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Flight School Spotlight: Cirrus Aviation

The value of hosting an annual pilot/controller forum

By Jim Pitman 

Are you looking for an effective way to connect with other aviation leaders in your community? Would you like to improve communication with your local air traffic controllers? The team at Cirrus Aviation, a Cessna Pilot Center at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport (SRQ) in Sarasota, Florida, may have the perfect solution.

Cirrus Aviation co-owner Nayda Cattin said, “It all started about eight years ago when a controller from our local tower who was also president of NATCA [National Air Traffic Controllers Association] approached me.

“They were looking for a way to communicate with local pilots to bolster positive tower/pilot relations and discuss any items that came up on both sides of the aisle,” Cattin said. “Initially, I got involved with planning only lightly, shot out an email to our database of customers, and did what I could to help spread the word.

“I admit that I was reluctant to attend that first event as it was on a weeknight and I was really looking forward to getting home from work. I did feel it was important to ‘fly our flag,’ so to speak, so I did attend the event,” Cattin said. “When I walked in I was amazed at how many people were there. I almost couldn't even get in the front door! As I slowly wedged my way through the crowd, I realized that these were all our people...That’s when I knew we were onto something special.”

After that first successful meeting, Cattin decided to make the pilot/controller forum an annual event. “With no one else volunteering to do it, it made sense for us to step in and take the lead. I certainly wasn’t looking to add something new to my to-do list, but I quickly recognized the value of Cirrus Aviation providing the platform for this popular event,” she said.

Cirrus Aviation’s pilot/controller forum has evolved over the years. The current format is a three-hour event with half dedicated to information sharing and half dedicated to mingling. It also includes a safety briefing from a FAASTeam representative (the event counts for WINGS credit), questions and answers from local FAA tower controllers, updates from airport operations, and two- to five-minute commercial presentations from local organizations.

“I recognized the need for sponsors after the first few years,” Cattin said. “My latest goal based on the budget was to have 10 sponsors who each pay $200 to support the event. In return, we include their company information and logo on all of the marketing materials and they each get to present a short commercial during the event,” she said. The money is used to help cover the costs of the venue and catering. “We certainly don’t make money on these events. The value is impossible to quantify, but we have definitely emerged as the leaders in the scene, and we have become the go-to for folks in and outside of our immediate aviation ecosystem,” Cattin said.

The benefits far outweigh the costs. The primary purpose of the event is to foster open communication between local pilots and controllers, which improves safety. There are additional benefits for the host.

“The networking aspects alone have been well-worth our efforts,” Cattin said. “Before we started this annual event, our relationships with the EAA and others on the field were distant and sometimes strained. Now we are all part of a unified team with an important project and common goal that we work together on throughout the year. While it’s difficult to calculate a direct [return on investment] based on dollars, I have no doubt that doing this event has set us apart from the others,” she said.

The companies and organizations that participate include Cessna, the EAA, Pilots N Paws, Liberty University, GoRental car company, and their neighboring aircraft broker, IAMI, among many others.  Other participants have included Lightspeed, Everglades University, Air Orlando, the local chapter of The International Organization of Women PIlots, and many more. Cirrus Aviation also has invited an active group from a nearby airport come and speak about their program and their local issues, since many of the flight school’s pilots go there frequently.

“We have tried to be very objective about the event and set airport politics aside, inviting competing businesses as sponsors. We want everyone to know that this event is more about our overall aviation community than just what we have to offer,” Cattin said. “I want to expose our pilots to what is available around here for them to use their pilot certificate for; more than the $100 hamburger. People who are passionate about something that involves their pilot certificate use aviation in the way it was meant to be used. I truly believe in lifting the whole industry from the bottom up. Get the end user engaged with a sense of purpose and the numbers will follow,” she said.

Hosting the yearly event also has been an effective way for Cirrus Aviation to reconnect with customers. “Customers who have completely dropped off the radar will often show up to this annual event. It’s great to reconnect and let them see what we’re up to,” Cattin said. Aircraft owners who have their own mechanics and rarely interact with the fixed-base operators will also come to these events. “It’s a great opportunity to meet and get to know these local pilots that we otherwise would not have the opportunity to engage with,” she said.

When asked for her advice to others who may want to host a similar event, Cattin said, “Be consistent and do it every year. It’s important that others see your commitment and know they can count on you year after year.” She also advises to focus on delegating as much as possible. “The EAA is always a great help. Our local chapter does a fantastic job manning the registration table and helping with event setup and cleanup,” Cattin said.

Cattin also suggested finding a good master of ceremonies. “One of our leaseback owners does an excellent job at this,” she said. “He’s a commercial airline pilot who is active on the GA side and he is very smooth on a mic. He does a wonderful job of opening the event, laying out the format, and keeping everything on track.”

If your airport is already hosting a regular event like this, I encourage you to participate and do what you can to help make it even better. If it’s not happening, see what you can do to get it started. Rather than looking at this as something new to add to your busy schedule, I suggest you consider where you are currently allocating resources for marketing and community involvement and see if you can redirect some of that time and energy to this worthy cause. If you have questions for Nayda Cattin, you are welcome to contact her.


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 his website.

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