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Closing a flight school after September 11, 2001closing a flight school

Beth Niebuhr isn’t the only person to have shut down a flight school in the years following Sept. 11, 2001, but her reasons are not the ones we frequently hear in the industry.

“No, it wasn’t because we were suddenly flooded with students who wanted to learn how to fly, but not how to land,” she said. Niebuhr wrote about her decision to close her school in an article that originally was published Nov. 2, 2015, by the Huffington Post.

Niebuhr operated a flight school in Santa Barbara, California, from 1983 to 2003. The flight school had a mix of clients: locals who wanted to learn to fly for pleasure or to become career pilots; international visitors; and international student pilots looking to learn less expensively than in their home countries. That sounds familiar.

The flight school had applied for and received visa issuing authority. And here’s where it gets interesting. “After 9/11, perhaps as a coincidence, some people who had applied for and received visas which specified when they were to arrive did not show up at our school,” she said. The flight school had always instituted a surcharge of “a few hundred dollars” when issuing a permit to discourage no-shows and screen out the people who “just wanted a free pass” to the United States, she said.

Niebuhr said she became alarmed when several clients failed to appear. She contacted the Immigration and Naturalization Service by phone and letter on several occasions, but never got a response.

Uncomfortable with the prospect of helping people come to the United States who then disappeared, Niebuhr canceled the flight school’s visa-issuing authority. It’s likely that decision cut into her business’s bottom line, but she doesn’t mention that. Instead, she points to another development that will sound familiar to any pilot who was flying prior to the terrorist attacks: “Airports changed after 9/11.”

Niebuhr cites fences, locked gates, increased security, and other factors that led to the conclusion: “It just wasn’t fun anymore.” Almost as an afterthought, she says student enrollment dropped and the flight school had to cut its fleet. Those were probably the deciding factors, but it’s worth noting that the increased security surrounding airports in the days, months, and years after the attacks created an atmosphere that robbed the business of “trust” and “fun,” in the owner’s words.

Now chief executive officer of Encore Women, a service that aims to help women become entrepreneurs, Niebuhr wonders at the end of the article whether she made the right decision. I wouldn’t presume to second-guess any owner’s decision to close a business, but I wish she had rounded out her reflection by comparing the industry atmosphere of 2003 with that of 2015. It would have made her rumination complete.

Jill W. Tallman is editor of Flight School Business.