Help is on the way

Study shines a light on flight training’s challenges

March 1, 2011

We know there’s a problem with flight training. Fewer student pilots are beginning training, and as many as 80 percent of students fail to obtain an FAA rating. But we haven’t been able to pinpoint the causes for flight training’s ailments with anything other than anecdotal evidence—until now.

In 2010 AOPA launched the Flight Training Student Retention Initiative to take a closer look at the student experience and began by commissioning a landmark research study. The goal was to identify what students want from their flight training experience—and the areas where we are falling short and where we are succeeding.

“We’re good at promoting the excitement and fun of flying, but not so much helping people get to the finish,” said Mark Benson, chairman of opinion research firm APCO Insight®. The far-reaching study’s conclusions were based on information from focus groups, which included pilots, current and lapsed student pilots, flight instructors, and flight school owners and managers. Information from the focus groups was validated by more than 1,000 respondents in a telephone survey.

“I’ve been preaching to anyone who will listen that students aren’t quitting en masse because of cost.”—Ian J. Twombly

Benson discussed the findings in detail before a packed audience at AOPA Aviation Summit in Long Beach, California, last November.

So what did the study reveal? There are four key areas that affect and/or impact the flight training experience: lack of educational quality, customer focus, community, and information sharing.

In other words, students want effective, organized instruction and reliable, well-maintained aircraft. They want to believe they are getting value for their money. They want to feel a part of the aviation community, and they want recognition for their achievements within that community. And they expect flight schools to help them find the information that will help them to be successful in their training. When these things don’t exist, students aren’t as likely to follow through.

Conventional wisdom blames time and money for the high dropout rate among student pilots. But this study suggests that educational quality has the biggest impact, Benson said.

Does that surprise you? It wasn’t a shock to Flight Training Deputy Editor Ian J. Twombly. “I’ve been preaching to anyone who will listen that students aren’t quitting en masse because of cost,” he says. “Remember back to when you started training. Did you really think this was going to be cheap? Of course not. Neither do students today.”

The real problem is value, Twombly says. “People will pay if they think they are getting a fair deal. And we aren’t always offering a fair deal. Schools need to be creative to make sure they are fulfilling their students’ needs in this area, and it doesn’t necessarily mean lowering prices.” Indeed, survey respondents pointed to the presence of flight simulators as an example of value, because the availability of a simulator allows them to conduct some training at a lower cost.

In spite of the frustration that exists in the student pilot population, Benson said, the activity of learning to fly remains an overwhelmingly positive experience.

“That finding alone is of huge importance because it gives us something we can build on,” AOPA President Craig Fuller noted during the Flight Training Summit. “It means student pilots want to like the experience.”

Pinpointing these areas led to the creation of an optimal flight school model—one that creates the flight-training experience that the survey respondents indicated they wanted to have. Boiling down attributes identified in the focus groups, the survey isolates distinct factors that define students’ expectations when they enroll in flight training.

  • Educational quality: Students expect flight schools and instructors to be qualified, professional, and dedicated to the learning process.
  • Customer focus: Students expect reliable, well-maintained aircraft; flexible and accessible scheduling; and a good value for their time and money.
  • Community: Students want to belong and have their accomplishments—first flight, solo, checkride—emphasized and recognized.
  • Information sharing: Students want flight schools to be up front about such things as costs and instructor qualifications, and to hear other students’ success stories.

“The value of this study is that it’s objective,” said Jennifer Storm, director of AOPA flight training initiatives. “It has helped us focus on what students want—rather than what we think they need.”

Armed with this information, the aviation community can now work collaboratively to address the problems. “We have received a tremendous response from the flight training community, which has committed to be a part of the process,” Fuller said.

Rally GAAOPA has set the wheels in motion. Two key components of the Flight Training Student Retention Initiative are scheduled to debut later this year. The first is the reintroduction of Flight School Business, a free e-mail newsletter for flight school owners, managers, and those who support their businesses. It will be packed with stories on student conversion strategies, marketing, products, insurance, financial topics, and staff training—essentially all of the issues important to running a successful flight school.

Flight School Business is one of many ways AOPA will address the issue of retention [of students] in the coming years,” Twombly says. “It’s important to have a high-quality, respected publication to communicate with these critical people, and we think FSB will be that publication.”

Recall that community, recognition, and information sharing figured prominently in students’ ideal flight training environment. Later this year AOPA will launch enhancements to the Flight Training website offering student pilots more support and recognition. They’ll be able to track their progress, as well as gain access to AOPA resources that are pertinent to their stage of training. And, as with any motivational program, there will be incentives for participating on a regular basis.

“With the Flight Training Summit in November, we kicked off a national conversation about the flight training experience,” said Fuller. “Our next steps are to involve as many in the flight training community as possible by continuing the discussion. More than 100 people participated at the November Summit, but there are many more who can provide valuable input.” Beginning soon, regional meetings will be held across the country; check the website for a location near you.

E-mail the author at jill.tallman@aopa.org.

Jill W. Tallman

Jill W. Tallman | AOPA Technical Editor, AOPA

AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who owns a Piper Cherokee 140.