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10 things you must know before starting a flight school

You’ve dreamed of owning your own flight school, turning your passion into your career. Here are a few things you need to consider before taking the plunge.

1. Very few schools make their owners rich. Most schools start with grand ideas and then settle into a constant cycle of stress-then-relative-prosperity-then-stress. Small flight schools are like restaurants; they tend to be lifestyle choices, not great financial assets.

2. You’re not in the flying business. You’re in the training and education business. Let your CFIs focus on the flying. Your job will be to create an environment in which customers will come back and your instructors will stay—at least for a while.

3. Your first trainees will be your instructors. Most CFIs have been trained to fly and teach about what they know, but few have been trained to make you money. Your instructors will need continuous training in customer service, what to say on the phone to new prospects, how to dress and speak when they’re at work, and how to leave their students feeling good about things at the end of each lesson. An instructor with a bad or above-it-all attitude has to go.

4. You must charge enough from day one. Don’t get sucked into the discount trap. Your overhead costs will go on even if you reduce your prices to entice new students. Discounting is the first step to a graveyard spiral. Emphasize value, not price.

5. Your instructors must be paid what they’re worth. Don’t go down the “the-pay-is-crappy-but-you’re-building-time” route. This just leads to resentment and grumbling around the water cooler, often overheard by students and customers. You’re building a business, and that requires a good team. Expect outstanding performance, but pay them well, too.

6. Controlling expenses is critical. Make every dollar work. Don’t spend on wasteful advertising, a fancy building, and a gleaming lobby just yet. Keep start-up costs to a minimum and invest for growth only when warranted by the numbers. Be guided by your balance sheets, not your wishes and wants.

7. Maintenance costs will kill you. If you pay retail for inspections and repairs, you’ll see how fast your bank account spins backward. Try to partner with a good A&P/IA—or at least make arrangements with a local mechanic for discounts based on a continuing business relationship. Don’t skimp on maintenance, but don’t toss the keys to the mechanic and say “fix it” either. Know in advance what your costs will be, and question questionable charges. It’s all part of being a manager.

8. Get used to wearing many hats. You may picture yourself as a future titan of the aviation world, but the truth is far more down to earth. Most of your time will be spent herding cats, stepping on fires, and trying to make the books balance. The best flight school owners are often seen by their teams as usually friendly but very bottom-line-oriented and not to be crossed. The flight school business is capital intensive (that is, you’ll need lots of cash flow to keep the thing going), and being a little hard-nosed is one of the job requirements.

9. Your most important role is CEO. Sure, the trash has to be emptied and the windows cleaned, but don’t forget you’re the boss, in charge of the big things, too. Your biggest contribution comes from the basic decisions you make: Where to locate. Whether to own your airplanes or lease back. How to take your services to market. When to hire and fire. Where you will spend or invest your profits. One bad decision in any area can lead to big trouble.

10. The rewards you see will be many. Sure, you may not make the income that your brain surgeon friends make, but they’re not seeing the Earth from 10,000 feet every day, either. Aviation is a close-knit community, and the friends you make can last a lifetime. Being around airplanes is special, and it creates a mood and feeling that simply can’t be captured in most other careers. If you’ve truly got the bug and go into it with your eyes wide open, are careful, and are not afraid to be tough once in a while, go for it. Then don’t look back. Good luck.

William Woodbury is a flight instructor and freelance writer who lives in California.

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