Family businesses are nothing new in general aviation. It’s no coincidence that small flight schools are often called “mom and pop” operations.
Some would consider “mom and pop” a pejorative. AeroVenture Institute in Southbridge, Massachusetts, doesn’t mind it at all. In fact, the family-run business cultivates an environment that’s friendly but structured. It’s one of many reasons that AeroVenture was named Best Flight School of 2015 in AOPA’s Flight Training Excellence Awards.
On a late fall day, two days before Thanksgiving, most flight schools can expect a slowdown in business as students focus more on family than flying. At AeroVenture, however, a light schedule doesn’t mean an empty flight school. Many students will stop by to hang out, gossip, swap stories, and support each other.
George Allen is AeroVenture’s chief executive officer. His father, Bill, is chief flight instructor. His mother, Debra, takes care of much of the work behind the scenes. George Allen said Debra is a phenomenal ambassador to the parents of high school students who are involved in one of AeroVenture’s many youth programs.
Allen’s philosophy centers on providing great service in a structured environment that doesn’t impede students. “Behind the scenes it’s disciplined, but the student in the end shouldn’t be able to see the process,” he said. “Flying is the same way. There are procedures, checklists, rules, stuff going on behind the scenes, but in the end flying is an art. It’s a natural way we handle things.”
The most important thing is to treat people right, Allen said. “They feel like they become a part of the family. At the core they are getting a professional flight training experience, but they don’t just feel like they need to come in, take their lesson, and leave.”
The flight school does a generous amount of community outreach with the simple goal of sharing the joy of aviation and aerospace with as many young people as possible. Events range from high school ground schools to facility tours and career days. For three consecutive years, AeroVenture has hosted a special day in which anyone in the local community has the chance to take a free flight. Current customers turn out to help with the event.
That doesn’t happen by accident. The Allens purposely create the opportunities for students to give back. “I’m trying to make the airport for more than just pilots,” George Allen said. “It’s for the community—all the community.”
Joe Grillo is one of those students who give back. He had visited other schools and said they almost felt separate from the airport. Grillo said Bill Allen has introduced him to everyone at Southbridge. Now Grillo is known to bring the donuts and lend a hand with various airport community days. He’s part of the family now. Debra Allen will often have coffee waiting for him and other students when they come back from a lesson. “I’ve never felt like just a customer,” he said. “What they’ve done here is very inspiring.”
In a future issue of Flight School Business, we’ll take a look at how AeroVenture crafted an introductory flight experience that goes beyond the norm. A complete profile of AeroVenture will appear in the February 2016 issue of Flight Training magazine.
Ian J. Twombly is editor of AOPA Pilot and Flight Training magazines. Jill W. Tallman is editor of Flight School Business.