“Aviate, navigate, communicate.” From the earliest days of flight training, students are taught this list of priorities—priorities that any pilot must firmly grasp in order to ensure a safe flight. Regardless of what situation may arise, it is the foremost job of any aviator to fly the airplane first. Many loss-of-control accidents have resulted from the human tendency to fixate on one problem and—in doing so—forget this cardinal priority.
The responsibility to aviate means that a pilot, regardless of what distractions may occur, must fly the airplane—even if it means a delay in determining one’s precise location or responding to ATC. These tasks fall under the latter two priorities of navigation and communication, respectively. Interestingly enough, these same three ordered priorities—which should be in a pilot’s mind at all times while he or she is flying—should also be at the forefront of every flight school owner’s mind while managing the business.
Just as a pilot must overcome a tendency to focus too much on distractions that can occur during a busy flight, a business owner must also avoid losing focus on the most pressing task at hand: flying the business. While it is important to have a vision for how you want your business to grow (or, the direction in which you would like to navigate) and a strategy for communicating this vision to stakeholders, neither of these focuses should be given priority over maintaining positive control of the business. How is this accomplished? By having a set of metrics in place that can be monitored (much like flight instruments) so that you always know exactly how your business is performing.
For each service that your flight school offers, such as flight training or aircraft rental, you should be keenly aware of both the revenue you earn from that service and of the various costs involved with providing it. How do these costs behave? How profitable are your different offerings? Is there any service that you are providing that is actually causing your business to lose money? Each of these questions can be tracked in a variety of ways. Whichever method you choose, it is important to remain vigilant in monitoring your business’s performance, and to consistently maintain the information necessary for sound decision making. By losing sight of this priority and forgetting to fly the business, you could potentially allow your school to enter an attitude from which recovery may be difficult.
Once positive control has been established, attention can then be focused on the two remaining priorities: navigation and communication. Navigation in this sense involves determining where you would like to take your flight school next. The competitive environment in which a flight school exists can be incredibly dynamic, and for this reason it is important to remain aware of new developments that might necessitate a change in your business plans.
One common method of maintaining situational awareness within the competitive environment is termed SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats). Strengths and weaknesses are both internal to your business, and listing them involves an honest assessment of what your school is good at, as well as those areas that could be improved upon. Opportunities and threats, on the other hand, exist within the external environment, and they describe either potential ways that you could improve your flight school’s position within the local market or, alternatively, those things within the wider environment that could pose a challenge to operations. Taken together, the four elements of SWOT analysis can prove an invaluable aid in crafting a strategic vision for your flight school. Regardless of the method you use to analyze the environment, however, it is important to remain abreast of new developments, and always be ready to alter your business’s strategic path in the face of changes, good or bad.
Communication—the final priority—involves taking the vision that you have for your flight school and conveying this image to your customers and the community. In a service industry, creating a positive customer experience is paramount, and you should always work to ensure both that there is uniformity in the message you are sending to your audience, and that the message being sent is that which you intend.
Just as the three priorities of aviating, navigating, and communicating should be ingrained in any pilot’s mind while at the controls of an aircraft, the ways in which these priorities relate to business should be in the mind of any flight school owner or operator. It is always important to have a plan, and to know in what direction you want to take your business. It is also important to know how to communicate this plan to stakeholders. Still, regardless of what kinds of distractions may arise, it is vital to remember to fly the business first.
Michael Hangartner is a financial analyst for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and a private pilot.