If you want to reach a wealthy demographic that’s comfortable spending a decent amount of money on leisure activities, you could do worse than private pilots who fly their own airplanes. After all, how many people can afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars on recreation and travel, especially with constantly rising fuel costs?
But before you start reaching for the sky with your marketing campaign, here’s what you need to know about this high-flying population.
Man on the Move
To start, despite the economic impact of aviation in the U.S.—an estimated $247 million in 2004 and $1.25 billion once indirect effects are added in, according to the Air Transport Association—there are more than 590,000 active pilots, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), which uses data from the Federal Aviation Administration; of those, 235,000 are private pilots, which is the preferred term for nonprofessionals, such as those who know how to fly a four-seater Cessna or kit plane.
Chris Dancy, media relations director for AOPA, says 94 percent of pilots are male. “That percentage has held for decades,” he says. “The airlines and groups like ours would love to see more women involved, but no one in the industry has been able to crack that barrier.” Starting at a young age, planes are considered boy toys, an association that persisted throughout most of the 20th century; with women now on the front lines of combat in the U.S. military, that perception of planes might change in future generations.
In terms of age, the bulk of the pilots fall in the 40 to 59 age bracket, a figure that Ben Sclair, publisher of General Aviation News, finds troubling. “It’s bad marketing on the part of the entire industry,” he says. “There’s a common misconception of how expensive and difficult it is to learn to fly. Yes, $8,000 to $10,000 is … a lot for some people, but there are over 3 million people of high net worth who could afford to learn.” Having available time for training might be another matter.
Greg Herrick, publisher of AircraftOwner magazine, says private pilots tend to be more technically inclined than the average population. They use the Internet and computers at a higher rate, and tend to have scientific minds. “Beyond that, they tend to be conservative from a political and economic sense,” he says. “They’re into motorcycles, cars, anything with transportation and travel. They’re aspirational people.” J. Mac McClellan, editor-in-chief of Flying magazine, agrees, noting that they also tend to have more military experience than the general population and live in the Midwest, California, Texas and Florida.
As for the purchasing power of this private pilot demographic, the membership might be small, but they’re playing with toys outside the price range of most individuals. Herrick estimates the income of the average aircraft owner is $125,000, while the net worth of the average pilot is “well over $1 million.” Approximately 200,000 aircraft certificates—similar to titles of ownership for automobiles—have been issued in the U.S., and Herrick suggests using the model of airplane as a way to judge the income level of its owner.
Is There Room in the Hold?
While an aging demographic is upsetting to publishers of aviation magazines—Flying’s circulation peaked in the 1970s at 540,000 and currently stands at 225,000—the composition of the private pilot population can work to the advantage of marketers who are willing to reach out to them. “People in their 40s and 50s who fly do so because they really enjoy flying,” says AOPA’s Dancy. “They’ve reached a point in their lives where they’re reasonably financially set, and the kids have left the house.”
Products related to aviation are obviously appropriate for this demographic, and other possibilities include credit cards, travel accessories, luggage and insurance services, suggests Eric Francais, a creative director for list and data services firm Walter Karl. Sclair seconds the recommendation of life insurance marketing, especially if an agency knows the ins and outs of aviation.
Unless a pilot is going for a joyride and landing back at the same airport, he’ll need supplies and support at his destination, such as car rental agencies or rental property close to the airport. Sclair says he often sees a few dozen aircraft owners sharing access to a private runway at popular destinations, so real estate marketing is another opportunity. “Some tourism groups are doing targeted marketing, but I don’t think it’s real sophisticated. They’re just trying to reach out to anyone who might go to Florida,” he adds.
Sclair also suggests the possibility of training programs that show how to use airplanes in your business to be more productive and efficient. “My father-in-law works at a large auto dealership in Grand Forks, N.D., which is owned by someone who has 60 to 70 dealerships throughout the Midwest. The owner flies to all of the dealers regularly, hitting three to five a day, then returning home at night.” A car doesn’t provide the coverage and speed of an airplane, and depending on the business, regular on-the-ground managerial oversight can prove highly effective.
Reaching for the Clouds
As for how to reach private pilots, a familiarity with electronics doesn’t necessarily translate into a desire for electronic contact. “More than half of our membership, which numbers 415,000, does receive our weekly electronic newsletter, but for a sizable minority, our sole means of contact with them is through our magazine,” says Dancy. Adds Sclair, “While pilots have a good early adoption rate of technology in general, there’s an undercurrent of privacy, and many would be turned off by something like an e-mail blast.”
Whatever messaging you adopt, Dancy and Sclair suggest avoiding words like “amateur,” “hobbyist” or “stunt pilot”—anything that suggests they’re not serious about their training. “Your pitch, whether direct mail or otherwise, would unquestionably fall flat as soon as the phrase ‘amateur pilot’ left your lips,” says Dancy. “They may fly for enjoyment, but maintaining their skills and safety are extremely important to pilots. Anything that makes light of their abilities will irritate them.”
If you have the right offer and treat private pilots seriously, your product or service is sure to take off.
Linda Formichelli is a freelance writer based in New Hampshire. She wrote about marketing to meeting and event planners in Target Marketing’s June issue.