How to Compete with a Non-Profit Flying Club

How can your flight school compete with a non-profit flying club?

As a long-time member, officer, instructor, and chief flight instructor of a large flying club with an active flight training program, I sometimes feel sympathy for commercial flight schools who try to compete against us in the training market.

DSCN0157It’s difficult to compete with people who don’t care if they make money.  You are in business; we are on a mission.  We both provide the same service:  flight training and aircraft for personal and business use.  But the non-profit flying club can offer these services for less money – and in an environment that you cannot duplicate.  You can’t compete on price.  We have lower overhead, lower direct costs, and a predictable cash flow from member dues.  We also have a collegial environment, social activities, and participatory management, opportunities that are difficult to replicate in a commercial enterprise.  Every month our flying club has a lunch at the airport.  We bring our kids, play games, wash airplanes, clean house, meet prospective members, welcome and orient new members and socialize with the usual hangar flying banter– and much serious conversation about the world of aviation.   Our members assist in maintenance, which is a useful learning opportunity for members who want to learn about aircraft systems – and, not incidentally, reduces our maintenance costs.  Members participate in management of the club, which creates transparency as decisions are taken by direct representatives of the members.  Members manage purchase, sale, and maintenance of the fleet aircraft, which introduces them to the challenges of aircraft ownership.  And members learn through conversations that take place every day at the club.

How can you as a business owner compete with an organization that can offer the same training for lower cost in a friendly, participatory atmosphere?

I am going to tell you some ways in which you have the business advantage and some ways in which you can provide a similarly inviting atmosphere.  I know because I compete with you.  Yes, we are non-profit and we are not in business to make money – but we still have to pay the bills and we want to attract members and flight students to enjoy an economy of scale and be able to provide superior instruction.  And we know from experience that there are some things you can offer to flight students that we are ill-equipped to duplicate.  Why should I be revealing to my competitor his competitive advantages?  Because, truthfully, we will all benefit by better serving the aviation community and creating a new generation of active, safe, enthusiastic pilots.

Let’s take the apparent cost advantage we enjoy.  You will never be able to operate as inexpensively as a non-profit flying club.  We simply don’t care if we make a profit and much of our labor is volunteer and hence free to us.  But you can do some things that we cannot do.  You can offer Discovery Flights.  Because we are member owned and our insurance covers only our members, there is no reasonable means for us to offer Discovery Flights to non-members.  Sure, we can create temporary memberships and such, but they are clumsy, laborious to administer, and are an obvious workaround of the spirit of our policy.  The barrier to entry into flight training is daunting to the prospective student.  A Discovery Flight allows one to dip his toe in the water and gauge the temperature without a long-term commitment.    Advertising a Discovery Flight and getting a prospect into your facility and up in your airplane will expose them to the thrill of flight and the professionalism of your staff.  Why would they want to look elsewhere?   You are required to perform hundred-hour inspections of your airplanes, which we are not, because you are renting to your customers, which raises your operating costs.  Make that an asset instead of a liability.  Why not advertise that as a higher level of inspection and maintenance?   You are paying for it, so boast of it.  You can offer financing to your students, which will attract students who need the assistance, enlarging your potential customer pool.  You can also operate a Part 141 program, which opens up flight training to veterans and active military who want to use VA benefits to pursue a certificate, rating, and eventually perhaps a flying job. There now exists a large pool of veterans coming out of the military who want to learn to fly or want to add a fixed-wing or a multi rating to their helicopter experience.  These benefits are not applicable to a Part 61 training program such as offered by most flying clubs.  Here you have a pool of motivated, disciplined, pre-financed, paying customers for your flight school … and they network among themselves and will bring their friends and colleagues if you serve them well.

Hire the best instructors you can find and don’t try to make a living off of their backs.  How much does that cut you take from their hourly wage really contribute to your bottom line?  Let them keep those few dollars and you can charge your students less, let your instructors make a living wage, and earn their respect.  They are your customer reps; if they feel that you are taking your pound of flesh they will convey that resentment to their students — your customers.  Make your instructors proud to work for you.  Make them understand that you respect their contribution.  It will pay off.  You are competing with a flying club that provides instruction for a lower cost and rewards its instructors more generously.

Then there is the collegial aspect of a flying club.  Members come to just hang out with each other at the airport.  The club becomes a part of their social life, perhaps the center of it.  How can you compete with that?  Create lounge space at your flight school.  Provide free, fast, Wi-Fi and places to work.  Your students will use their computer and tablet and phone to do their flight planning, but some of them  will work their day job from your school if you make them welcome.  Provide good coffee, inexpensive snacks, a functional kitchen.  Many people now work remotely; invite them to do it from your facility.  Others will congregate.  Encourage conversation. Create the expectation.  Don’t encourage students to vacate the premises as soon as their lesson concludes.  Invite them to come early and stay late.  Encourage them to network with other students.  Create mentoring opportunities.  We learn by teaching.  Create family-friendly social activities:  weekend hamburger lunches, evening social hours, host FAA Wings programs and safety presentations.  Invite local maintenance shops and avionics present informational (and promotional) talks.  Invite former students and instructors who have achieved their dream of flying professionally to come back and talk to your students.  Make your business less transactional and more educational. In the social media world we call this content marketing; you can do this in the brick and mortar world.  Most of these ideas cost very little.  They require only time and creativity and a different approach

Make your facility a destination.  Better coffee.  Better wi-fi.  Better furniture.  It doesn’t cost that much.  Host and Wings events.  Hold maintenance nights in your hangar.  Have something for the kids to do.

I love my flying club.  It has survived for more than fifty years, which in the aviation business is an epoch.  When a few hardy souls bought a 150 in the early sixties and started a flying club, TWA, Pan Am, Eastern, Western and all of the legendary commuters – Allegheny, and the others – ruled the skies.  They are all gone now and we are still here.  We have discovered the secret of survival in the aviation business – don’t try to make money.  If you want to make a living in the aviation business you will need to take advantage of the things we cannot do and replicate some of the things we do well – and think a little differently about your business strategy.

And here’s the thing … if the flying club across the ramp doesn’t learn to think more like a business … they won’t be there next year.

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