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We’re Creating Quitters

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Originally printed in issue #59 (November 2014) of Blue Skies Magazine.
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The sport of skydiving routinely provides new students with every opportunity to …quit. Here’s a reality check: Most DZs do not do a good job with AFF. Don’t get me wrong, most instructors do a great job with training, but the continuity and management of a student’s progress through the program, generally speaking, sucks.

If a student is riding the fence about whether to become a skydiver or not, they’ll probably fall on the wrong side nearly every time. It’s as if we test those entering the sport by saying, “How bad do you really want it?” Only the hardest of the diehards, the ones bitten so badly by the sport that they can’t live without it, make it through.

There are major obstacles to becoming a skydiver. First, it’s expensive. Second, it’s a major time commitment. But those obstacles pale in comparison to the torturous waiting game we force students to endure. We hate going to the DMV because we have to wait. We get irate when we’re hungry and the service is slow. Yet in our own industry we charge students a premium price to wait. I’ve been to countless DZs (mine not precluded) where I see many students sit around for hours before they get to jump. Don’t say you haven’t seen it … it happens at many DZs around the country.

Let’s put this waiting into context. Let’s say skydiving is like learning to drive a stick shift, only without the benefit of endless practice in an empty mall parking lot. The process of learning to skydive is something like this: Jump. Wait a week. Insert self-doubt. Answer questions from the naysayers in your social group and family. Abandon weekend plans with friends. Return to the DZ. Wait all day to get one jump in … wash, rinse, repeat. This scenario is not an ideal method for fostering learning or engagement. If I stall the car, I want to try again—not go home, wait and think about the difficulty of driving a stick all week. Eventually, I’ll give up and buy an automatic.

If we want to grow the sport, we must improve our service, not just by reducing wait times, but by getting people in the air more than once in a day. The more comfortable our students feel about being in the air, the more they’ll want to return there.

We mustn’t forget that many students have a continuous pro-versus-con dialogue going on in their heads. Immediately after making a skydive they’re thinking, “This is the best thing I’ve ever done, I love this!” Insert a week off and a long drive to the DZ, and that internal dialogue morphs into, “What the hell am I doing?” As DZOs, the worst thing we can do is to prolong this feeling of self-doubt by making students check-in, wait for their instructors to debrief prior students, pack, grab a drink and finally get manifested either three loads out or continue to wait because of shut downs. I can assure you that DZOs wouldn’t tolerate that level of service in any arena outside of skydiving, especially when they have an appointment.

I’ve mentioned the wait time issue on other occasions and I hear this a lot: “That’s just how our sport is,” or, “It’s better to wean out those who want it from those who think they want it.” I call B.S. on both arguments.

Our next customers are digital natives. They have grown up in a culture of instant gratification. If they want something they download it, stream it, or have it shipped to them with one click. They are not accustomed to waiting, and they won’t do it for very long. Technology continues to make every aspect of our daily lives more efficient, as evidenced by the fact that we can now manifest from our smartphones while lying on the packing mat.

Times are changing and if DZs don’t scrutinize how we schedule both students and instructors (and perhaps embrace less quantity to improve quality), I believe we will continue to see the same abysmal attrition rate in our sport that we’ve seen for decades.

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3 Comments

  • The DZ i spent the most time at and eventually JM’d at had a separate 172 for students. That solved a lot of problems.

  • You stated the problem about students learning to skydive have to put up with waiting quite effectively. But what’s your answer to the problem? Anyone can pick out what’s wrong with something and complain about but contributing to the answer is what really counts. As an AFF instructor myself I see what my students have to put up with and I can empathize with their frustration. But what can be done easily to help this? I try to get other experienced jumpers and coaches to get students through the ground work stuff like packing and understanding the three rings etc. But most DZ’s don’t have an over abundance of student gear or the ready funds to get some so that slows it down. I work with multiple instructors but students require two instructors for their first few jumps so that slows things down. With limited instructors if you add 5 or 6 students all making Cat A & B and you slow down. USPA has wind and cloud requirements to meet for safety reasons another slowdown. Making sure my students are prepped correctly and fully understand their dive flow takes time. That’s a lot of stuff that slow things down and I could bring up more. So I agree that waiting as a student stinks and I do what I can to help. But other than just critiquing the problem, what’s your solution?

  • Hi Art, thanks for your comment. The solution isn’t difficult and I have presented it at the USPA DZO Conference in 2013. To highlight solutions in an article can be a challenge because one solution does not fit all when considering the different logistics of a Cessna to multi-turbine operation. I’ll share one solution that I see at most DZ’s I visit.

    The number one issue I see is over-scheduling. There’s not enough thought to wait times. Your comment included, “With limited instructors if you add 5 or 6 students all making Cat A & B and you slow down….” I see this scenario constantly. Too often DZs are not factoring pack time for limited student gear, shut downs and being short staffed.

    Though a typical AFF FJC can take up to 6 students, it doesn’t mean that we should allow that many when considering a smaller AFF staff to handle them plus the added students still needing to continue with their progression. Too often, DZs book students and then call out to instructors to see who is available as opposed to seeing who is available first and then booking accordingly based on instructor availability. The other challenge is using multi-rated instructors between tandem, video and AFF rated instructors… something difficult to coordinate. Also, scheduling AFF arrival times too closely to the prior booking time or worse yet, not having booking times at all.

    Ultimately a decision needs to be made. DZs need to make money, but what is the cost to poor service? Take less students on a given day, focus on them and see them through giving the time they deserve (especially based on what they’re paying) or pack them in, take their money and make them wait?

What do you think?