Fresh Blood for Aviation, One Waiter at a Time

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Some of my favorite people are in aviation and I'm really lucky that my job makes me stay in touch with them. One of the best, in everyone's book, is Kate Dougherty from Cirrus and, although we both have our hair on fire at shows, we try to make time to have a snack and a drink together to get caught up on everything that's going on in our lives, aviation and otherwise.

So, after being rather rudely greeted at several spots on International Drive in Orlando during the National Business Aviation Association convention a couple of weeks ago, we found a welcoming reception at Tony Roma's, whose "Friendship Table" suited us perfectly.

Welcome to the world of flying, Dan

Our waiter, Dan, was one of those perfect servers who seems to know exactly when you want something. He also had pretty good hearing. After the preliminaries of family, job and dreams, Kate and I were talking airplanes and Dan couldn't keep away. Turns out he'd spotted a weird looking aircraft in the movie Iron Man, and, since it didn't make sense to him, he was hoping we could tell him what it was all about. He went to his car to get a portable DVD player, queued up the scene in the movie, and I was able to tell him with some authority that the tricked-out 737 in the movie was a Hollywood invention.

We got talking. He asked us, so we told him why we were there, and we both saw that look. Sometimes airplane freaks consider the barriers to the industry so high that they just don't see a place for themselves beyond the departure gates. Dan is an excellent waiter, but his head was in the clouds.

What followed was, in my opinion, unnecessarily complicated.

NBAA is open to delegates, exhibitors and the press only. Dan wasn't welcome.

So Kate offered up a Cirrus guest pass, I volunteered to meet him at the convention center the next day, and we exchanged cell phone numbers.

As I headed to work the next day, I figured the chances that Dan would actually follow up were between slim and none. Talk is cheap, and I figured we were nothing more than a bigger-than-average tip to a better-than-average waiter.

Well, at 8 a.m., he called and by 9 he was waiting for me in the convention center, wearing a neatly pressed white shirt and tie and ready to enter a strange and exciting world. I fixed him up with the pass that Kate, who was catching Air Cirrus back to Duluth that day, had left for him at their booth and turned him loose while I did some work.

We met for lunch, went out to the static display, and the last I saw him, he had a backpack full of information on career opportunities and was headed to the FAA booth to talk about becoming a controller.

Now, what would make the story perfect would be that Dan was an inner-city kid pulling himself out of a troubled existence, but the truth is that Dan is doing just fine. There's a reason your favorite waiter has been at your favorite restaurant for years, and it's because the money is pretty good. Also, Dan is from the U.S. Virgin Islands, where his family is about to develop a small part of their beachfront property for high-end vacation condos.

But his interest and his initial step into aviation give me a good feeling about where he'll end up. The big question is why did it take the combined efforts of a major manufacturer and media outlet to get him through the door?

A new aviation show in Hyderabad, India last week had a trade-only show for three days and then allowed the public in, for a reduced admission price, on the Saturday. As the industry faces labor shortages and declining interest as a whole, it's something the big shows might consider. Kate figures four hours on the last day would be enough.

I know why NBAA and other trade shows keep them private. They want only "serious" players visiting their booths. In his own way, Dan was every bit as serious as anyone else at that show and -- who knows -- because of a funny-looking airplane in a movie, he might become a player in the industry.

But whatever becomes of Dan's aspirations, I know of a great ground-floor condo opportunity in the Caribbean ... .

Comments (8)

Hi Russ,

If I wasn't already in aviation and 63 years old then I'm not sure I would know how to go about getting into general aviation let alone the commercial side. I certainly did not know how to break in 45 years ago when I was 18 years old. I figured it out too late because I wasn't asking the right questions of the right people. I knew how to get into the air force but not commercial aviation and that was because the air force visted out high school and told us how.
But I never heard of that happening with local flight centers. They never showed up in the high schools; at least not in my area.
Let's face it, there is a profound lack of understanding by the general public about how aviation works. Most of what they think they know they have learned from television shows and the movies. Your tricked out, under-ruddered 737 in 'Ironman' is a case in point. Just because it looks 'sexy' doesn't mean it will fly.
Aviation should make an attempt to get in on the ground floor with high school level students if for no other reason than to at least show them how to get started in whatever sector of aviation they might be interested in-or at least point the way. Flight schools in the United States and Canada are offering entry-level courses to prepare college age students for a ticket that will see them in commercial or ATR pilot positions. It seems to me this is just the next step after high school, but the students have to know about it first.

Don Ledger

Posted by: Don Ledger | October 22, 2008 2:34 AM    Report this comment

It has never been hard to get people interested in aviation; it’s easy to find folks interested in flying. For Average Joe, the three main perceptual barriers to entry to aviation is 1.) Cost, 2.) Cost, and, 3.) Cost. People in love with aviation but whose perception is that they can’t afford to own an aircraft can’t solve GA’s shrinkage/aging problem.

The fact is that the hourly cost of flying is right in line with typical powersports pursuits. For example, the hourly purchase/operating cost of the average new boat, motor, and trailer ($30K in 2007) is about $128-$214/hour. So where does the misperception about cost come from? Purchase cost. For Average Joe, making a $30K purchase is perceived as doable, $120, $180K, $240K, is not. Shared ownership is the only means available to lower the purchase cost of attractive aircraft into Average Joe’s acceptable range.

Opening up events to more people is a great idea, but it’s not enough. The industry has been showing and telling people for decades how wonderful it is to fly (Young Eagles, Let’s go Flying, etc.). But unless and until GA learns to couple the “wonders of flying” message to an explicit “aircraft ownership costs and traditional powersports are comparable in cost” message, we will continue mostly just creating a lot of wistful people who go to lots of shows but never go on to get their license and fly/buy aircraft.

David A. Kruger
The Aircraft Partnership Association

Posted by: David Kruger | October 22, 2008 6:38 AM    Report this comment

I was just talking with pilot friends yesterday about how terrible this industry is. I would get out of the industry if I didn't love flying so much. So, unfortunately, many pilots like myself are not very good "cheerleaders" for aviation.

Posted by: bug menot | October 22, 2008 10:23 AM    Report this comment

I'm a freelance CFI who makes his living in the IT industry. I run into people all the time that are interested. Cost is of course the biggest deterrent. The comparison to other powersports is interesting. That might resonate with people in my area of the country; we’re already overrun with boaters.

There are huge perception problems that need to be addressed. Thanks to the news media, too many people think of GA as a “rich playboy adrenaline junkie” club. All they hear about are accidents. Go look at the comment boards on any major news website after they run a GA accident story. Many comments range from ignorance to outright derision. Some message board posters are clearly off their meds, so they’re not our target audience anyway. However we need to be dealing with the negative spin peddled by the media. There are undoubtedly people out there who would be interested in flying but they’ve been fed a steady diet of garbage on the news.

Once we do get people in the door, we put a bullet in our own foot through indifference. I think most of us have walked into a flight school or FBO and been ignored or treated rudely because we’re not one of their little “club”. There’s a flight school nearby that has clean spacious facility, private rooms for the instructors, and an excellent receptionist. Their aircraft are very clean. Every time I walk in I’m greeted professionally. They don't have any trouble attracting and keeping students, even in our current economy.

Posted by: Chris McLellan | October 22, 2008 10:57 AM    Report this comment

Chris makes some excellent points. Curious newcomers need to be welcomed and inspired. Cost will always be a factor but if the desire is there, people will find a way. And while it might seem sometimes that indifference and rudeness are the rule, there are plenty of aviation folks doing amazing work every day to reach and inspire the next generation -- from EAA and Young Eagles, to Build A Plane, to your local underpaid CFI.

Posted by: Mary Grady | October 22, 2008 2:42 PM    Report this comment

Dan, twenty years later.

Hi Russ,

Thanks for taking the time to get Dan into the event. Twenty years ago I was at a Thanksgiving dinner with a lady I was dating. 2 of her guests were corporate pilots on a layover, and though I had been flying hang gliders for a couple years and r/c airplanes for almost a decade, I never progressed to powered aviation because of the cost. I was happy as a clam waiting tables and enjoying the California lifestyle.

Somehow those two corporate gents planted the bug in me, and got me dreaming again. For the next seven years I went back to school and waited tables at night while either in school or CFI'ing during the day (sometimes both). I set my goal to become a Captain on a turboprop.

Guess the old saying about "Fortune favors the foolish." is true, because even though I never finished my degree I ended up making it as a turboprop Captain, and a little further.

May Fortune continue to favor the Brave,

Boeing 777 First Officer
Newark Liberty International Airport

Posted by: steve k | October 23, 2008 9:09 AM    Report this comment

Chris McLellan stuck a chord with me when he wrote:

"Go look at the comment boards on any major news website after they run a GA accident story. Many comments range from ignorance to outright derision. Some message board posters are clearly off their meds, so they’re not our target audience anyway. However we need to be dealing with the negative spin peddled by the media."

Former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes is gunning for the Missouri Congressional seat held by Sam Graves. Kay, of course, was a major player in the destruction of Richard Gebaur airport. Sam Graves has been a true friend of GA. So it comes as little surprise that Barnes is running a television attack ad against Graves because he is a private pilot. Her position appears to be that all pilots are filthy rich terrorists and should be arrested, not re-elected. With that kind of mentality, it's no wonder our numbers are shrinking.

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | October 23, 2008 10:52 AM    Report this comment

The issue underlying behaviors like Kay Barnes' is the acquisition cost of aircraft. Human nature is such that ownership of any "luxury item" (luxury item being defined by its cost, not what the item is or does) will be seen as fair game for those who are unduly class conscious or just looking for a handle with which to play the class warfare game. The only way to really solve that problem is to move privately owned aircraft off of the list of luxury items. Although I realize this may sound a bit crazy, ad hominem attacks on pilots and personal aircraft will never abate until and unless the cost of acquisition is in the same range as the average new boat, motor, and trailer, (about $30k) or a pair of new jet skis and something to pull them with. The more expensive aircraft ownership becomes, the more class-based attacks will increase. Getting the cost down brings in the new blood we all want, AND ir reduces GA as a target for the class warfare crowd. Ain't human nature grand?

David A. Kruger


The Aircraft Partnership Association

Posted by: David Kruger | October 23, 2008 11:17 AM    Report this comment

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