When the flight school Ryan Mayo was training at went out of business in 2009, he didn’t quit flight training—he decided to start his own flight school instead.
From humble beginnings with a single Piper Cherokee at Orange County Airport (MGJ) in Montgomery, New York, Take Flight Aviation has become a thriving example of what a successful flight school can be. Today Take Flight operates a fleet of 11 airplanes (two more coming soon) with six flight instructors. I recently had the opportunity to visit with Mayo to discuss the elements that have led to the flight school’s success.
One unique trait about Mayo is that he’s not a flight instructor. In fact, owning and operating Take Flight Aviation is his first experience with an aviation business. Mayo is vice president of a family-owned mechanical piping company.
Lack of aviation industry experience would be a liability for most new business owners, but Mayo’s fresh approach has been an asset for Take Flight Aviation.
“We’re working to make things more in line with what customers are used to from other industries,” Mayo said.
As someone who did not “grow up” in the flight school industry, Mayo approaches everything with fresh eyes, always focusing on how each element will be perceived by potential flight training clients. “The people in our target market are driving BMWs, riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and buying coffee at Starbucks,” he said. “They expect a certain level of professionalism and customer service. I knew from the beginning that our flight school had to be in alignment with those other businesses and the customer experiences they provide.”
Mayo found the right people to join his team and provide the aviation expertise he lacked, allowing him to focus on the fundamentals of the business. “Whether it’s buying a car, taking tennis lessons, or learning to fly, the basics of creating an excellent client experience are all the same. The key is creating the right systems with the right people to accomplish the goals,” he said.
Mayo did his research in the beginning. “Before I started this business, I visited 10 to 15 flight schools and had a wide variety of experiences,” he said. He created a plan for how he wanted his new flight school to look, feel, and operate by comparing what he found during those flight school visits to what he knew from his non-aviation business experience. This was valuable in shaping Take Flight Aviation.
One detail that Mayo feels has been important to the flight school’s success is getting away from using the term “student.” “We prefer to call them clients,” he explained. “We just feel it shows more respect and accurately portrays the way we think about each of our valued customers. They’re not just students in school. They’re our clients and it’s our job to serve them.” This mindset is an important part of the culture at Take Flight Aviation.
When I asked, “What’s the most innovative thing about your flight school?,” Mayo replied, “Our approach—meaning the way we approach the flight training process with each individual client. It includes the way we have developed our training documents to be customized for our local area and each client’s needs.”
For example, Take Flight started with industry standard flight syllabi and training materials, but soon found they were not flexible enough. Take Flight then turned to the FAA Industry Training Standards (FITS) program and started using the published FITS documents as a template to create its own scenario-based syllabi that incorporate industry-available textbooks and computer-based training programs, but are customized to the local airport and training needs. This focus on customization also led to the development of the Transfer Evaluation Form, which is basically a detailed checklist that is used to evaluate clients who come to them with previous flight training experience.
“We really wanted a way to effectively evaluate their prior experience and show them that that experience has value. This tool does that for us and the clients love it,” Mayo said.
After years of fine-tuning the Transfer Evaluation Form, Mayo and his team recently launched the License Completion Program, which encourages potential clients with previous experience to come in and finish their certificate or rating. It will be interesting to see how this focused approach and its associated marketing efforts will pay off.
Mayo said two other elements of the flight school’s unique approach include a modern fleet and effective customer feedback. Take Flight Aviation’s fleet includes well-maintained Piper and Diamond airplanes with both round gauge and glass cockpit configurations. A full-motion Redbird AATD gives clients more options during various phases of training. “We’re committed to embracing new technology, which is an important part of our success,” Mayo said.
The customer feedback is an element that really got my attention. In my prior leadership roles, I’ve tried and failed with various feedback tools—always trying to gauge the pulse of the customers, but never really feeling like I had a good mechanism. Mayo seems to have figured it out. He has developed an effective system that utilizes Google Forms to create simple surveys that he emails to clients at each phase of training. He estimates the response rate to be 50 percent. That unusually high response is a testament to the relationship Mayo has developed with each client. This continuous feedback has been key to helping Mayo and his team mold Take Flight Aviation into what it is today.
Take Flight Aviation also has partnered with the local school district to provide aviation classes to high school students through its Technical Education Program. More than 30 students started this past year and several have continued on with flight training lessons.
With everything from a client-focused mindset to an innovative evaluation process, Mayo and his team are proving that basic business fundamentals and focused effort lead to success.
Flight school owners and managers who would like to learn more about Take Flight Aviation and what they are doing are welcome to call Ryan Mayo at 845-457-4188. Information also is available online.
Jim Pitman has been a flight instructor since 1997. He has been a Part 141 chief flight instructor, Cessna Pilot Center regional manager, and Arizona Flight Instructor of the Year. He flies the Canadair Regional Jet for a U.S. carrier while operating his own flight training business. Connect with Jim at www.FlyWithJim.com.