President's Position: Sharing the thrill

July 1, 2008

AOPA President Phil Boyer took his first flight in 1967 with a business associate in a Piper 140.

What are the biggest thrills in your life? Like me, I’m willing to bet that right near the top of your list would be your very first flight in a general aviation airplane. We were fascinated by the dials, knobs, and switches, which, other than the fuel gauges, we didn’t understand. When the airplane took off, we felt the lift through our entire body. We were amazed by seeing the world from an entirely new perspective. Then the pilot told us to put our hands on the yoke and feet on the rudder pedals. Yes, we were actually flying the airplane! And while it was all overwhelming, there was also that spark; “Hey, I can do this! I can be a pilot!”

We want, we need, a lot more people to discover that. So how can we do this better? We asked the experts. We asked you.

During May and June, we asked you to give us your ideas on how AOPA could convince more people to discover flying. Thousands of AOPA members responded with many great suggestions. When we printed the responses, it made a stack of paper more than two feet tall. And I can guarantee you that your AOPA staff has read and considered every single comment.

There were some of the ideas that come through over and over again. You said it’s critical to get a prospective pilot out to the airport to experience flight first hand. You think we need to do a better job of explaining how useful flying is. Yes, it’s fun and challenging, but it’s also a great way to connect with family and friends, explore new destinations, or expand your business. You told us you want to be more involved in getting someone started in flying, but you’d like AOPA to help make it easier for you to do so.

Many of you gave us great ideas for getting the message out, such as billboards inside major airline terminals or advertising on family-oriented cable channels. Other ideas included creating and promoting more social activities related to flying, or helping flight schools to improve the customer experience.

Your association will be testing many of your ideas as we take more bold steps to convince more people to discover flying. We’re doing more research, we’re looking at best practices from other industries, and we’re refining our messaging to more directly target the people who have the time, money, and interest to start flying now.

We know they’re out there. Our research says that there are some 760,000 Americans who are “very interested” in learning to fly, and have the resources to do it. We’re reaching out to encourage them to take the next step, to get out to an airport and experience GA firsthand and understand the practical value of flying.

We’re continuing to do the things that we know work. We took over and reinvigorated the aviation industry’s learn-to-fly public relations campaign. Last year we placed flying stories in newspapers, magazines, and on TV and radio stations resulting in some 269 million “impressions” that reached 245 percent more people than the year before. A recent story in a Denver magazine, for example, encouraged 22 people to go to one local flight school and take a $99 introductory flight. Nine of them are already in flight training. In June many of you may have seen another piece of our PR campaign in your local media—a story suggesting an introductory flight as the perfect Father’s Day gift.

We know the Web works, too, and beginning in July, you’re going to see a whole new online presence and approach. Our new Web site will become the single spot for all potential pilots. This new site will be engaging, entertaining, and exciting. It will be more than just an information portal. We’ll show people engaged in the experience of flying with videos and personal stories, how pilots use general aviation for business, family travel, challenge, and adventure. We’ll address the barriers to entry, and show that learning to fly is not as difficult or as expensive as some people think. Our new online presence will help potential pilots pick a flight school and instructor. And we’ll create the opportunity for rich social media on our new Web site, to provide encouragement and support from fellow pilots and from AOPA. And we’re working on new marketing strategies to drive more interested people to our new Web site.

I’ve told you before how the pilot population is declining and, if we don’t reverse that trend, general aviation’s future is very much at risk. That’s why your help is so critical, and so very much appreciated.

There is one more thing you can do. Call your friend or colleague or neighbor who’s expressed an interest in flying, and take them up this weekend. You remember the thrill the first time you went flying. Sharing that with someone is almost as great a thrill. And, with today’s fuel prices, keep in mind that you are allowed to share the fuel expense. Help someone you know discover flying. And you might just rediscover something yourself.