How much does it cost to become a pilot? If everyone reading this wrote down a dollar amount without further explanation, I suspect we’d see a wide range of answers. What sort of pilot? With which ratings? And in what sort of equipment? Many of us in the industry have lost sight of how uninitiated customers view our offerings. Check out this e-mail I received from someone who was researching learning to fly by surfing the Internet and looking through aviation magazines:
I am a 24 year old male curious about the prices of learning to fly. I saw the “Pilots Certificate” was approximately $10,000 but the “Pilots License” was $60,000. The heart of my question is would I have to learn all the different types or styles of piloting or could I pick or specialize in one or more of the different categories of piloting and would the price be subject to the different types that I learn?
We know what happened here, right? This fellow read ads marketing the private pilot certificate, alongside others offering professional pilot training. Each said something like, “Become a Pilot,” accompanied by a price quote. How many other prospects do we confuse in this way? Unfortunately, this fellow's question is not unique. It’s alarming to consider the number of potential private pilots who may have turned away when they read, “Earn your pilot ratings for only $60,000,” while some aspiring 747 pilots responding to, “Learn to Fly for $10,000,” think the price of a used car will qualify them for a captain’s seat at Delta.
Potential customers are increasingly confused about our services, meaning it’s time to take a fresh look at our marketing materials and make sure we’re offering information our prospects clearly understand. Aspiring pilots who visit three or four flight schools tear their hair out trying to understand what they’d really get at each, and at what actual cost.
Along with lingering confusion about Part 61 vs. Part 141 programs, we perplex our prospects as to what ratings will be earned in various programs and whether graduates need them all. Some flight schools market FAA minimum flight experience, while others, to their credit, provide average flight times for each rating. We’ve gotten so wrapped up in itemizing the training process that we often neglect to promote the bottom line description of what we’re selling.
Today’s prospective pilots will gladly pay a premium for quality training, if they can figure out who’s offering it! So to win comparison shoppers, tout the strengths of your flight school, and make your programs easy to understand. Pages of syllabus and cost breakdowns are meaningful only if we first clearly and concisely explain in a few lines the essence of what we’re selling.
Our customers are looking for what they perceive as a single product—becoming a pilot. Our job is to determine what training they need to meet their objectives, and then present it as a clear package rather than an a-la-carte menu. “Every graduate of our Super-Duper Deluxe Professional Pilot Program holds all core ratings required to proceed with a professional pilot career, including commercial pilot certificate with instrument rating, and certificated flight instructor certificate with single-engine rating.”
Program options should be spelled out separately, each with its own explanation and pricing. “For those who desire added employment qualifications, we offer optional courses for instrument and multiengine flight instructors.”
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, every flight school must clearly state its competitive strengths versus other programs, whether cost, quality, convenience, collaborative programs with universities, or other factors make the school special. “Unlike many other flight programs, our pilots graduate with more than 100 hours of multiengine experience, while many competitors offer only 30 to 50 hours. This additional multiengine experience will help you achieve your career objectives sooner after graduation.” Become an airline pilot sooner? Now that’s a darned good reason to invest more now.
When you do get to the cost breakdown, be sure payment and financing options are clearly presented, as well. How many uninformed prospects like the fellow who wrote the email put off flying because they think lump-sum payment is required?
Few flight schools design their promotional and informational materials for direct comparison with other flight schools. But customers need such comparisons—cheaper, more professional, nicer airplanes, or whatever—to make their selections. And if we sell them for the right reasons, they’re more likely to become satisfied customers and refer more business.
Never has there been a more important time for flight schools to develop clear, compelling marketing and sales materials. Doing it right may require the services of a marketing professional, but avoiding the issue could prove even more costly. Then customers will spend their money at some other flight school, or worse yet at the boat dealer or motorcycle school, where the product is easier to understand.
Greg Brown is a former FAA Flight Instructor of the Year and author of The Savvy Flight Instructor. This story originally appeared in a previous edition of Flight School Business.