new glass-cockpit aircraft to zoo keepers in a 20-year-old trainer.† They all had different reasons for wanting to fly. I flew with a preacher that thought it made him closer to God.† Regardless, the person in the right seat holds the key to success or failure.† The attitude and professionalism of the CFI means everything.

Years ago, I noticed a student who was very active and excited about training. He had several thousand dollars on account at my school, but had vanished from the schedule.† When I encouraged my employee (his CFI) to give him a call and book a flight, he dismissed the request.† Further inquiry revealed that the instructor felt the student had bad breath and could care less if he ever booked another flight.† Scratch that future pilot from the books, bad breath or not.†

Recently I ventured into several flight schools in the large metropolitan area in which I live.† It was obvious that a cadre of individuals wandering around were instructors.† I showed no signs of being a pilot and feigned interest in the surroundings.† Yet not a single individual made contact with me.† Thirty minutes elapsed and I left.† Demographically, Iím a 43-year-old married man with a working spouse and no children. I drove up in a luxury car.† Talk about the ideal candidate to learn to fly and buy an airplane!

If I had done the same thing at a car dealership, I would have been mobbed with salespeople.† And those individuals would have gotten me in the car first, not taken me directly to the finance office.† How many times do instructors hand a prospect a rate sheet and discuss cost as the first order of business?† Answering questions while seated in the parked aircraft heightens interest.† It promotes the tangible value over the cost. Excitement is contagious.† Good, quality instruction and utility of use can overcome any objection about cost or the perception of antiquated aircraft.† Creative instructors can make training fun and interesting irrespective of the age or quality of the aircraft.†

CFIs will have to lead the charge to stem the declining population of pilots. Those who have the skills to pass on the knowledge are the best advocates.† How many experienced flight instructors continue to renew their certificate every two years but fail to conduct a single hour of dual instruction?† The last time I attended a weekend CFI revalidation clinic, an informal survey revealed about 95 percent were not conducting any instruction. Why not just give up the certificate and save the renewal fee? The two most prominent arguments seem to be ďI worked so hard to get it,Ē or ďI might need it someday.Ē To stop the bleeding, that someday is now.

Shannon Forrest teaches resource management and is an active Gold Seal instrument and multiengine flight instructor in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

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Comments (51)

Interesting article. Here's my problem Shannon. What incentive is there for CFI's to be sales people? These folks make $25,000 a year. This isn't a career job for them, most have ambitions to move up to higher paying flying jobs. Some may stick around and want to run their own schools one day, but most don't.

As for trying to motivate students? I guess i'm on the pessimistic side here in the continental US but unless you're a traveling business executive, it would be hard to justify to someone how flying is a great investment. It's fun yes, but a great investment? I never went into flying thinking it was. Most entry level flying jobs pay crap for the amount of money you have to put forth to get the ratings these days.

Posted by: Chris Boyd | February 18, 2014 8:07 PM    Report this comment

Couldn't help but chuckle at the bad breath story. Cockpits are not known for spaciousness and personal hygiene habits become noticeable very quickly. I can understand the CFI.
Learning to fly an airplane in controlled airspace is not an enjoyable experience. If you are obsessive-compulsive I would say you are ahead of the game for training. Piloting requires developing a split attention ability unlike anything I've ever done. And there is no better cure for insomnia than reading FARs.
It's a pain.
Ability and passion. It is uncommon for both to occupy the same body. Not to mention checking whatever attitude you may have and leaving it on the ground while you're up there.

Posted by: Matthew Lee | February 19, 2014 12:46 AM    Report this comment

As Shannon stated correctly; the problem IS not only the CFI, but the MANAGEMENT they work for!
"ZIP" sales skills or training - you bet - but more importantly, little interest in SELLING - period!

The owners/operators of many flight schools themselves are NOT motivated by money or profit; rather, the flights school is a mere vehicle to share ones interest (passion?) for flying REGARDLESS of the potentially negative financial consequences down the "runway"!

Can a flight instructor make a good living as a professional CFI - you bet they can - here's how.
If management offers a plan, for example,e of lets say, $30/hr for flight AND ground/simulator dual,, the average rate here in the NJ/NY metro area, and the CFI "bills" out only 25 TOTAL hrs/week = $700/week - not to shabby. Now add in $100 (bonus) for every private/Instrument grad (completion) at even 10 student annually; the earning are in the $35-36K range. Does the flight school SELL airplanes - maybe yes, maybe no. If they do, and the former student BUYS an aircraft, say a $40K C-172, he/she is awarded an ADDITIONAL $500 bonus!

Just how IS the training experience being sold - "fun" ONLY? The best way to keep ANY student is WHAT they can do AFTER they're licensed - go PLACES - the "utility" value is rarely sold if ever - this is WHAT airplanes do best - the "sizzle" (fun) often wanes - the "steak" (utility value) doesn't!

Chris Boyd and others - got your interest? Those SERIOUS about GA's future might identify with a December 2012 article at our blog;; "Will BUSINESS ever come to recreational aviation"? - and our many other "pro-business" writing.

My colleague, Mike Dempsey and I, are very concerned of how the most basic of business principals are totally violated and missing from the "retail" (FBO/flight school) and how this dysfunction is affecting the growth and future of GA!

Posted by: Rod Beck | February 19, 2014 8:33 AM    Report this comment

"If I had done the same thing at a car dealership, I would have been mobbed with salespeople." True. But car salespeople typically don't have the career perspective of tolerating giving flight instruction as a means to filling their logbook so they can get "a real flying job." The new ATP regs are just going to exacerbate this situation.

As you surely know, "intro" flights are loss-leader items. Dispatch staff and instructors (which at many operations are one and the same) are encouraged to qualify prospective students' financial means - often before they set foot in an airplane. Now, there are ways and there are other ways to do that. It's called "profiling," and it's done often and everywhere. When a well-groomed, well-dressed late-30s woman shows up in a late-model Mercedes, we might suggest a pair of flat shoes, but we help her board the aircraft without much ado. When a tattooed, pierced young man in ripped bluejeans shows up in a smoking, dented Civic, we may offer some pre-flight education regarding the economic realities of flight training - before we head out to the flightline.

An instructor staff consisting of well-screened Old Farts may be the best solution. Hell - nobody else seems willing to hire them to do anything productive, these days.

I usually start with "have you ever flown in a light airplane?" Their answer may reveal that there's really no reason for a classic "intro" flight. Or it may let me anticipate the issues that often can accompany anybody's first flight in something other than a widebody. I usually follow up with "what brought you here to XYZ flight-ops?" They may tell me how they found XYZ and/or why they picked XYZ in lieu of ABC (valuable marketing information). They also may reveal the reasons why they think that they want to learn how to fly. If they don't, then that's my next question. Either way, their answer provides valuable context for determining how to frame an intro flight and subsequent instruction, if we get that far. It also provides helpful background to inform my expectation-framing efforts, which are an integral part of building a satisfying relationship.

By definition, motivation comes from within. Providing truthful information can justify and reinforce a prospect's motivations. I'm all for full disclosure, leavened by enough perspective to understand that it's rarely productive to overwhelm any prospect with information. That's as true for an intro-related briefing as it is for any flying lesson. As soon as the student is overwhelmed, learning stops; confusion, intimidation, and disillusionment set in rapidly. And that's not productive for anybody.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 19, 2014 8:45 AM    Report this comment

The customer service aspect of the article I can agree with. My CFIs ask an intro customer what got them interested in flying. If the customer replies "It's something I always wanted to do", we don't let that person walk out of the door without scheduling their first lesson. If they do, most likely $10k just walked out the door with them.

As far as CFIs and a lead generator, I just have to laugh. I've handed my CFIs a list of qualified potential customers, some of which already have a gift certificated for an intro flight. It just sits on the desk untouched.

Now if we could find a way that they could log PIC time for making cold calls, that would be a different story.

Posted by: Jerry Plante | February 19, 2014 8:48 AM    Report this comment

I have personally witnessed every single thing described by Ms. Forrest in her article. I have made my living in commission sales for over 30 years and her points are spot on. I love our current FBO at my home field but they have made these same mistakes when a person drives up instead of flying in. I emailed the link to Paul's article describing this mistake in hopes it reaches receptive eyes.

Mr. Yarsley's comment about appearances are flat out wrong. Early in my sales career I made the same type of judgements only to have another salesperson sell that ratty looking individual a high dollar item. Appearances do not tell you the story of an individuals financial status, that pierced and torn blue jean wearing person just might be a wealthy trust fund kid.

Even manufactures are guilty of this behavior. A good friend of mine runs his own business and makes about 200k a year. He does not dress to impress and drives a Volkswagen Van. He is an
active pilot with disposable income. Yet when we attended a Cirrus open house at a local airport
with headsets in hand, we were roundly ignored by the entire staff. We left after 30 minutes without
a single sales person talking to us. Because of this my friend will never consider owning a Cirrus.

As a professional sales person, I can tell you it would be insanity to market flying on a financial basis.
Sales are almost always made at an emotional level, not a financial one. When I learned to fly it was because I had a burning desire to fly and the cost be damned. If you approach flying from a spreadsheet and not the emotional, you will have very few students.

These types of things are self inflicted wounds that can and must be avoided in order to grow GA.

Posted by: Ric Lee | February 19, 2014 9:21 AM    Report this comment

Umm, a Shannon can be a girl or a guy. Our Shannon is a guy, just for the record.

Agree with the emotional aspect. Only a niche will earn ratings for use in transportation and it's a declining niche.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 19, 2014 9:28 AM    Report this comment

Sorry Shannon,

My mistake.

Posted by: Ric Lee | February 19, 2014 9:32 AM    Report this comment

"Many instructors make the argument that the flight school is responsible for marketing and promotion. Flight school owners have some culpability, true, but imagine if a realtor used the same logic."

I agree that flight instructors should also be responsible for marketing and promotion of aviation, but I believe the flight school still plays a very large part in this, and still holds the most responsibility. I chose to go it alone as an independent flight instructor because I felt the flight schools in my area just weren't projecting the right attitude toward aviation and students (and the one that was required a 2nd-class medical, which as a part-time instructor with a full-time day job, just wasn't worth the added hassle and expense).

Until the flight school is serious about growing the pilot population and see students and potential students as more than just fuel purchasers, it isn't going to matter how good the instructor is at marketing aviation.

There is also the problem of some CFIs instructing only as a time-building exercise, but I have had some of these instructors during my primary training and found most of them perfectly good instructors. Sure, there are some who you can tell would rather not be there, but it's always been up to the attitude of the instructor and not their reason for being an instructor.

I think all of this goes back to what I've been saying for a while, which is that ALL of us need to have a more optimistic view of aviation, and spread that optimism. It does no good to spread pessimism about aviation and its rising costs, regulations, etc, regardless of your individual qualifications. Much of it may be true, and we should fight that where we can, be we shouldn't actively discourage people from entering aviation as I have sometimes seen (sadly sometimes from flight training providers).

Posted by: Gary Baluha | February 19, 2014 9:34 AM    Report this comment

"An instructor staff consisting of well-screened Old Farts may be the best solution. Hell - nobody else seems willing to hire them to do anything productive, these days." By "Old Farts" do you mean anyone over 104? Seriously, not many flight instructors work full time. I am an "Old Fart" that works round-the-clock but then what else can I do that satisfies as much as mentoring an individual with a dream to become a pilot. I flight instruct because I love to flight instruct. Other CFIs may have different motives but the love of flight is the bonding we all have in common - but this passion does not always pay the rent therefore some keep their day jobs doing whatever is needed to continue to live the dream.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 19, 2014 9:44 AM    Report this comment

Ric Lee; Good point! I also would add this: FIRST and foremost; qualify the potential students needs and motivation for learning and getting a pilot license and then tailor your "sales" presentation accordingly.

The 17 year old who's considering a career in aviation requires a different "scrip" than the 60+ year old former ad executive who really wants to buy an airplane one licensed to get to his vacation home 230+ miles away!

"Sales are made on an emotional level"; AND rational practical (utility value) level as well ! Frankly, the utility aspect, as I mentioned in an earlier reply, is rarely, if ever sold! A farmer doesn't but a new John Deer tractor on pure emotion even If he may have some preference for John Deer (emotional) or bias to their products.

And on the "spreadsheet" concept - it does have some merit. If your referring to ones ABILITY to purchase flight training; you can bet I'm going to pay a little more attention to that persons needs and wants over someone who's debating the cost of a so called "discovery flight"!

Posted by: Rod Beck | February 19, 2014 10:13 AM    Report this comment

If a good salesperson/CFI were able to make good money they might stay in the business. But they don't. They either gain the hours needed to move on to more lucrative jobs, or, if they are good at sales, they sell something else that can make a lot more money.

Let GOOD flight instructors instruct. If aviation needs salespeople to draw in new pilots, find them and pay them commissions.

Posted by: Unknown | February 19, 2014 1:27 PM    Report this comment

Can't say we're not trying everything but the kitchen sink to regenerate what was largely taken for granted in the past. But having flight instructors don another hat now as salespersons, with their already full rack of flying skills, accountant, counselor, business manger (some), maintainance and safety supervisor, weather analyst, and industry knowledge person - I'm sure I left out something as I'm not an instructor - maybe opening a haberdashery would be a better option and offer at least some supplemental income for the 95% part time instructors.

The paradigm shift of technology, virtual realities, social media, a shrinking middle class, and values and ideas of fulfillment and goal-orientation from the younger generations that are very different from ours of the past are key to understand today, imo.

I don't think this idea has legs, and I think it borders on insulting the hard-working CFI's we still have among us. Better to keep the airports we have viable as we just discussed in a recent blog, work to understand the younger folks better and what types of flying they might even consider in their lives, and keep in touch with the trends and changes coming at the speed of light.

Posted by: David Miller | February 19, 2014 2:04 PM    Report this comment

Loved this part, thanks Dave Miller;

"I don't think this idea has legs, and I think it borders on insulting the hard-working CFI's we still have among us. Better to keep the airports we have viable as we just discussed in a recent blog, work to understand the younger folks better and what types of flying they might even consider in their lives, and keep in touch with the trends and changes coming at the speed of light."

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 19, 2014 2:30 PM    Report this comment

While I understand where the author is coming from, I disagree with his premise.

Salesmanship is not taught at any level in aviation, nor is it ever mentioned in any CFI job description I've ever seen. I think there's a reason for that: we are already expected to have mastered aerodynamics, navigation, meteorology, regulations, systems, flight physiology, CRM, emergency procedures, instructing, and a dozen other things ranging from answering phones to greeting walk-ins and keeping up with copious levels of paperwork. And do it all for paltry wages earned over long days.

The CFI is by definition an instructor and pilot. They are not necessarily skilled at, or desiring to function as, a businessman. One person at the FBO who IS a businessman? The one who owns/runs it. Advertising for the firm's products and service should rest primarily with them. If the instructor can assist, that's one thing. But the CFI is already the least respected member of the aviation world. Why ding them for a lack of marketing skill and prowess? That's not the job they trained for. It's not the business they went into.

Posted by: Ron Rapp | February 19, 2014 3:40 PM    Report this comment

When an instructor is making $10-15 of the $60+ per hour rate, I think you're asking a lot of the guy or gal to produce "customer service" on top of knowledge transfer.

The young instructor crowd are those who are probably working their first or second job in their entire life. You ever walk into a Wendy's or McDonald's and expected 5-star service that rivals restaurants that are in those megaplex hotels in Vegas? I think not.

On the flip, if a CFI pisses off a customer, which happens, the customer walks. Thus, perhaps the flight school need to provide customer service 101 or at least a briefing on how to handle situations so that the school at least doesn't lose business.

Finally, I sincerely hope you don't blame the CFIs for the declining pilot population with your "CFIs will have to lead the charge to stem the declining population of pilots." Those who have MONEY will fly. You want to increase the pilot population? Make flying 1000% cheaper, dumb down the knowledge base by a factor of 1000, and make airplanes that require very little thinking on the part of the pilot...then, you'll have all the pilots you want.

A major part of the decline in the pilot population is likely due to the low pay career path. The rest of the "rich folks" who want to do it, will do it. They've been around, and always will be. I have a feeling the pilot population isn't declining. The number of people who account for the "career" type in the pilot population, are declining...and rightfully so. Perhaps there have always been 300,000 regular folk pilots and 250,000 career types. The base 300,000 will always be around (read: rich folks). The 250,000 have been, and will continue to decline so as long as your entry pilot job pays less than Wendy's or McDonald's.

Posted by: Amy Zucco | February 19, 2014 4:50 PM    Report this comment

Regarding the post about the Cirrus salesmen, I fly a very well equipped Cherokee 6 and at Sun'n'Fun a few years ago, I stopped by the Piper tent to check out its successors. I guess my jeans and T shirt didn't impress them because I don't know if the salesment in a huddle even glanced at me, but if they did, it was probably to make sure I wasn't getting fingerprints on their planes.

As far as CFI's are concerned, I didn't see anybody mention what they can do to make training less expensive. At least independent CFI's should be able to let faster students progress at their own pace. I heard about one local student at a well known flight school (out of state)whose father pulled him out when he found out that the student was goin to have to complete a certain number of hours before he could take a check ride even though it was more than the FAA minimum and the student felt ready before then. Then there was the pilot I know who was training in New Jersey who had in the neighborhood of 100 hrs. but the CFI still hadn't signed off for the checkride. He contacted the "Old Fart", retired airline pilot CFI and was fast-tracked to his checkride and PPL. Milking your student, anyone?

Posted by: John Worsley | February 19, 2014 5:05 PM    Report this comment

Imagine the row from Harvard professors if the administration told them that they would have to go off campus and find new students....

Posted by: Jerry Plante | February 19, 2014 5:26 PM    Report this comment

I'm in the process of writing a somewhat lengthy article titled: "The Flight School - Social Club or Profit Center? I hope to address the many issues raised here in this forum and more. A few topics will include:

1. Who's really responsible for the flight schools" incompetence - the CFI or management?
2 .Is there relationship for the more financially successful flight school and demographics?
3. Why is the CFI possibly the best sales person at the flight school?
4. Is the Internet (web-site, etc), fact or myth when reaching the "buyer" who has the greatest degree of disposable income and (LTCV) Life Time Customer Value?
5. Way is it in almost every area, from products to personal, of GA - we have a low (limited) demand and high (over) supply?

Those who may have some interest in what I deem as "possible" answers on these subjects may view this on: on about March 15th. We'll welcome all comments from both the "weekend pilot" community and naturally instructors/pilots, flight school/FBO principals, staff, and managers. Thanks, Paul!

Posted by: Rod Beck | February 19, 2014 6:18 PM    Report this comment

I have a question. Why is aerobatic flight training regarded like a bastard step-child of aviation? You have something that beats the hell out of any earthbound rollercoaster yet hardly anyone takes advantage of it.
It was a running joke when I was in ground school but more than a few times was mentioned this, "When do we get to do a barrel roll?"
It's a thrill ride hook, but it's still a hook.

Posted by: Matthew Lee | February 19, 2014 10:33 PM    Report this comment

The profiling thing does indeed happen and many deals have been lost by ignorant salespeople. Many years ago when I was well into my first professional job I was literally asked to leave a car dealership even though I was prepared to pay cash for the car (my old Chevy did not meet their expectations of a suitable buyer). Today I prefer to drive an older Ford Ranger and still get snubbed, but I find it rather amusing to watch because it is so predictable. Somehow they never figure out that unlike themselves, people that can afford things got that way by living below (and not above) their means. Flight schools would do well to heed this advice...treat every customer with the utmost respect.

Posted by: A Richie | February 19, 2014 10:49 PM    Report this comment

I guess I have to clarify my comment about "profiling." I never advocated profiling as a method of excluding potential flight students. What I did say - and what I do see the necessity of - is using profiling to identify prospects who require additional qualification. Assume nothing; learn everything that you can. But what you learn must include awareness of the prospect's ability to pay; awareness about disqualifying conditions (medical and otherwise) ; awareness about misconceptions that the prospect may hold about GA. Example: if you learn that a prospect is insulin-dependent, and you take even one dollar from him/her without disclosure of the ramifications of that condition as regards airman medical certification, you are a thief. But that is no worse than asserting the all-too-common "anyone can learn how to fly" or its poor cousin "anyone who really wants to fly can find a way to afford it." Sadly, neither of those assertions is true, and asserting either of them is a disservice.

Profiling isn't discrimination, nor is it ignorant or stupid. Done correctly, it's simply good business practice - for both the flight school and its prospective students.

Posted by: Tom Yarsley | February 20, 2014 9:07 AM    Report this comment

"1. Who's really responsible for the flight schools" incompetence - the CFI or management? "

At one of the local flight schools, that's an easy answer: management all the way. As others have pointed out, what's the incentive for an instructor to chase down potential leads if they're only getting about 1/4 of the total price the student is paying? It's one thing to get 1/8 of a $40,000 car where you only have to get the buy to make the first payment, but another to get 1/4 of $50/hr when you can't be sure if it'll be just that one-hour intro flight or 100 hours for a private-instrument student (and over who-knows-how-long a period).

This is just another reason why I decided to be an independent instructor. When I charge $X/hr, I get all X dollars. I may not have the regular flight schedule of someone working at a flight school, but for every hour I fly, I would have to fly 3-5 hours to earn the same amount. And since I'm doing this part-time with instructing as my end goal, I have no reason to build the hours. Plus, I get to choose who I fly with, and when (within limits of what my full-time job allows). It also means I'm doing this for fun and because I want to, rather than needing the hours to make the money.

If I were to run my own flight school, I'd start off newly-minted CFIs at the 1/4 rate, but as soon as they prove they are a capable instructor, I'd quickly ramp that up to 1/2. Yes, the flight school still needs to make money, but assuming the aircraft rental rates and other FBO supplies are priced appropriately, why not give the really top-notch instructors as much as 3/4 of the instructor rate. Now the instructors have an incentive to do their best, rather than potentially milking a student along. The instructors are earning more, the students potentially complete faster, and the school gets more students when word spreads about the quality and speed of their instructing. This also takes care of the "instructor as salesperson" issue, since there's much more of an incentive to do so.

I think proof that proper flight school management is key is that there are some very high-quality school that exist, and in all of the ones that I've met, the school owners and management all worked as a team with the individual instructors, with pay incentives provided to the instructors for doing really good jobs. Even a time-building instructor can enjoy the job if they feel they are being valued.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | February 20, 2014 9:31 AM    Report this comment

Hi Gary Baluha;
I see you stated your a "part-timer or moonlighting" CFI. Nothing personal here, however, the "independent" CFI who is not employed by a FBO/flight school either full or part time IS one of the many reasons for the lower pay scale of many smaller flight schools. I'll explain; as you stated, the CFI in most cases, who's employed at Rusty's Flying Service is "competing " with you and other "free lance " CFI's for a very already limited market share; having been a principal/owner of 2 flight schools and the sales manager for an FBO who also had a small flight school as well, I can tell you first hand , this is a "sore" subject.

And, since your NOT money motivated, just doing it for "fun", probably saving LARGE on your personal flying expenses - a "win-win" for you - but NOT the struggling CFI giving "dual" at Rusty's - get my drift?

On the "newly minted" CFI applicants- fine, IF they have had previous "retail" sales experience at ANTYHING; home furnishing, cars, boats, etc possibly from high school - undergrad work. With this combination of sales/customer service skills ND flight credentials - a sure winner - don't you think?

A good example of a WELL managed mid-size FBO/flight school - US Aviation of Denton, TX comes to mind - check them out! And from your comments, I'll feel confident you'll appreciate Mike's and my articles as well!

Posted by: Rod Beck | February 20, 2014 3:40 PM    Report this comment

Rod, you don't need to post these twice. Just push the button and let the system update. It'll get there...

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 20, 2014 3:58 PM    Report this comment

Paul; Sorry, I think my old PC needs an annual! Rod

Posted by: Rod Beck | February 20, 2014 4:32 PM    Report this comment

AND a MAJOR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by: Rod Beck | February 20, 2014 4:48 PM    Report this comment

Occasionally, I'll get a chap next to me in my vintage VW at a light who wants to let me know I'm driving Hitler's car. My response is usually 'It suits me'. Off he tears, confident he enlightened someone that day. I keep to myself that the country origin of the car he is likely driving actually was the country that attacked us at Pearl Harbor...

Profiling and assumptions will always be with us, as long as IQ levels vary. I agree with Thomas that the best an instructor can do is have awareness of the selection process, and know how to act accordingly with that info. If that is 'salesmanship' as the author intended, then I'm on board. But that didn't come across to me.

Also, and Gary can speak for himself, shirley, but isn't what he is doing the whole package of free markets and entrepreneurship? Small businessman living the dream? Sounds like a great success story to me.

Posted by: David Miller | February 20, 2014 5:03 PM    Report this comment

Dave Miller; Lets suppose for a moment, you've INVESTED $600K in an FBO, $400K in newer training/fleet equipment, $100K in refurbishing the old terminal/hangar, BUT 2-3 "free lance/independent" CFI's, with "ZIP" capital investment are operating "under the radar" at your airport, with rates 30-40% LESS than you - would YOU still be a noble fan of the "maverick" operator?

Risk? No one knows more about GA small business/entrepreneurship than myself - started my first "flight school" by being resourceful; $50 of "capital" and taking over payments on a repo 1965 C-172, in the fall of 1966, and In May of 67', 2 "Wall Street" guy's wanted (and did) finance my operation, (they CAME to me mind you), with the addition of (2) 1967 C-150's and a 1960 Beech Debonair, and then my services were wanted by Uncle Sam - talk about bad timing; but that's another story for another time!

Posted by: Rod Beck | February 20, 2014 5:53 PM    Report this comment

I agree with most of the author's thoughts. However, I believe there is more than one problem with the declining student population. I have been to several flight schools that lose students simply because they are run so poorly.

Cost can be downplayed as much as wanted, but to simply ignor it as a factor is ridiculous.

Let's talk about CFI pay too. I know private baseball coaches that get paid $90/hour of instruction. Ice skating instructors that get paid $60/hour of instruction. They have no where near the level of responsibility and accountability of a CFI yet the pay is significantly higher. Why do we expect CFI's do be these great sales people and marketers when they make $20/hour? You are going to get what you pay for. If a flight school owner wants their CFIs to go above and beyond, well I can only hope that the flight school owner is willing to match the pay for the services the CFIs are rendering.

Posted by: David Brown | February 21, 2014 7:44 AM    Report this comment

As an active instructor, but independent of a flight school I agree with much of your article. Pilots wo love their hobby/job are always selling. Every teacher in a sense is in sales. I once worked in a larger schools as well had been a student , and even my oldest daughter has also. I often end up with many of those frustrated students from those big schools that keep getting told just couple more hours (to solo, checkride etc). Hearing stories of students spending 10k and haven't even come close to a checkride, but is it a management problem or an industry, flight school or's all. Too many instructors only doing this job to gain hours, those instructors have tendency to not consider the progress of their students as important as their personal logbook and pocketbook. Sales is often the bottom of the barrel as far as a budgeting, yet every instructor and student is an advertisement, not just making them wear a "pilots uniform", but how they interact with their personal students and other students, potential students and especially the family and friends of those students. Being a part of GIFT Acdemy Inc a non profit organization for women in aviation, we quickly realized the industry is not marketing to women. By marketing to "mom" often opens up more students for an instructor or school. We learned that when "mom" becomes comfortable and knowledgable about the convienence and safety of aviation she "allows" her husband, sons and daughters to persue their dreams, even if she will never learn to fly herself. So teaching the importance of instructors treating their potential students no different than if they were interviewing for a job in a sense would change their actions, and one never knows that one student might become your next connection to something even more exciting.

Posted by: Tamara Griffith | February 21, 2014 8:04 AM    Report this comment

And as I'm also prone to clicking buttons too soon...the management or school is a factor as tthey tend to look at financial end like any good business needs to be concerned with, but by hiring just time builder instructors, because they will work at those low wages is what is hurting their numbers leading to high turn over rates at flight schools. I understand that I would only make a portion of what is charged, as a independent instructor, my so called high pay is portioned out keeping a office/maybe a plane and hangar, taxes, supplies, where as working for a flight school they take care of that and I just instruct, yet I may never work a 8 hour day (many are not salary) but would salary retain or improve instructors, I think not as much as we hope and dream.
I watch instructors and their students coming to my mother who is a DPE. The instructors whose students come n a sense over prepared, not just book answers but in real judgment and real world skills, those instructors often get those better paying jobs first, where the instructor who more about their own ego, their students often a barely a minimum pass if they do, those instructors often not easily moving forward in their career. So in a sense that flight school, loses its best instructor to better money (and even as a independent likely can't match the potential income), and left with the second rate instructor longer whom I would be reluctant to raise his pay if he is only giving his students and employers a 1/4 of his efforts.

Posted by: Tamara Griffith | February 21, 2014 8:49 AM    Report this comment

The unfriendliness and lack of salesmanship is not unique to aviation. Other clubby activities have the same problem. I work as a consultant in the bicycle business, and many of the complaints I hear about people being ignored when they walk into FBOs are hauntingly similar to what we hear in the bike business: Too often, when an affluent middle-aged person walks into the store, the shop rats ignore him. (Or, they most especially ignore HER. I have a female 60-something relative who recently dropped $3k on a bike, and her choice was determined by which shop would give her the time of day.)
If there's an exception to this, it might be found in the motorcycle business. Motorcycle manufacturers have worked hard to give their product social respectability and promote safety. The Motorcycle Safety Foundation has a well-known, and very good, safety course. If you tell your non-motorcycling friends you're buying a motorcycle, it's likely that some of them will say, "Have you taken the Motorcycle Safety Foundation course?" The course has become a well-known brand. It has chipped away at the public perception of motorcycles as dangerous, and given the industry a solid footing.

Posted by: John Schubert | February 21, 2014 9:18 AM    Report this comment

To attract top talent in any business, you have to be willing to compensate for that top talent. I am in no way suggesting that you can start paying a time-builder CFI a high wage, and expect a turn around in that CFIs desire to do more for the business and industry. What I am suggesting is that you can attract and retain top talent by paying them well. You typically get what you pay for.

Posted by: David Brown | February 21, 2014 9:32 AM    Report this comment


While I appreciate the spirit of your post, I can't say I agree 100%. Yes CFIs need to step up, but that is not the global reason for declining pilot population. The bad breath story, though funny, was not a good example either. It simply shows a typical, less than average, perspective that could come from any mediocre employee. Perhaps the CFI was so busy he didn't need more students so he decided not to sit in the cockpit with a person with bad hygiene? Or perhaps he shouldn't be a CFI as his lack of interpersonal skills were running off students and costing him and the school money. Whatever the circumstances, this picture of a declining pilot population goes way beyond this example.

We train CFIs to teach students to fly. We don't teach them interpersonal skills nor do we teach them to sell themselves. For years I taught Doctors how to increase the size of their practice by teaching them and their staff these things.

But what about Big Iron's general lack of contribution to promoting new pilots? What about the increase in government intrusion into flight schools? What about all the increases in taxes for flight schools? What about the high (yet hidden) unemployment rates especially amongst the target audience for student pilots? What about the lack of available funding to these students?

A correct reason for the decline must investigate all of the factors and the correct answer will open the door to fixing the issues.

What you suggest in your blog in this subject, though peripherally relevant, falls significantly short of final.


Bob Lotter

Posted by: Bob Lotter | February 21, 2014 9:32 AM    Report this comment

'Lets suppose for a moment,........- would YOU still be a noble fan of the "maverick" operator?

Always will, Mr. Beck, as I am an independent contractor myself in my field of work. However, you're making an unnecessary conflict out of sound business competition. Your 'radar' is nothing more than an umbrella of power you want others to acknowledge so you don't have to work so hard at success and have it all for yourself. The scenario sounds like a bully who would take his ball and go home if everyone doesn't play by his rules only.

The real question should be, what fool would invest all that money you cited, be so vulnerable that his investment could tumble at the slightest sign of competition, and not have a clue or plan it was a possibility?

Blaming FBO's, CFI's, flight schools, airport groundskeepers - whatever, for the lack of new students is nothing but 'aviation denial' in my opinion. Sure, some might need some improvement and better customer relations, and it's harder to maintain your A-game and enthusiasm in leaner times. Fine tune these things all you want, no effort is ever wasted, in my view.

But all this whine about blaming instructors for paradigm shifts in societal attitudes, needs and values that are the real reasons for low pilot starts, or needing better marketing for greater social acceptance and safety assurance for the freckle-necked masses, and on and on, it's enough to make one sick. I'm amazed so many here buy into such nonsense.

Posted by: David Miller | February 21, 2014 9:51 AM    Report this comment

Good comments from everyone. Let me add a real world story that happened just a day after I made my post above. I live in a cold climate with an unheated hangar. A friend of mine from Florida was here with his wife and daughter on a ski vacation and wanted me to take his daughter flying the other day. So we plug in the engine preheater and go to the FBO for coffee and chat while my engine gets up to temperature.

There are 4 flight instructors sitting at a table discussing their latest feats of daring do, and a woman behind the counter with her head down absorbed in her computer. Door opens and in walks a middle aged man. No one says a word to this gentleman. No hello, may I help you, NADA! Let me contrast this with a local computer store that I patronize. When a person walks through their door, everyone, and I mean everyone in that store says hello. It is an amazing feeling every time I walk in the door even though I'm expecting it.

To those of you who do or have run FBO's, just how many customers walk through your door every day? I can tell you in a sales environment, I might only get one chance in an 8 hour shift to talk to a
potential customer so you can bet I am going to go all out for a sale. I have a policy that I adhere to when I'm shopping. If no one greets me within a few minutes, I'm out of there. I will find somewhere else to spend my money.

These young flight instructors are all personable fellows when I have spoken to them one on one. I believe they are just not trained on customer relations. Every person ignored in the FBO is one less potential pilot. This is what I mean when I say everyone in the FBO should have some basic sales training.

Posted by: Ric Lee | February 21, 2014 10:49 AM    Report this comment

I would love to instruct part time but as an active airline pilot, I am prohibited by my airlines operating specs.

I was a full time CFI for several years and would love to bring my freight dog and airline experience back to the CFI profession but cannot do it until I leave the airline.

Clients will pay for value and it is the flight schools job to show the client the value in learning to fly at their business.

Posted by: Douglas Horn | February 21, 2014 10:57 AM    Report this comment

Good grief...If an airport is open to public commerce (not a private operation) then there is absolutely nothing wrong with independent CFIs plying their trade at a public facility, for whatever they choose to be paid. Whine all you want, but It's none of the FBOs business; it's called "Freedom"; something most of us appreciate in the air but maybe not on the ground.

Posted by: A Richie | February 21, 2014 11:07 AM    Report this comment

Hi Mr. Dave Miller; respectfully, I think our aviation life experiences are light years and conclusions apart. From your response, I would assume you've NEVER been a GA business person in ANY capacity, for if you had, you might identify with my comments.

"What fool would invest" - clearly indicates you know NOTHING about the desire (passion?)internal or political working of the business side of GA? WHY does a particular airport have 5 FBO's when the market share could barely justify TWO - no shortage of "fools, wouldn't you say? Fools; there are and have been plenty; for its "their" very passion for the aviation culture "24/7" NOT profit -that drove them into financial ruin ultimately - want me to "name" a few?

Mr. Forrest thesis is "WRIGHT" on - in part! The "problem is not only with the CFI's resume, BUT the owners/managers MOTIVATION for being in the business to begin with - "fun" or profit?

Lets assume, as I would, my primary objective for being in ANY business is to be profitable.
That said, I would want, ideally, EVERY member of my staff, CFI's, CSR, etc to know their efforts are being appreciated by rewarding them with above industry pay plans, benefits, time off, etc and a GREAT place to come to "work" every day.

What's the old saying; "you get what you pay for?" So back to the original theme of this article - here's a copy of a "help wanted" ad for the a CFI if I were an owner/manager of a profited oriented flight school:

If your looking for the BEST instruction position in the country - look no further!
We are presently accepting resumes for the position of "CFI - Flight Account Manager" at our suburban New Jersey location. preference will be given to those with:

1. Previous "retail" sales /customer service experience and "outgoing" personality
2. Associate/Bachelor Degree in Aviation/Business Administration
3. FAA Commercial, CFIII (will consider those with CFI-A only)
4. Clean cut,well groomed and professional appearance

We offer salary ($22-25k) a bonus program, paid vacation (2 weeks after one year), optional health care plan and with potential first year earning of $40K+ A one year employment contract is expected upon start date. SEND resume to:

BUT, all this requires INCOME; and the income comes from a myriad of competent managerial responsibilities from hiring/staffing, financial planning and pro-active marketing/sales.

They're many concerns; not just the "CFI", but managements idea of WHAT the CFI's responsibility is in the "scheme of things".- and just one of many cogs in a very big wheel!

Posted by: Rod Beck | February 21, 2014 11:34 AM    Report this comment

Mr. A.Richie, I would suggest you check into the "Minimum Standard Agreements" (public information)of almost ALL well managed municipal/county airports - and then get back to me!

Mr. Ric Lee, YOU GOT IT! Do to the limited number of "prospects" that come through the flight schools door a week, can they AFFORD to let anyone walk out the door with at least some information on flying or a personal interview?

Posted by: Rod Beck | February 21, 2014 11:46 AM    Report this comment

I still think it comes down to the cost. I figure you could have the greatest CFIs in the world and the cost of getting that certificate due to the fuel and aircraft will kill all but the most determined. Pair that with the realization that the high costs just continue after you get your certificate and it the cost/benefit is acceptable only to those who are highly determined to fly. It is the cost!

Posted by: STEPHEN EGOLF | February 21, 2014 2:14 PM    Report this comment

Mr. Beck, let it be. For someone who claims 'No one knows more about GA small business/entrepreneurship than myself', you're wasting your time on me. You've enlightened me, but maybe not to what you intended.

'I still think it comes down to the cost.'

That is the biggest practical impediment, no doubt. If the growing indifference to personal flight and its joy and utility could be arrested, and the costs brought within reach, we would be singing a new tune.

Posted by: David Miller | February 21, 2014 2:42 PM    Report this comment

Rod Beck, independent flight instructors are not the problem and should not be looked down upon. If a student can learn what s/he needs to learn from an independent instructor, why does that student need all the extra bells and whistles and niceties of some formalized school? As far as the student's FAA private pilot certificate is concerned, they don't. If the student wants to impress employers down the line then perhaps they will want the name recognition... but it all still ends with an FAA check ride no matter who gives you the instruction.

If the independent instructors are beating flight schools at their own game, perhaps the flight schools need to examine their business models.

The reason flight instruction is so cheap is very simple. It is a stepping stone for most (not all) instructors. It is not unlike an internship. The value comes more from the experience in flight hours than from the paycheck. It is a fault of the FARs that this is so. The hour designation is silly and arbitrary. Why does 1500 hours bouncing around the pattern in a C-152 make someone a good pilot who is prepared to carry passengers? It doesn't! In any other line of work, they would weigh your years of experience with the quality of those years. The FAA doesn't do that. It puts hour minimums on things as a substitute for thought and evalutation. The private sector would scoff at such nonsense.

As long as the FAA says you are only "good enough" after you've logged 1500 hours they are setting the incentive to log 1500 as quickly and as cheaply as humanly possible.

Don't hate the player, hate the game.

Posted by: Brandon Nadrash | February 21, 2014 3:39 PM    Report this comment

As far as the subject of the article, I'm with Chris Boyd above.

The examples given in the article are not sales, they are simple customer service. Sales and marketing means going out and getting people interested in coming to the flight school in the first place. And I'm telling you that it is not an easy sell to most aviation outsiders.

-- It is expensive - more expensive than commercial, albeit sometimes faster.
-- It is not in the front of people's mind.
-- People interact with aviation via airlines. Single-engine piston aircraft look like, and are, death traps by visual and statistical comparison.
-- It takes a lot of bloody time. Not to learn to fly the aircraft - that can be done in under 10 hours. It takes time to learn navigation the old fashioned way and to memorize all the arcane regs. You may be saying "but there's a good reason..." Whatever. Meanwhile the students are walking away. How many of you instructors have seen students solo and then quit? That's why. It isn't hard to fly an airplane but it is a royal pain to finish the ticket and even more of a pain to rent aircraft from Skippy's Flying Club and actually get any use out of the thing unless you are in training.
-- FBOs and flying clubs are hard to find and not very inviting once found. I've been to many an FBO where you enter and no one greets you or talks to you or even acknowledges you. Who wants that?

Once a person is inside the door of a school, it is called customer service, not sales so much. Sales would be going out and attracting the person to the school in the first place and that is not something a line CFI is ever going to be able to do in any big way.

Posted by: Brandon Nadrash | February 21, 2014 3:59 PM    Report this comment

To ANY and ALL on "cost":(cost/benefit) at present - they're ZIP supported UNBIAS independent economic studies (NOT AOPA, etc) evidence that PROVES cost, and I believe your referring to flight training, solo and dual rental rates, IS a major determinate WHY more people aren't into flying.

On the "independent flight instructors" thing: NOT a major threat - depends on WHERE your doing the instructing - West Podunk, MT or Overcrowed, NJ/NY.

Frankly, many of the dysfunctions mentioned previously here are the very reasons I left GA (as an occupation) in 1978 - a big "game" it is - a business, in the traditional sense, its not!

In the final analysis, simply a "supply and demand" problem - consult any economic prof if you must!

And to you Mr. Miller; your "WRIGHT" - some folks will always be in denial - I have more productive things to do then "defend" rational unemotional un-bias reasoning.

Posted by: Rod Beck | February 21, 2014 4:16 PM    Report this comment

This has turned into a very robust debate and touched on a lot of topics (some that would fill entire volumes themselves). Let me focus on the salient position of the article - the secondary role of the instructor. As specified, I believe the primary role is the transfer of learning. However, it has to go beyond that. It's not about punching the clock and waiting for students to walk in the door. I have filled many blank schedules by simply picking up the phone (or gently nudging instructors to do so) and reminding students that it's a good day to go flying. Although I agree with the issue of meager pay, that does not excuse poor motivation or the "it's not my job" stance. Those wanting to move on can do it a lot faster with more flights on the books (especially now with the 1,500 hour rule). Even the minimum wage fast food employee is taught to up sell, or get me to buy the fries. Training is critical. The intent was not to insult or inflame the instructor corp. It was to point out an area that is worth improving.

Posted by: Shannon Forrest | February 22, 2014 12:03 PM    Report this comment

Thanks for the provocative blog, Shannon. These threads can easily shift or get hijacked, and it's a discipline to stay on message sometimes.

For me, when you said, 'The real problem (how to fix the dwindling pilot population) in my view is the instructors and that's something that's fixable now', that really lit up my annunciator panel, as my view is more aligned with changes in societal attitudes and values as the driving forces behind the growing indifference to personal flight than any one spoke in the training wheel, aka, instructors.

Also, the idea 'A potential student pilot has to be convinced that flight training is a good investment...and...feel the benefit outweighs the cost' just seemed strange, as if potential pilots are really not too bright, that this life-altering change they are about to make hasn't been considered beyond the drive over to the airport, and now the instructor has to counsel and plan for him.

However, you see them at this point much more than I do, so...say it ain't so!


Posted by: David Miller | February 22, 2014 1:06 PM    Report this comment

oops, plan for him/her :)

Posted by: David Miller | February 22, 2014 1:11 PM    Report this comment

I would suspect a good percentage of active CFI's are teaching just to build time in the hopes of landing a jet job. For the most part the student becomes 2nd in the quest for hours and they really don't care about or like teaching (but some do like teaching and are good at it). To produce a quality product the teacher has to be into what they are doing. So I say one aspect of this issue is the 400hr zero to hero instructor, some how increase they pay for CFI's and bring on some 4,000 hour person (possibly with some grey hairs) that enjoys teaching and are truly caring about their student. Also, put them on a salary. Reason being, if a student cancels a lesson some CFI's I've seen only view a lesson cancellation as a loss of personal income, and don't even try to understand why their student does not want to fly that day.

In addition to the CFI's themselves it comes down to flight school management and sales that have caused this issue being discussed. My university has a 141 program and the management/sales team (that consists of almost all career pilots or graduate CFI's) demonstrates why they should stick to flying airplanes. Quite frankly, pilots are good at being pilots, perhaps some dedicated sales people and competent managers should work with flight schools. I can list off many things that occur and could be done better for the students if we had some real leadership across the board but I won't go into detail. To be fair, some pilots do really well in management/sales positions however.

These are the biggest two reasons why me and some of other students at our university have stopped flying at school and like me took my flight money somewhere else. Others have given up on aviation completely. Just my perspective as a aviation major.

Posted by: Joshua Waters | February 22, 2014 11:27 PM    Report this comment

Hi Joshua; Bright and intelligent observations indeed! So much of your commit here is very much ON track. That said, PLEASE check out either of our or - we NEED commits from younger aviation "majors" (I assume?) like yourself who are witnessing first hand the issues applicable to the many business and training aspects of GA!

A little bit of nostalgia for you: in a 1967 edition of Flying Magazine, a sales manager for Beechcraft was quoted as saying;" give me a fellow who's sold for Lever Bros (then) and I teach him to fly".
His point was a simple one; It's makes more cent$ to teach a sales person to fly, rather than to teach a pilot to sell'! Something to think about?

You may check out my "sample help wanted ad" about 6-7 commits earlier regarding pay plans, benefits, etc, to attract the quality and dedicated CFI regardless of his/her ultimate career goals.

Posted by: Rod Beck | February 22, 2014 11:55 PM    Report this comment

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