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Are you wasting your introductory flights?

Most local flight schools and many flying clubs offer Discovery Flights. Often these flights are provided at a reduced price, anticipating that at least some will take the bait, get hooked, and become long-term customers as they advance through their certificates and ratings.

But are these discounted flights doing their job? Many school managers will say no, recounting how most are one-shot deals with a low conversion rate. Most people who take these flights decide not to pursue training, and many are simply looking for a cheap airplane ride and they're gone like yesterday’s 100LL. Some schools and clubs have stopped doing them altogether, or at least they now charge full price for a 30-minute demo with a CFI.

And yet some schools do them successfully. Take Benton Air Center in Redding, California (full disclosure: The author teaches at this school). Rather than providing a discount, BAC charges $190 for a half-hour demo flight. Included in this price is a 20- to 30-minute preflight session, where the CFI outlines what will take place over the course of the next hour or so, and the customer is encouraged to ask questions at any point. The instrument panel and controls are then introduced on a large-screen TV and the CFI gets to know the customer a little. The mood is relaxed and casual, with not a hint of salesmanship (an immediate turnoff to most prospects).

On the way out to the flightline, the CFI gives a brief tour of the facility, showing the front office, classroom, instructor offices, and maintenance shop. Since flight training is a people business, the customer is also introduced by name to other staff along the way. “Any questions so far?” If not, the CFI grabs an extra headset and the dispatch sheet and the pair go out to the airplane.

Once at the airplane, the customer is immediately put to work reading the preflight checklist aloud as the CFI performs and discusses the preflight inspection. The explanations of the parts and pieces of the plane are very basic at this point, providing just enough technical information to challenge the customer's memory a little. The passenger briefing and in-the-air portion of the flight are conventional, with the customer reading checklists, taking the controls as much as possible, and the CFI pointing out major landmarks. “Where do you live, maybe we can fly over your house?” Customers are encouraged to take photos. The standard route used is also the school's “scenic tour,” which adds another dab of excitement to the prospective student's first flight behind the controls. The goal is to have a few minutes of fun and to share the wonders of flight with a a newbie—two of the most rewarding parts of a good CFI's job.

After the flight, the customer is escorted back inside and invited to the CFI office for a quick debrief. “What did you think, did you enjoy the flight?” The answer is almost always “yes,” and the customer is asked if they would like information on training. If they do, the CFI spends a few minutes talking about the training process, timeframes, costs, the works. Questions are answered, and the customer is invited to take the next step – either scheduling their first real lesson or enrolling in a ground school or online training program. Again, no pressure, just advice and information.

Are your introductory flights structured in some manner, or are they just quickie flights with a CFI? Do your instructors know what they're supposed to do on a demonstration flight? Have you provided them training, or do you just leave it up to the instructors' instincts? Do your instructors go for a soft close at the end, or does the demo end with a friendly nod and a “see ya?” A little training can go a long way toward turning a demo into a customer, and it's easier than most may think.

William Woodbury is a pilot, flight instructor, marketing communications professional, and freelance writer who lives in California.

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