Current and lapsed pilots agree that the cost of flying is their greatest challenge, according to new research by AOPA on the pilot life cycle. The findings were presented by Adam Smith, senior vice president of AOPA’s Center to Advance the Pilot Community at the Flight Training and Pilot Community Summit Oct. 9.
There is no silver bullet that can save general aviation, which has seen a decline in the pilot population since 1998, said Smith. “Our research shows that we always need that new blood to come into aviation, but we also need to work on retention,” he said. “I worked for EAA for 13 years, where we always worked on answering the question ‘how many members do we have.’”
The industry can bring in new people, but it also needs to focus on retention, said Smith. “In our study, we spoke with 300 active flyers and 300 of those who had stopped flying,” he said. “We wanted to understand why they stopped and how we can get them back or how we stop them from leaving in the first place. We thought there would be a difference between current and lapsed pilots.”
In a telephone survey, the current and lapsed pilots were asked what their greatest challenge was to stay flying, and the dominant answer for both was the cost, said Smith. “One of biggest things we learned is that we found little difference between those flying and those who stopped flying. In some way it was disappointing because we wanted to see a difference.”
The survey also found that there’s no such thing as a lapsed pilot, said Smith. “They are dormant and they all want to come back. Lapsed pilots are a little more likely to be married and have kids and they make a little less money,” he said. “Current pilots have about 25 percent more ratings. But, by and large, the differences are quite small.”
An interesting finding from the survey, said Smith, was that 7 percent of the lapsed pilot sample were not lapsed at all. “We can estimate that 15,000 pilots have let their medical lapse and continued flying under sport pilot privileges,” he said.
Next, Smith outlined six factors that impact a commitment to aviation: pilot community, 24 percent; aircraft access, 15 percent; quality of experience, 23 percent; cost, 18 percent; family, 14 percent; and time, 6 percent.
Smith then moved over to the AOPA Flying Club Network initiatives. “We’ve been working on flying clubs for the past 12 months and it’s been a fun part of my job. For some reason, there’s no national association of flying clubs, although they’ve been around since the 1920s,” he said. “We have 600 flying clubs in the U.S., but they were all operating as separate units.”
So AOPA took on the flying clubs initiative. “We created network so these clubs can benefit from best practices. We also took on growing flying clubs,” said Smith. “We learned that there is a lot of demand for flying clubs. We did a webinar on starting a club and it had 800 attendees.”
So far this year, 15 new flying clubs have started, said Smith. “We have a big gong we ring every time we get a new one. Right now, we have 130 flying clubs being formed,” he said. “We have the AOPA Flying Club Finder to help folks find a club in their area.”
Next, Smith said, survey participants were asked why they learned to fly. “The words were overwhelmingly emotional for people. Love, dream, fun, kid, and passion,” he said. “Inspiration often begins in childhood, with people who knew they wanted to fly by the age of 10. The inspiration stage is very important, and we are good at inspiration.”
There has to be that trigger moment when someone decides to call a flight school, said Smith. “Our PR person Steve Hedges asked where he could pitch learn-to-fly stories, and I said AARP. It has the largest magazine circulation in the world. It’s good to target those late in life,” he said. “I don’t want to discourage kids, and I’ve given out many scholarships, but there’s also a big market for older people.”
Another way to get people interested in flying is local, said Smith. “Last year, Hal Shevers, [founder and chairman of Sporty's Pilot Shop], accosted me and said ‘I hope you don’t do another Be A Pilot program again. It was a top-down initiative, but the perception is that it didn’t succeed as a program,” he said.
There are 2,500 local flight schools in the country and action happens when people walk through the door, said Smith. “We need to see more marketing at the local level,” he said. “The smarter strategy is to help them with this.”
Smith cited Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) as an example. “They do a great job in nurturing growth in scuba diving that we haven’t done in aviation. There are not exact parallels, but their strongest one is their ecosystem of training is similar to ours. There are 3,500 mom-and-pop shops across the country, similar to aviation.” he said.
PADI doesn’t do top-down and try to teach everyone to learn to dive, said Smith. “Instead, they help shops with marketing support to get people in on the local level,” he said. “Over half of the trigger moments in aviation are Web searches for local flight schools.”
AOPA has a graveyard of learn-to-fly programs, said Smith. “We will clean them up and put them under the Flight Training website. And then we’ll push those people out to local flight schools,” he said.
“We want people with a purpose for flying. If they’re flying just to stay current, we lose them. When we have people getting new ratings or doing public benefit flying, that’s where we want them to be,” said Smith. “These are high-value experiences that are giving back to the community. There are lots of organizations in aviation that offer these types of communities. Research says these groups play a valuable role.”
Then we have dormant pilots, said Smith. “There’s an idea that there are 500,000 people who have stopped flying. It’s better to see them as dormant pilots,” he said.
When asked if they wanted to come back, 47 percent fully expect to come back, 40 percent said they’d like to come back, and only 13 percent said they are done, said Smith. “That’s thousands of people we can potentially bring back into aviation,” he said. “Sometimes life just gets in the way. I don’t see them as gone. I see them as a target that can be brought back.”