Guest Blog: CFIs Need to Step Up


Call me a glutton for punishment, but Ive logged more than 4000 hours as a civilian primary flight instructor. Ive worked in both Part 61 and 141 schools and owned and operated one in the frozen tundra of eastern Michigan. Currently Im 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.

Theres 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 thats something thats fixable now.

Although the primary focus is the transfer of a tangible skill, the instructors 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 its psychological; shortening travel time and not having to jam liquids in a see-through quart size baggie. Or maybe its just fun– grabbing an FBO-provided golf cart to drive across the runway for some of the finest barbeque in Texas.

Ive 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, Im 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 I worked so hard to get it, or I might need it someday. 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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