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Some dollars have a high costSome dollars have a high cost

If you have a smartphone or iPad you have probably used the Yelp app to find out what others are saying, both good and bad, about a local restaurant, car service provider, or other kind of business before you decide to go there. Yelp is the twenty-first century’s “word of mouth.”

“How was the service?” It’s almost always the first thing people want to know because exceptional service trumps average service every time. You may have noticed that the aviation business community seems to run either hot or cold when it comes to word of mouth about flight instruction and service. Getting a mediocre cup of lukewarm coffee in an FBO lounge may suit some old-timers but for the rest of us, a café latte would be better. Intentionally high turnover at large “zero to right seat” career pilot-training schools works well for those institutions since their customers don’t stick around long enough to care, but the same thing at a local airport flight school is a recipe for business failure. The trouble is, without a plethora of customers spending money, it’s hard to invest in the infrastructure to support the things we want or need in order to provide great service, like highly qualified flight instructors or espresso machines. It’s even harder when the FAA and some public airport sponsors have difficulty understanding they are part of the problem, instead of a necessary part of the solution needed to help encourage business.�

Recently we sent a student pilot on a solo cross-country. The weather here in the Northwest had been unseasonably cold with fog and frost every morning and evening. So, we knew our student only had a small window of time to complete his flight. We sent him to a Class D airport located on the coast, one we normally don’t send our students to both because they usually go on much longer routes and because the coastal weather isn’t reliably good enough. Due to the time and weather constraints our student was instructed to land, taxi back, and immediately return home, which he did—we tracked his flight the whole way.

Now for the surprise. The other day I received an invoice for a $10 fee from this airport. We all know user fees are a bad idea, but understandably airports are trying to find ways to survive and parking fees are therefore not uncommon. However, our student didn’t park. He did the golfing equivalent of playing through.

Miffed, I called the airport, which is publically owned. They were actually very understanding and I was told to disregard the invoice. Apparently someone takes down N-numbers for any aircraft that lands, and then turns them in to the airport authority, which then sends out a bill—no questions asked. How many times does the aviation industry have to shoot itself in the proverbial feet before it has no more feet to shoot?

How much did this $10 “non-invoice” just cost that airport in goodwill? It’s unlikely we will send another student there anytime soon because there are “friendlier” places to go. Checking around, I found that the local community college’s flight school has stopped sending its pilots to this airport “now and forever” for the same reason.

Imagine a different scenario. What if, instead of sending me a bill, this airport sent us a “thank you for visiting” letter and included a coupon for $5 off the next purchase of fuel? Competition for business in aviation is keen and there’s another Class D airport south of here that we send student pilots to regularly, even though the gas is more expensive. Why? They make our students feel great. They have offered them cookies and even a free T-shirt. Yes, we gladly pay more to know our students will enjoy that company’s exceptional service. Public airport authorities can learn a lesson or two about service. Remember those signs that said, “NO SHIRT, NO SHOES, NO SERVICE?” Why do you think there aren’t too many of those businesses around anymore?

Take a look around your business and at your airport with the eye of a retail business and ask yourself, if this were a restaurant, what kind of review would I give it on Yelp? Is your business or the airport sponsor just shooting itself in the business foot to try and make a buck? If so, what kinds of small gestures can you make to change the culture? You could:

  • Offer free soft drinks, coffee, snacks, or popcorn
  • Provide an Internet café
  • Send a thank you note to visitors, even if they don’t buy fuel
  • Make sure your employees welcome every customer and stranger—every time
  • Work to ensure your public airport authority isn’t undermining your ability to do business

We all have room for improvement. The important message is that one bad interaction doesn’t just spoil an experience for one person anymore. It’s likely to be told, and retold, and told again, with far-reaching business consequences.

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