I think a lot of schools have a love-hate relationship with their professional flight training staff.
They love the revenue that instructors help them generate; they hate the fact that flight instructors will often have a subcontractor mentality even when they are actual employees. Many schools will often lament the fact that instructors are “just passing through” on the way to Part 121 airlines or corporate aviation. I once heard a flight school owner say “we're just training them to go to the airlines.”
It’s pretty obvious that unless flight schools are going to start offering a level of upward mobility that parallels the airlines, along with health insurance, 401(k), and the eventual possibility to earn a livable wage, instructors will continue to be “just passing through.”
Of course, the main problem with this mindset is that it will become part of your business culture if you allow it. What goes on behind closed doors at your business will eventually find its way to the public face you present. There are no watertight doors between internal policy (or lack thereof) and the training culture that you offer your customers.
If you don't take positive action with some of the more common problems that relate specifically to instructor culture, you’re opening the door to allow for increased attrition, decreased customer satisfaction, lost revenue, and a diminished reputation.
Let’s take a look at some of the more common problems that plague CFI cultures within flight schools.
“Flying is my only job.” Schools that have this problem often see instructors who aren't interested in much of anything but flying with customers.
“I'll train the way I want to train.” You’ve taken the time to build a syllabus and training program; you have the expectation that it will be utilized faithfully. However, your instructors often ignore the syllabus and train the way they want to train. The result is a lack of standardization and inconsistent results. This really presents a problem if your students change instructors during training or utilize more than one instructor as a part of their overall training plan. These students often end up confused and frustrated with how things are going at your school.
Lack of goals or expectations when it comes to a first-time pass rate or nominal completion within a certain number of hours for a given rating or program. I think this problem is largely driven by the lack of leadership within some schools. In addition to a syllabus-based training program, having an expectation system that rewards first-time passes, and counsels instructors for first-time fails is highly recommended. Developing these expectations helps to ensure that the focus remains on quality-based training from lesson one.
A general level of unfounded apathy and lack of esprit de corps. Some instructors are much too ready to be critical of their employer and the policies of their school.
Instructors are much too critical of their peers. This is a really bad thing for the culture you offer your customers. Let he who is without any pilot error cast the first stone.
Scheduling. Often, instructors have a tremendous amount of latitude when it comes to scheduling, rescheduling, and unscheduling their customers. This flexibility allows the CFI to take advantage of the system. Sometimes, things can’t be helped. But when changes or cancellations start to happen frequently, customers don’t appreciate it and see this as a sign that they don’t matter.
Patient and professional? Do you hire CFIs who are patient and professional? Do you expect them to exhibit these traits when dealing with your students? Do you make your expectations clear?
Labor vs. management. I fully understand that many airline pilots in the United States are a member of a union, and that a function of any union is to negotiate with management on behalf of its constituents. It is interesting that in a large number of flight schools, this us vs. them mindset starts early. This kind of culture can be particularly toxic and off-putting to your customers.
If your school is like most flight schools, your instructors have far more customer face time than anyone else. They play a major role in the overall satisfaction of your customers and how they feel about your school. In many respects, they are your product. Your customer’s overall satisfaction and retention relies heavily on who they are and what they do.
In the next article, I’ll address how we can do better with the talent we already have and help stave off cultural problems that can whittle away at your profitability and reputation.
P. Jerry Lee is president and founder of aviation marketing and sales training firm Mach1 Consultants.