AOPA: The Business
This week's dustup over Sporty's complaint to AOPA raising the issue of predatory competition reminds me of what I thought two years ago when we interviewed the association and companies on this very topic. Not to put too delicate a point on it, but welcome to the cannibalistic phase of your aviation industry experience. The issues raised by Sporty's were inevitable in my view and I'm glad they finally put their name on a complaint that everyone can comment on. Other companies with similar beefs are still hiding in the shadows and it's time for them to roger up, too. Such is the fear of offending AOPA, that many of these companies just won't go on the record.
Complaints about AOPA competing with private companies in everything from insurance, to credit cards to legal advice are nothing new. I've been hearing them for 25 years as the ubiquitous background noise of covering GA. And frankly, all trade and member associations do this. NRA will happily sell you a $99 combat light or a nice folding knife. Associations do this from the considerable advantage of tax-free status for at least some of their operations. What's different now is that AOPA appears to be ever more aggressive in harvesting money from its members. Whether this takes it too far afield of its core aviation mission is debatable, but the association's wine club idea of a couple of years ago comes up as Exhibit A in the argument that it has. It adds further credence to the claim that the association's widening revenue net distracts it from its core mission of advocacy.
The ugly reality here is that despite all the glad-handing press conferences and market babble about new pilots, the GA population is eroding and will remain in that state for quite some time. Bottom line: there are ever fewer of us to buy ever more stuff people want to sell to us and expensively funded organizations like AOPA will get the revenue from somewhere. It's naïve to believe they won't, with a captive albeit shrinking universe, develop products and services that compete directly with the very private companies that support the association through advertising dollars and donations.
But should they? The high-moral-ground argument is that they use this revenue to fund the good fight, protecting our right to fly. Most of us reasonably accept this, as we should, even if we don't have the first clue how effective they are or how cost efficient. Recall that AOPA declined to answer our queries about some substantial line items in its budget numbers a couple of years ago. We also reported that the association's salaries are in line with other associations and President Craig Fuller is unapologetic about high salaries the association pays, arguing that AOPA has to pay competitive salaries to get good people. (Here's the full report.) And at a time when the rest of economy has suffered layoffs and frozen salaries, associations in general have raised theirs. It's axiomatic that associations--especially Washington associations--come to reflect the nature of the government they work with, including justification for expenditures that may seem excessive to some of us.
And it takes revenue just to sustain, which becomes more difficult to generate as the customer base shrinks, hence AOPA's ventures into new businesses. At some point, the association will be perceived as crossing the line into predatory competition with some of the entities that support it. Sporty's and the two companies that joined in signing the letter believe that it already has and I'm inclined to agree. All of us can cheer AOPA's legislative work, but its PR job is to walk a fine line between generating revenue and competing with the very people who sustain it an aviation economy that is flat on its butt. They've danced around this line for years, but now appear to have crossed it, in my view. It's time to step back and get back in balance with companies that are, in the end, just as important as the membership for the health of GA. When those companies are writing big checks to AOPA, they shouldn't feel they're funding a competitor. An accommodation here is better than a conflict.
I welcome reader comments.