Less than one year after the first AOPA Flight Training Summit, the AOPA Flight Training Student Retention Initiative presented its findings at a gathering of nearly 100 participants in Hartford, Conn., prior to AOPA Aviation Summit. AOPA Chief Operating Officer Rob Moran greeted flight school operators, flight instructors, aviation business owners, and aviation enthusiasts. They are among those who gathered in Long Beach, Calif., last year when the initiative launched. Moran thanked the participants for their involvement in this “national conversation.”
“We have a huge possibility and potential before us,” he said, introducing AOPA President Craig Fuller.
“The issue I worry about the most—and the one that keeps me up at night—is our declining pilot population,” Fuller said. “We must protect our precious freedom to fly.” Otherwise, issues such as user fees, closing airports, and security “become impossible to deal with.”
AOPA Director of Flight Training Initiatives Jennifer Storm has spearheaded the initiative. She and her team have canvased the country in the past 10 months, conducting meetings in six different cities. The information and input from the hundreds of attendees at these meetings have resulted in several key initiatives, most notably including flight training scholarships, the relaunch of the Flight School Business newsletter, and the development of “My Flight Training,” a personalized online student support system.
Additionally, the initiative has resulted in an unprecedented collaboration of the “alphabet” groups in aviation, such as the Experimental Aircraft Association, National Association of Flight Instructors, Society of Aviation and Flight Educators, National Air Transportation Association, and others, all focused on the concerns of a declining pilot population.
AOPA initially created two flight training scholarships of $5,000 each and launched an online application system in June. The results were so overwhelming—and the submissions so inspiring—Aviation Supplies & Academics (ASA) and Jeppesen approached AOPA to each contribute an additional $5,000 scholarship to the program. The four winners will be announced Sept. 24 at AOPA Aviation Summit.
Flight School Business, an email newsletter designed to help, inspire, and educate flight school operators, was relaunched after Summit last year. The informative newsletter now has more than 3,500 subscribers.
A demonstration of the “My Flight Training” student support program debuted during the summit Sept. 21. AOPA will be signing up student pilots at Summit to test the program, and their input will be evaluated before the program’s public launch.
After the initial presentation, participants broke into focus groups to discuss an underlying issue identified during the regional meetings—that flight schools need more assistance to be successful as small businesses. The groups focused on the key five areas: finance and accounting; marketing and advertising; sales and customer service; management and leadership; and safety/risk management and insurance. “Flight schools know how to train; they're asking for support on the business side,” said Storm.
AOPA enlisted the support of partner associations to facilitate the discussion groups. Jason Blair, Executive Director of the National Association of Flight Instructors; Michael France, Manager of Regulatory Affairs for the National Air Transportation Association; Jens Hennig, Vice President of Operations for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, David Oord, Government and Advocacy Specialist for the Experimental Aircraft Association; and Doug Stewart, Chairman of the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators served as facilitators for the five topic areas. At the end of the summit, AOPA Chief Operating Officer Rob Moran moderated a panel of the facilitators to capture noteworthy points from the operator and the customer perspective. Several key themes emerged, including selling the experience rather than the certificate, the importance of instructor and staff professionalism, as well as recognizing outstanding employees, leading by example, and the value of delegation.