As a fairly new student pilot, one summer morning I found a small airport while visiting relatives in Illinois. (I like to do that—pop into airports wherever I happen to be.)
It was a humid and cloudy day, so not much was going on. I thought I’d go into the little flight school and say hi to whomever was in there, maybe buy a coffee mug or a ballcap if they sold them.
Two older gentlemen were hanging out at the glass counter, which held charts and other pilot supplies. Another man was behind the counter. They were chatting about the weather, as pilots do.
I waited for them to acknowledge me. I wanted to say, “Hey, I’m learning to fly, and I’m from out of town. Just wanted to take a look at your airport.” Pilots are friendly and gregarious, and I figured they’d ask me where I was from, and we could talk about the very complicated airspace not far from this airport, versus the complicated airspace where I was learning to fly. Stuff like that.
Except none of that happened. The two men looked over at me, saw a 40-year-old woman, and turned back to the guy behind the counter. He might have looked at me; I don’t remember. But he didn’t say anything, not even a “Can I help you?” or “Are you lost?” The three of them continued talking, as if the wind had blown open the door but nobody was standing there.
I pretended to study the charts in the case nearest to me. It took me a few moments to realize that they weren’t going to acknowledge me—not unless I interrupted them. Since I hadn’t come in for any particular reason, it seemed silly to insinuate myself into their huddle when they plainly didn’t want to entertain any outsiders. So I turned around and left.
I’ve thought about that cloudy morning a few times over the years. I wasn’t a local, so the flight school didn’t miss out on a chance to hook me as a student. I hadn’t flown in, so they weren’t losing out on fuel sales or a tidy maintenance job. At most, I represented a $10 or $15 sale.
But what if I had been someone from around the way, looking to find a flight instructor? The signals I got that morning were clear. I wasn’t part of the club, and they weren’t handing out new member applications.
It’s said that when greeting a customer, you have five to 10 seconds to make a good first impression.
Just for kicks, I recently looked at that flight school’s website. It is a nice site, with a video introduction by the genial owner and customer testimonials (featuring young people!). It made a nice first impression, much different from the one I got 16 years ago. I have a feeling that if I walked into that flight school today, someone would speak to me, if only to talk about the weather.