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Flight School Spotlight: Sierra Charlie Aviation

Success with new airplanes

By Jim Pitman

The new year brings a time of reflection and goal-setting. It’s a time to dream and make changes for a better future. How nice would it be to replace all your old trainers with a fleet of brand-new airplanes? Not realistic, you say? Maybe, but maybe not. Every flight school is different, and you must decide what is best for your situation, but some important factors are worth considering.

Scott Campbell is the founder and president of Sierra Charlie Aviation, a successful flight school operating in Scottsdale, Arizona (SDL), since January 2016. Sierra Charlie Aviation is turning a profit every month operating a fleet of eight new G1000-equipped Cessna Skyhawks, and the school is about to take delivery of its first new Piper Seminole right from the factory. This is especially impressive considering that Scottdale Airport has higher real estate and fuel prices than most other locations in the United States.

There are three common beliefs that prevent many flight schools from considering new aircraft.

Belief #1: It’s better to have a variety of airplanes on the flight line.

This belief will be true or false depending on your business goals. “Flying clubs should have diverse fleets, not flight schools. If you want to run a flight training business and make money, you need a fleet of identical airplanes,” Campbell said. “When you have a diverse fleet of ‘Frankenstein airplanes,’ students and instructors choose favorites. When their favorite is down for maintenance or scheduled by another customer, they don’t fly,” he said.

The true cost of that lost revenue is a mystery to most flight schools because it doesn’t show up on the monthly reports, but I believe it to be significant. Campbell said, “Our customers don’t care which airplane they get scheduled in because they are all the same. This significantly improves our scheduling flexibility and keeps our customers flying.”

Belief #2: Flying brand-new airplanes is not cost-effective.

It’s important to distinguish between price and cost. Yes, the purchase price of a 2020 Cessna 172S is much higher than a 1978 172N, but that’s only one part of the equation. It’s a simple fact that older aircraft experience more down time for maintenance and it’s more difficult to obtain parts in a timely manner. When done properly, it is often much more cost-effective to own and operate new airplanes that are under warranty.

“As business owners, we must be willing to accept some level of risk,” Campbell said. “To me, older airplanes are an unpredictable gamble. I much prefer the burden of new aircraft loans because they come with predictable terms and payments I can calculate and forecast. The airplanes that cost you the most are the ones sitting on the ramp or torn apart in the maintenance hangar waiting for parts.”

When calculating the total cost of operating older aircraft, it’s also important to include the cost of your time and energy. How much more enjoyable would it be to run a flight school with new airplanes that don’t need unexpected maintenance as often and when something does break, it’s often covered by warranty? It’s not much of a stretch to estimate a total time savings of several hours per week, if not per day. Just think of what else you could do with all of that time and energy!

“I had the opportunity to see those maintenance headaches when I was a new flight instructor at a different school,” Campbell said. “When I decided to start my own flight school, I knew I wanted to do it with new airplanes that are more reliable and covered by warranty. That decision is a big part of why I’m able to spend so much time working on our business, not just in our business. I’m the big-picture guy that keeps everything on track. I also enjoy spending one-on-one time with current and prospective customers. I simply would not have the time to do that if I was operating old airplanes that needed constant attention,” he said.

New airplanes also fly more hours per month than old airplanes. This is because of the decreased maintenance time and increased productivity that comes from having multiple matching aircraft. “I'm trying to be the Roger Bannister of flight hours by doing 200 per month,” Campbell said. “When I only had two airplanes, we were consistently doing 175 hours on each per month. Now with more airplanes, we’re still consistently hitting 125 to 150 hours and working our way to the 200-hour mark.” These flight times are much higher than older airplanes typically fly per month, which significantly improves the cost effectiveness of flying new aircraft.

Belief #3: New airplanes require rental rates that customers are not willing to pay.

Many people are conditioned to shop and make purchase decisions based largely on price, without considering total value. We have the opportunity to educate people to better understand the difference.

For certain types of clients, the total value of flying new airplanes is much higher than the increased hourly cost. “It’s likely that the majority of your current customers would be extremely excited to be flying new equipment that is rarely down for maintenance,” Campbell said. “They would also soon recognize the significant benefits that come from having several matching airplanes. When the one they scheduled is not available for some reason, they simply take one of the others without any impact to their plans for that flight. The improved scheduling flexibility, reliability, comfort, technology, and overall safety far outweigh the extra dollars per hour. And for some, the overall cost of their training may actually decrease due to the improved efficiencies,” he said.

You must decide what kind of flight school you want to operate and what type of client you want to attract. Just remember that it’s usually best to specialize than try to be all things to all people. If your primary focus is high-quality flight training, operating a standardized fleet of new airplanes may be your best option.

The idea of replacing your old trainers with an entire fleet of brand-new airplanes may seem crazy at first, but I encourage you to crunch the numbers and give it some thought. With the increased reliability and efficiencies of new airplanes, it may be possible to buy five or six new airplanes to replace 10 to 12 old ones. There’s never been a better time to sell used aircraft, and several manufacturers are now offering high-quality trainers. Just something to think about as you consider what things will look like for you and your flight school in 2020 and beyond.

Learn more about Sierra Charlie Aviation and connect with Scott Campbell 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 (DPE) for the FAA. Connect with Jim at his website (