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Time for a change?Time for a change?

By now you are aware of significant factors impacting our flight training industry: fewer pilots, sagging personal finances, higher fuel prices, and the new 1,500-hour ATP rule. These or others yet to come will sooner or later impact your business—for better or for worse. As we have seen elsewhere, external factors have ended whole genres of businesses. If businesses are to survive, they must be capable of adapting and changing frequently.

However, people and companies don’t like change—anyone who has tried rearranging furniture at home, trading office cubicles at work, or changing course during flight knows this to be true. While we may not enjoy change there are ways of making the process more manageable. The first step in the process of change is defining what needs to be changed followed by implementing and communicating, and then by supporting the change(s).

Step one: Defining what needs to be changed.

One way to define what needs to change is to rewrite your business plan every few years—taking into account any new external or internal influencing factors. In addition, you could make an assessment of your business procedures, forms, or documents, looking for what is out of date, what can be simplified, or what needs to be added (this is really an ongoing process in most businesses).

Some other examples:

  • Does your school have difficulty retaining customers? From a business perspective it costs more money to find a customer than to retain one. Maybe it is time to institute stricter customer contracts or increase customer service training for flight instructors.
  • Re-evaluating business relationships. Are you getting the most value from your business partners? When was the last time you and your banker discussed your aircraft loans? Are you happy with your aviation partnerships and affiliations?

As an example, the sluggish economy has affected my small flight school’s aircraft rental hours. I see a need to help our customers maintain their proficiency and safety on their smaller personal budgets.

Step two: Implementing and communicating changes to employees, customers, or vendors.

Once you’ve defined what needs to change, it is time to work on implementing and communicating what, how, and when the change will take effect. Who needs to know and who will be affected—employees, customers, or vendors? Create reasonable timelines for implementing changes and be sure you have a method for evaluating the effects of what you’ve done. It is best for written communications to be made through more than one medium more than one time—one email is not enough!

Depending on the magnitude of the change, it may or may not be a big deal. Whatever the case, remember change is not easy, so the goal is to cause the least amount of friction possible and make sure that all communications have a consistent message.

Using the example of customer retention, one method for increasing retention is using incentivized contracts, nonrefundable deposits, or cancellation fees. Many other industries have these kinds of requirements—think cellphone companies. Contracts have a way of cementing relationships and decreasing dropout rates.

Implementing such contracts will require legal oversight. Once you have the contract particulars in place and before you launch them into use, be sure your employees can clearly explain what your and your customers’ legal obligations are in plain English.

In our business’s example, we need our customers to stay proficient, but they also need help thinking up proficiency-related things to do on a budget. So we are implementing changes to our pilot proficiency program. Starting with an “Aviator’s Personal Practice and Challenge Plan.” It’s like a physical workout plan—only much more fun. The plan is being rolled out this spring. We are communicating about it at our safety meetings, in newsletters, on our website, and in person during instructor flight briefing sessions.

Step three: Supporting change—being strong doesn’t mean you can’t be flexible.

Supporting change sometimes calls for a strong backbone; don’t let the first sign of an unhappy employee or customer send you back to what was. Change requires resolve, patience, and compassion. Implementing any change also requires giving it time to succeed; if something isn’t working as you planned right away, instead of retreating, try tweaking it a bit. If a customer or employee is unhappy about a change that has affected him or her, acknowledge that change is difficult and let the person provide you with feedback—perhaps he or she has an idea for making the change even better. 

Our piloting language is full of old sayings meant to convey simple but inalienable truths, such as, “There is nothing more useless than the runway behind you.” In the language of business it’s change before you have to.

Dorothy Schick is the owner of the TakeWING Aviation Club in Creswell, Ore.

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