Can General Aviation “Tip” Again? Pt III

by Chris Findley, CFI

From Browsing to Engaging

I was browsing through my web site analytics the other day.  This is a program that records hits on the site, what pages are most popular, what files are downloaded, and how long the average visitor spends on the site.  One of the things that I examine is how to increase hits on the site and interest in the services I provide.   Any business wants to do these things; that’s ostensibly why they have a web page in the first place.   As a flight instructor and aviation enthusiast, it made me consider the industry itself.  What is it about aviation that is eminently interesting to many people, yet so few take advantage of what it offers?   Why do some browse, but never engage?

General Aviation is facing a crucial time of decision.  Airline travelers are increasingly frustrated with higher fees, more hassle and less service with no other viable options.  The corporate sector has seen major hits in the last two years with many companies reducing or eliminating their flight departments.  And in the world of flight training, flight schools and instructors struggle to attract new business and retain them.  Are there signs of hope?  You bet.  There are some great initiatives on the horizon.  The question is how can the various sectors of the Aviation Industry position themselves in a way to facilitate a “Tip” in their direction?

The Tipping Point

In his best-selling book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell observes three things that seem to contribute to the “tipping” of an idea, product, or epidemic.  The first is the Law of the Few.   Most trends are brought about by a relatively small number of very influential and well-connected people.  That does not necessarily mean “powerful” or “high profile” people, just influential. His second major premise is that the message has to be memorable or “sticky”.  We have to consider the content and presentation of the message we hope to spread.  Some of the largest trends have occurred because of relatively small adjustments to the message.   

His final premise is that the context of the people receiving that message matters.  He says, “Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur.”1 What can we discern about the situation of the people who hope to reach with the Aviation message?  This point will inform and govern the type of message sent (stickiness) and the types of people that connect with the recipients (Law of the Few).

“Dangerous and Expensive”  The Psychological/Statistical Context

One way to examine the context is to look at public perception.  Common complaints we hear about Aviation in general and flight training in particular is that it is dangerous and expensive. These form part of the context in which the message is heard.  The ongoing debate of GA safety really depends on how you examine your statistics.  Gregg Easterbrook once quipped, “Torture numbers, and they’ll confess to anything.”

If we look at raw numbers we find that 37,261 people died in automobile accidents in 2008.  In that same year, 486 people died in general aviation aircraft accidents.2 Of course this comparison does not account for probability based on the number of cars versus the number of aircraft operations. Some comparisons are made on the basis of passenger-miles.  One analysis of this data concluded that small general aviation planes are about 10-20 times as deadly as a car.3 The problem is that the passenger-mile number is more useful for examining revenue than safety.   The Aircraft Owners and Pilot’s Association notes that the risk drops to 1/10 of the accident rate of automobiles if one looks at accidents per vehicle-mile which is probably a more accurate comparison since it relates to the aircraft itself.  But it is nonetheless sobering to point out that 115 people die every day in automobile accidents, which means that every 4.2 days automobile deaths equal the yearly number of deaths in GA planes.4

But I wonder if the numbers on this point really matter.

We need to understand the context for flying is psychological not statistical.   We are not going to argue anyone into flying.  If someone is convinced that general aviation aircraft are unsafe, that is an emotional decision.  Presenting the best, most positive statistic will not make them want to get in your plane.  We are not going to win that argument with numbers.  Our context needs to focus instead on those who are predisposed to flying.  For them, you could give them the worst statistic and it would not matter.   They are going to fly.  So Context Lesson #1 is, “There are people who will fly and those who won’t.  Learn your audience and focus your message.”

What about expense?  Many people claim that flying is simply too expensive.  It is true that flying is not a “cheap” hobby.   But that point is valid only if you’re comparing one “cheap” hobby to another.  It simply is not helpful or accurate to measure the cost of flying against running, tennis, or fishing.  If we’re going to talk about the expense of aviation then we have to measure it against similarly-priced hobbies.   For instance you can train for your pilot’s license for less than you can purchase a new boat or motorcycle.

Motorcycle riding, like flying, is an “expensive” hobby which is considered by many people to involve a higher degree of risk than other activities.   In 2008, the average price of a new motorcycle was over $12,000.5 Despite the downward turn in the economy, over 350,000 street-ready motorcycles were sold in 2009.  Similar trends exist in other recreational areas such as Jet Skis and Bass Boats, and even golf.   An avid golfer spends close to $5,000 per year on his hobby.6

Context Lesson #2 is, “People are spending money on expensive items, even in a down economy.” We can and should look at ways to bring the cost of our services down to make them more accessible to more people.  I think the Light Sport Aircraft (LSA) category is exciting partially for this reason.  However, if we continue to focus our attention on the fact that it is difficult for a family making $35,000/year to fly, then we will miss other opportunities right in front of us.  We do not need to be apologetic for the cost of our services, but realize we have a quality product that simply happens to come at a certain price.  We need to realize we are competing not with running, tennis, and fishing, but with motorcycles, jet-skis, bass boats, and golf pro-shops.   Consumers are spending on high-involvement products and services, even in a down economy.

Community more than Customers

The last major point in Gladwell’s “Power of Context” chapter illustrates the influence of groups in tipping an idea.  He says, “Small close-knit groups have the power to magnify the epidemic potential of a message or idea.”7 He cites the tipping of the bestselling book The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood to the emergence of small sharing groups that connected to the book’s message.   He also cites the growth of religious groups, particularly the Methodist movement under John Wesley, which was entirely small-group driven.  From the industrial and business side he closely examines Gore Associates (maker of the Gore-Tex fabric) that keeps titles to a minimum, has replaced “bosses” with “mentors”, and keeps the size of their plants to 150 employees.  They discovered that cohesiveness and community spur productivity and satisfaction.

But how might this context point impact flight training and corporate aviation?  Because people are not satisfied when they are simply doing something, but when they are a part of something.  If we want to “tip” aviation, we should foster the idea, the reality, of the aviation community.  Help them participate in  the aviation community that we see organizing fly-in breakfast events, giving rides to kids to encourage an awareness of flight, volunteering to fly food and supplies into Haiti, and examining innovative ways to grow their business and serve their customers.

It is this community that we need to be actively trying to develop and invite more pilots to experience.  One of the great ways that this can be done now is through the use of social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.)  Social Media is revolutionizing the way we communicate and network.  We can create communities and connect people on a frequent basis and these are great tools for organizing.  Creating forums for new or aspiring pilots, quality blogs for sharing information, and even utilizing webinar based technology (as I am working toward at in training.  There is a lot we can do to connect people using technology.

Context Lesson #3 is “Build the Aviation Community.” This is more than simply networking.  I believe the tipping of aviation can be facilitated by learning from Gladwell’s diverse examples of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, the Methodist movement, and Gore-Tex.  You look for ways to add value to people.   You search out ways to add meaning to their lives.  You look to develop a community instead of simply a customer.  Therefore, you and I are able to create and influence the context for their experience in aviation.


Aviation is not likely to “tip” in the same manner it has before.  A new revival in aviation will most likely look a lot different than the it did in its glory days (whether you’re talking about the ‘30’s, 50’s or even the 80’s).  I believe this transformation can only work by being authentic and responsive to the present times.  May we all work to make it happen by learning from the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor, and the Context and tirelessly striving toward a new “Tipping Point” in General Aviation.

Read Part I of “Can General Aviation ‘Tip’ Again?”

Read Part II of “Can General Aviation ‘Tip’ Again?”


1.  The Tipping Point, Gladwell, 139
6.  Golf Economy Report, 2002, page 12
7.  Ibid, 174

One response to “Can General Aviation “Tip” Again? Pt III

  1. Sleepingsquirrel

    I believe your message is true. I have returned to aviation after years of searching for other substitutes. I was one infected with the love before I had the skills. It made the journey more valuable to me even though I choose to remain a recreational aviator. I’m glad that I understood, anything I do for money becomes work. Flying for a living meets the needs for many people without losing its luster. For me, it would have been a tragedy. I have some awareness that the romanticism of flight is a huge calling card. I believe it’s only unfortunate that the cycle of scientific advancement in flight , followed by it’s use in warfare, creates a boom afterward. My Uncle, a ground pounding marine on Iwo Jima, expressed to me many times why he pursued aviation after WWII. I had no exposure to WWI veterans. However,the aviation advancement spurred by surplus Jennys and the horror of trench warfare is indisputable in my mind. I believe Leaders in aviation appear in these postwar booms. It is possible that the same recurring theme is being set in motion as we see the newest , greatest generation go to war and enviously watch the eagles soar high above the sand. Seemingly invulnerable to the ills of the earth.

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