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Flight School Spotlight: Trade Winds

Profiting from ground school

By Jim Pitman

There are many benefits to self-study, computer-based instruction. Flight training clients can go at their own pace, review specific topics as needed, and do it all on their own schedules. There also are significant benefits to conducting traditional in-person classes that follow a set schedule. The classroom format is simply a better fit for many people’s learning style. Interacting with other students in class also adds value to the learning experience.

Walt Gyger is the president and CEO of Trade Winds Aviation, a Part 141 flight school at Reid Hillview Airport (KRHV) in San Jose, California. For many years, Gyger and his team have been conducting in-person ground school classes that are effective at both attracting and retaining new flight training clients. They conduct two parallel private pilot classes every four months—one on a weeknight and one on the weekend. Each ground school runs three hours per class, for 14 weeks, with 22 students per class.

How do they find students to fill these classes? Like many flight school managers, Gyger has tested several different Groupon offers over the years and has experienced mixed results.

“It’s difficult to make Groupon work well with intro flights,” he said. “The margins are too thin, and a lot of customers are just tire-kickers that aren’t serious about doing the work required to become a pilot. I’ve seen several other flight schools get themselves into financial trouble because they gave away the store with Groupon offers,” he said.

The better marketing strategy is to use Groupon to offer discounts on ground school classes, where margins are much larger and tire-kickers are welcome. Trade Winds Aviation is effectively using a “Draw and filter” marketing philosophy. “The intro flight is the draw, and ground school is the filter,” Gyger explained. “We structured a packaged deal with Groupon about five years ago that is still running strong. We’ve had about 600 prospective customers come to us from this deal, which I consider a great success. Eighty-five to 90 percent of the customers who purchase our Groupon deal do not complete ground school or start flight training. That sounds awful, but you need to remember that it’s a sifting process. We do still earn a profit from the people who don’t continue, which is more than I can say about using Groupon for once-and-done intro flights,” he said.

Often, the seeds being planted are more valuable than the money earned from these Groupon deals. “One of the greatest benefits is the people who don’t continue still come to class at least three or four times before they quit,” said Gyger. “During that time we get to know each other and begin to build a meaningful business relationship. They know where we are, what we do, and they have met several of our key people. We put these clients on our mailing list to keep in touch so they remember where to go when they’re ready. We’ve had people show up and start flying who said they attended ground school three years earlier. Sometimes it’s just a matter of timing and that early experience with ground school is one of the best ways for people to learn what we have to offer,” he said.

The published retail price of Trade Wind Aviation’s introductory flight lesson and ground school is $450. The Groupon deal typically offers a 50 percent discount. Most of the time, one of the flight school’s CFIs is assigned to teach the class. The goal for attendees is to pass the FAA knowledge test. The goal of the instructor is to conduct the intro flights and identify those who are ready to transition into the flight training program, which is typically 10 percent to 15 percent of the class.

Do in-person scheduled classes provide better instruction than self-study options? The answer is maybe, and it depends on the customer. It’s good to give your clients the option to conduct ground school using a computer/web-based self-study program and/or scheduled classroom instruction. Let your clients choose what works best for them.

The most effective learning will occur when you implement the philosophy commonly known as a flipped classroom, where technology is used to deliver content and classroom time is utilized for interactive exercises and group discussions. With this method of teaching, the ground school instructor is more of a guide and group mentor than a lecturer going through slides filled with facts and figures. Salman Khan explains the fundamental concepts and underlying principles in this 20-minute TED Talk. Converting your ground schools to implement this philosophy will present some challenges. Change is often difficult, but the concept is simple, and the benefits are significant.

When asked for any final advice, Gyger said, “It’s important for flight school managers to know they can negotiate the fees with Groupon. The split they first propose is not set in stone. Also, we’ve found that about 25 percent of the customers who purchase the Groupon deal do not immediately register for a class, so that’s a liability that is important to keep on the books. Clearly stating terms that include an expiration date will help. Finally, be sure to do the math and know where your break-even points are. If you’re losing $1 per transaction, you can’t make it up in volume.”

Fortunately, it only takes a few ground school customers to create a highly profitable class. Consider making the ground school instructor position one of the highest-paid jobs in your company. Motivate your instructors to apply, interview, and compete for the special opportunity to teach ground school classes.

Whether or not you are currently offering scheduled in-person ground school classes, I encourage you to consider how you can implement the ideas and principles shared above to create better opportunities for your customers and instructors.

Learn more about Trade Winds Aviation and connect with Walt Gyger at the website.

Jim Pitman has been a flight instructor since 1997. He has been a Part 141 chief flight instructor, Cessna Pilot Center regional manager, and Arizona Flight Instructor of the Year. He currently flies the Canadair Regional Jet for a U.S. carrier while working as a freelance flight instructor and designated pilot examiner for the FAA. Connect with Jim at his website (

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