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Flight Training in an Interrupted World

A successful flight school operator shares the best advice we’ve heard about the future of flight training.

Flight training plane in a hangar
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The world has changed. Because of the pandemic’s global impact, “Normal” is now history. The airline industry is going through a significant recalibration, and flight training has been interrupted.

Scary times? Definitely. The end of the world? Definitely not.

As I speak with flight schools around the nation, I hear the common panic we’re all sharing. You need to know – you’re not alone. Flight schools of all types and sizes are going through the most challenging times since 9/11/2001 and many have even closed.

What do we do? Where is the economy heading? Should I buy? Should I sell? Should I discount my rates? What should I do?

Based on input from other flight schools, business coaches and those who have watched history repeat itself, I’d recommend five steps to get you through this “interrupted world”:

1. The airlines WILL recover – As recently as February, you were able to promise your students an $80k job at the regional airlines. Today, they can’t even get an interview. Referencing back to how history repeats itself, industry experts like Kit Darby remind us that the U.S. economy depends on the airline industry. It’s not that the airlines are “too big to fail,” but between the banks, the stock market and the government, it’s a safe bet that the airline industry WILL recover.

2. There continues to be a pilot shortage, and it’s going to get worse – While it sometimes feels like the world is crumbling around us and there are thousands of pilots without jobs today, flight schools have to look toward the future. Do you realize that airlines will resume hiring one day? Have you thought about the fact that because of early retirements, there will be FEWER pilots available than there were at the beginning of the year? In theory, the urgency of training pilots has increased since this crisis emerged.

3. There are other options – While there has been a significant drop in Part 121 air travel, Part 135 charter has seen a significant increase in business. And cargo? It’s through the roof right now (thank you Amazon). Too often we focus on the easy recruiting methods of the regionals. Now is the time to help your students see the other opportunities that are available!

4. Focus on GOOD business – Is now the time to expand? Maybe. Is now the time to sell? Maybe. Is now the time to focus on cleaning up debt and doing some of those projects you’ve been putting off for a while? Definitely. Talk with your bank while interest rates are low. Follow up on some of those maintenance projects you’ve been putting off. Maybe it’s time for an engine overhaul? How about reforecasting your budget? Things could return to “normal” in six months or six years. Nobody knows, but you should focus on whatever it takes to strengthen your business for the future.

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5. Remember who you were with in 2019 – Don’t you wish you could go back to the business climate of 2019? All of us do. Think about those customers you served in 2019 and into early 2020. Have you called them? Have you sent them thank you notes? Have you let people know how much you appreciate them? What about your employees? Have you let them know how valuable they are? NOW is the time to thank people for sticking by your side. Those relationships are the key to propelling your business into the future. Cherish those customers and employees that are still there!

When we focus on these simple business practices, we can position ourselves to end the year strong and “start over” with an even stronger 2021. Remember – if it were easy, everyone would own and operate a flight school. But they don’t, and now you have a great opportunity to make your business a success story.

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Chris Erlanson is President of Nashville Flight Training based at Nashville International Airport.  Chris serves as Vice Chairman of the Flight School Association of North America and also as a board member of AOPA’s Flight Training advisory panel.

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About FSANA: Founded in 2009, the Flight School Association of North America (FSANA) is a dynamic trade association that serves flight training providers and the entire aerospace industry, creates meaningful programs, and works to increase the pilot population.

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