It’s important for a flight school to strike a healthy balance between the personal and the business. Samantha and Brian Messersmith—owners of Aviator Air, located at Grand Prairie Municipal Airport (GPM) in Grand Prairie, Texas—work hard to maintain that balance. They believe that a flight school’s success lies in a commitment to going above and beyond to get their clients in the air.
As seasoned flight school owners, the Messersmiths know that a healthy business-to-personal balance is maintained through open and honest communication among members of the flight school community; maintenance and pride in the offered product; and a genuine interest in student success.
Samantha, who isn’t a pilot but runs front office operations for Aviator Air, will personally facilitate communication with both instructors and students. Travis Simpson, a former instructor at Aviator Air who still is heavily involved in the organization, recognizes the importance of this honest dialogue. “We try our best to be really honest about the student experience and about our instructors and everything about our operation and not sweep problems under the rug and just address them directly,” Simpson said. One of his ongoing roles is student retention. “I'll reach out to students personally and ask how things are going,” he said. “If I see a student hasn't flown in a couple weeks I’ll reach out.” This ensures if there is a personality conflict or miscommunication the issues can be addressed as soon as possible.
With owners and leadership setting an example, instructors are eager to follow suit. Simpson sees how the Messersmiths do things for students out of an interest in seeing them succeed, not for reciprocal reasons or strictly business, and he believes instructors at Aviator Air are similarly inspired to carry on these intentions.
“I fly like for Spirit now, but I'm still involved. It’s just a great place to be at,” Simpson said. “It's just a culture from owner to instructor/employee and then from employee to student that is really…pure,” noting that the word sounded arrogant, but that there wasn’t a better way to describe the culture—a culture that isn’t a quid pro quo, but rather an atmosphere of genuine caring for students.
Flight training is stressful enough, for both instructor and student, so a commitment to honesty and communication ensures that the student-instructor relationship is as strong as possible.
“Flight training is one of those things…you're sitting in a plane with someone for somewhere between 40 and 60 hours and you're doing ground sessions and it's a lot of one-on-one time with a person. Our instructors genuinely want our students to do well, and they want them to get through quickly, they want them to get through at a cost-effective rate.” Simpson said. “After spending a couple weeks with someone [they] become a friend.”
When hiring employees, it is important to ensure that instructors carry on the mission of the flight school, and at Aviator Air the instructors are quick to praise their employers for setting expectations and exampling them. “Once you kind of have the culture in place it's been fairly easy to maintain,” Simpson said.
This mission is also reinforced by not shying away from feedback, both positive and negative. Staff have measures in place for clients to give feedback, in the form of surveys sent out asking students about quality of instruction and standards of safety. The surveys also asks: Do you think that that the instructor has your best interest in heart? This data is used to work with instructors to fine-tune their methods and approaches to flight training.
Open communication and healthy student/instructor dynamics are an intangible part of the success of Aviator Air. One tangible offering that makes a difference is the quality of the product, namely the airplanes used every day. “Our planes are very, very well maintained, and we take maintenance issues very seriously,” Simpson said.
Despite a waiting list to get on the flight schedule, Aviator Air isn’t looking to grow too fast, as maintaining the quality of instruction and safety of the airplanes is of utmost importance. “Our plan is a plane a year, and that's pretty much what we've done.” Samantha said. This slow and steady growth allows the organization to meet demand while also maintaining the airplanes at a high level, offering technically upgraded aircraft and fixing cosmetic issues on the inside. Simpson said, “We want students to walk on a plane, we want to look presentable. We treat the mechanical things very seriously, but also if there's cosmetic things that can be dealt with, we fix them.” Repairing leather rips, refinishing the seats, and cleaning scuffs and everyday wear and tear makes a world of difference to the students.
At the end of the day, flight instruction is all about student success, and a huge part of that is involving the student on every possible level. “We do pre- and postflight briefings,” Simpson said. “Flight instruction is a complex thing and it’s really hard to learn in the air. You may have heard the phrase ‘the airplane is not a great classroom,’ and it’s true. You’re amped up, you're stressed out you can't really process things quite as well until you get more comfortable, so being able to talk through these things on the ground before and after really helps the student grow and understand.”
Answering questions, providing explanations, and being a resource for open dialogue about maintenance issues is a continuation of the open communication culture at Aviator Air. “Our head mechanic, his name is Steve O'Brien, he makes it so comfortable for students, instructors—if they have any questions, he will drop anything,” Samantha said.
For Aviator Air, flight school success is a direct result of student success. “You have to invest in yourself as an instructor and the best way to do that is to be very engaged with your students, figure out the things that they're not good at, and continue to find ways to learn and expand your skills and knowledge base to be able to pass that knowledge on to them,” Simpson said.