In her article on The Great GA Sell Job in your November issue, Joan Perkins did a great job. Her report brings to mind our own experience with Sunrise Aviation in Tucson, Arizona more than 10 years ago, which underscores her experience exactly.
Sunrise Aviation was started by Two wonderful and talented flight instructors who were long on training skills but short on business experience. My wife, Jacqui and I became acquainted with them over the leaseback of our first airplane.
The first time the instructors approached us about investing in the flight school, we declined. The business got worse and the lease was in renegotiation when they approached us the second time. We agreed to take over the operation provided we received controlling interest.
In the tradition of the purchase of Manhattan from the Indians, I placed $24 cash on the table and received controlling interest in six aircraft, two hangars and an office/classroom/line shack, not to mention some hearty bank loans.
Jacqui took over the daily operation of the flight school and the rental line during the day because of her marketing background and availability. I was responsible for maintenance and cleaning the toilets because I had a full-time job as manager of planning for an air data computer firm.
Jacqui proceeded to clean, paint and re-carpet the office, fire the surly and time-building-only instructors and to turn the school into a customer-service oriented business. The instructors were required to wear ties while in the office, rules were set up as to promptness, treatment of customers and conformance to the Cessna Pilot Center lesson plan.
Instructors were quickly invited to leave if they could not hold to the standards and instructors who did maintain the standards were given a greater percentage of the take for their trouble.
Business started to increase. Several cross country truckers started taking lessons (and obtained their licenses) when they found out that our instructors were always ready to fly right at the time their rigs pulled into the parking lot.
In Tucson in the summer, student starts take a nose dive due to the 115-degree heat and the low-level turbulence. Jacquis solution was to do a FM radio station remote in May complete with an inflatable boom box studio on the tarmac, 10 cent popcorn and hot dogs and Cessna Discovery Flights for $19.95.
A local helicopter school was also invited to attend with their own introductory flights in a Robinson R22. A display ad ran in the preceding Sunday paper and the Saturday of the event with a coupon.
The people flow was planned so that they could mingle first, get a hot dog, joke with the DJs, then come inside to sign up for the flight.
As they were being signed up, they met their flight instructor for an introduction and were whisked out the back door where all six aircraft were lined up single file, similar to funhouse cars.
The would-be student took the left seat and had at least 12 to 15 minutes of hands-on flying for a 20-minute ride. Even though Tucson is tower controlled, an arrangement with the tower kept delays to a minimum. After the flight, the instructor took the student to his desk and showed him/her the course materials, the lesson plans, explained the costs and asked for the business.
The people came out of the woodwork! Our best guess was that more than 700 people attended. We had more 100 student starts that day alone and many more followed because Jacqui got on the phone and made sales calls several weeks later.
Business continued to increase through that summer and never did fall off. We were so busy that aircraft maintenance had to be done at night; there was simply no time to do it during the day. It wasnt unusual to have a Cessna 152 top 200 flight hours per month.
After 10 months, Jacqui had quadrupled the business to the point where we ran out of capital to expand. We sold the business to a fellow who did have the capital and promised to expand.
The sad part: The new owner wasnt nearly so dedicated and the business was shut down shortly after it was sold.
In summary, Ms. Perkins is spot on. This is a service business and you need to use all of the marketing tricks and business sense that you would use in any service oriented business. After all, once upon a time, business was booming.
And with the right kind of promotion, sales work and customer service, it can again.
-by Bob Tezyk
Bob Tezyk currently lives in Midlothian, Texas.