AOPA Comes Under the Gun
A recent article published in a competitor’s publication has taken the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) to task for moving in the wrong direction in a number of high-profile programs. In the first of a promised series of articles on AOPA’s missteps, ANN Editor-in-Chief Jim Campbell criticizes AOPA for a number of programs designed to stem the financial losses the organization has suffered due to lower revenues from membership declines and lower advertising revenues. Campbell also criticized AOPA for its decision to compete with a number of its best clients by launching a series of products, including the aviation app it calls Fly-Q, which competes against products offered by some of its best advertisers, including Garmin, ForeFlight, Jeppesen and Hilton Software, among others. So far the only organization to go on record with their unhappiness with AOPA’s new commercial ventures is Sporty’s Pilot Shop. Privately, we’ve heard from four other aviation businesses unhappy that AOPA is now a competitor. We understand that there are even more. According to Campbell's story, a group of them has contacted AOPA president Craig Fuller, asking for a meeting to air grievances.
Fuller, who bore the brunt of Campbell’s criticisms, quickly responded to the article with an open letter to Campbell defending AOPA’s new way of doing business, arguing that the new economy demanded a fresh approach to keeping AOPA in the black.
Who’s right here? It depends entirely on your perspective. There’s no doubt that Fuller is running the risk of alienating some important AOPA partners, including Sporty’s. AOPA has cut back on its longstanding merchandising partnership with the Batavia, Ohio-company. It’s a strategy that’s risky, which even Fuller seems to acknowledge. AOPA’s bottom line depends greatly on advertising revenue, and Fuller is clearly hoping that the organization’s pipeline to more than 300,000 members is enough to keep companies advertising even given the new paradigm.
Fuller argues that it’s not a new paradigm at all, that AOPA has been doing business for decades, and he’s right, at least technically. AOPA has been selling insurance, medical services, flight planning software and more for a long time. The difference between then and now seems to be in degree. With initiatives in flight training, apps, aircraft sharing, investments and more to come, the Frederick, Maryland-based member organization is recasting itself as an entity that will do what it takes to stay strong financially.
Is that a bad thing? If you’re a member, it depends on how it strikes you. Who wouldn’t want his or her lobbying group to be powerful, and lobbying power is a byproduct of economic might, let there be no mistake. Then again, AOPA’s focus on funding might strike some members as detracting from the group’s mission, to speak for pilots.
On that count, one criticism Campbell leveled that was off base in my view is that AOPA’s lobbying presence has diminished. I think the opposite is true.
The truth is, over the past three decades AOPA’s win-loss record on major issues, from mandatory equipage to keeping downtown airports open, to liberalizing the FAA’s draconian stances on medical certification and enforcement, has been poor. In the vast majority of those cases, AOPA and its members — that’s you and me — lost the battle and the FAA — or whoever the bad guy du jour was — won.
I’m not saying that this was AOPA’s fault. Most of the battles it was fighting were unwinnable. Take the much beloved downtown airport in my adopted hometown of Austin, Texas. Between the time the city announced it was going to shut down Mueller and move operations to the slightly out-of-town and much larger and more airline-friendly Bergstrom, and the time it did exactly that, AOPA spent a ton of dough on ink and rallies to support keeping Mueller open, but with no effect. They did manage to help convince the authorities in Texas to open a new reliever nearby to make things better for light-airplane types who would be displaced by the move, but that never happened, nor was AOPA able to do anything about that failure. Until Austin Executive — an entirely privately-funded endeavor — opened its doors just over a year ago, Bergstrom was the only game in town, and it was and is not friendly to the piston crowd. Fuel prices are high, maintenance is non-existent, hangars are expensive and landing there for a pit stop will cost you $20 if you don’t buy fuel. Austin’s GA population got hosed and AOPA was powerless to do anything about it.
Mueller was a huge success in many ways for AOPA, though, because it put the organization in the limelight. They were fighting for our rights, and whether or not they won the fight, the membership applauded and, more importantly, sent in their checks. My point was that results matter, and AOPA wasn’t getting results.
But any image they might want to present that shows they have succeeded in protecting our rights over the last few decades is wishful thinking or marketing on its part. We have less airspace to fly in, medical certification has changed little for those of us who fly factory-built or homebuilt airplanes, and the cost of flying has soared. Could AOPA have made a difference in any of those cases? I think not.
Have there been victories? I think so, and most of them have come recently, under Fuller's watch. The organization’s longstanding battle against user fees has probably done some good. I’d venture that it's doing more good today than ever before, since user fees are more of a real threat than they’ve ever been — there were years where AOPA campaigned against such fees even when there was no such proposal on the table. Moreover, its new approach of seeking to change Washington from the inside is a great idea, and one we as pilots should support. The GA Caucus, which has essentially created many new GA friends on The Hill, is a huge victory. We’ve have small victories with some small medical certification gains (with hopefully more on the way, in the form of the driver’s license medical), with airspace (witness the FAA’s recent about-face with Pearson Field in Portland, Oregon), and there are hopes for much needed changes in testing and Part 23 certification. Is AOPA solely responsible for these initiatives? Of course not. But they played an important role in each one.
When it comes to influencing the Beltway crowd, there’s no doubt in my mind that Fuller is the right man for the job. His extensive experience in Washington, his willingness to hear competing points of view while arguing convincingly for his members’ case and his ability to continue to speak to his members as one of them — Fuller is a pilot and a true aviation enthusiast — make him ideally suited to get our case across with regulators and legislators.
But AOPA’s move to commercialize itself is not where the organization needs to be headed. Its members are saying so, and now its clients are too. AOPA needs to do its job, working to protect our rights, trying to find new ways to create new pilots, keeping us all flying and flying more frequently and getting the word out that aviation is a great way of life. That’s a worthy mission, and if it’s accomplished by a slightly smaller organization than it once was, then that’s okay too. If it does its job in creating pilots and keeping us all flying, that trend will someday reverse itself.