A Visit to Zulu


On a swing through Continental Motors factory in Mobile this week, I spent a couple of hours touring the companys new Zulu Flight Training center in nearby Spanish Fort, Alabama. We first reported on Zulu a year ago and my visit coincided with its one-year anniversary.

Zulu, you may recall, juxtaposes an intimate little flight school-simulators only-in an urban store front, the theory being that it will draw would-be pilots who wouldnt necessarily trot out to the airport. The training, even for the private certificate, is sim heavy, using three Redbird motion machines and a couple of tabletop ATDs. The students learn and practice the maneuvers in the virtual world before trying them in the airplane.

So hows it working? So far, so good, says Zulus general manager, Gloria Liu. Were not talking huge numbers here, with a client load of under 40 customers in various stages of progess. But if Continental posited that professional customer service and a bright, clean facility will encourage students to stick around, they seem to be on to something. Liu said the retention rate is about 90 percent, which is another way of saying that only one in 10 customers who sign up for a program or a flight lesson of some kind doesnt come back. Not many conventional flight schools can make the same claim. Continental CEO Rhett Ross says the business is growing sufficiently fast to consider opening centers elsewhere.

While it may seem odd for an engine company to get into front-end flight training, Ross seems to be acting in enlightened self interest. If there arent more pilots, Continental isnt going to be selling many engines, visions of global business strategies not withstanding. As I said of Redbirds efforts in the same direction, I see these programs as creative, effective ways to get customers in the door, train them and retain them until the training completes. Treating them like actual customers rather than voice-controlled wallets is unique to all of aviation. Well just have to see if such business models can be profitable enough to sustain over the long haul.

For a private certificate, Zulu quotes a flat rate of about $8500. Thats competitive with conventional flight schools, so what Zulu is clearly selling is a friendly, fulfilling customer experience that extends from the moment you walk in the door until you leave the airport after a flight lesson. Stipulating that theyre doing that, Im less worried about what kinds of legs the concept hasthan I am what comes next, specifically keeping new pilots engaged by making aircraft access affordable. I noticed on the price sheet that Zulus airplanes-new, G1000 Cessna 172s-rent for $155 an hour. Surveying around the country a bit, I find that rate is on the low side of competitive. These airplanes rent for as much as $185 in some locations.

Thats a hit for the freshly minted private pilot who might want to fly a modest 50 hours a year in a rental airplane with a glass cockpit. When new pilots see those numbers, I wonder if a little timer goes off in their heads suggesting they can do this flying thing for awhile, but not a very long while. So to me, whats more important than how well theyre trained or at what cost than how many of them stick around as active pilots for two years, five years or 10 years. Thats the most important retention rate.

Weve pulped the deceased horse to a red puree on discussing how much the cost of airplanes and fuel affects retention. Its certainly a factor, although how big a factor, no one really knows. As Zulu (and Redbird) progress in an age when we track everything from your pulse rate to the brand of yogurt you bought at Safeway last week, we ought to have some meaningful data in a few years for this subgroup of new-age pilots who are, after all, the future of aviation.

If the cost of flying doesnt at least moderate, theyll have to be made of stern stuff to stay in the game or, as seems to be increasingly true, be limited to high income earners. There are efforts to arrest the spiraling cost of getting airborne and Continental is involved in two of them: its newly certified TD300 diesel has proven economics and while it may not be cheap to operate, its certainly less expensive than a gasoline engine. (Im basing this on economic analysis of limited experience with the SMA SR305, which served as a technological base for the TD300. )

Second, Continental recently raised TBOs on some of its popular engines by 200 to 400 hours. Of course, Part 91 operators can do that on their own, but having an engine company get behind it is another step in the right direction. In the larger world, were told that the revision of FAR Part 23 will reduce certification costs and thus aircraft costs, too. Well see how that plays out. Right now, its too nebulous to judge.

But the fact that these developments are afoot is encouragement enough to be hopeful.