AOPA's New Direction
Last week's reader survey on AOPA and outgoing president Craig Fuller drew a surprising number of written comments—easily several thousand. As I pored over them last weekend, I had to wonder what the AOPA board will think of all this. We would like to ask them, but the association declined our request for an interview with the board. And therein lies the problem, one of several.
My impression of the survey results—and you can read most of them yourself here —is that as organizations tend to, AOPA has lost touch with the core interests of its members. Everyone in GA understands there's been a sea change, but the perception is that for AOPA, it's business as usual. There's a strong sense that AOPA's leadership manages with the association's concerns first, those of the membership second. This is hardly surprising; it's the first law of organizations. They quite naturally become institutional victims of sclerosis, driven more by the momentum of tradition than the reality of an evolving world.
In compiling the survey data and reading the comments, I concluded that members don't think AOPA is irretrievably broken, but just that it's wandered off course and needs new leadership to steer it back where it belongs. I agree. This isn't a catastrophe by any means. It's fixable.
For me personally, it's mostly about fiscal transparency and cost control commensurate with the realities of the rest of the world. This I think AOPA simply does not have. So through that lens and my interpretation of what others have said, here's what I hope for in AOPA's new direction:
A More Transparent Board:The board needs to be both more visible to members and have better membership representation. Further, the board's intent should be known by members. If the current board fired Craig Fuller, why shouldn't members know why? If he quit over dissatisfaction with their direction, tell us. The board or organization itself should have an independent ombudsman.
An Open Balance Sheet: As a non-profit, AOPA's public IRS filings give the barest glimpse of its finances. Yet the filings list large-sum line items that AOPA declines to explain. Why shouldn't members know this? Further, the association's commitment to retirement payouts to management should also be transparent.
Demonstrated Cost Control: While the rest of general aviation has been ravaged by mass layoffs and closings, AOPA appears to have remained largely untouched. Many comments we read complained about high salaries for AOPA top management while the industry it represents suffers downsizing and salary reductions. Why shouldn't AOPA show it understands belt tightening? It needs to learn to live lean, just like the rest of us. It also needs to learn it will have fewer customers, just like the rest of us.
Demonstrated Wise Use of Resources: AOPA maintains large cash and asset reserves. Why? The association should demonstrate that it knows how to and is willing to invest these resources in GA growth and activity, not just hiring a fund manager to make the investments grow.
Better Performance on Pilot Starts and Ownership: AOPA is on the right track with its new flying club and partnership initiatives. But to prove these, it should be willing to aggressively market these ideas by applying the aforementioned reserves, not just have them as web site tabs. Even though no one should assume this will produce dramatic results, no organization is better positioned to try it than AOPA. This may be the single most potent way to reduce the cost of aircraft ownership, a goal that's otherwise a mirage.
Forceful Fuel Leadership: The cost of and worry about the availability of fuel may be the single biggest drag on aviation activity. AOPA's leadership on this issue has been lukewarm, at best, following the path of least resistance in jollying along the feds. First, it should form a strong coalition with EAA to encourage mogas as an option for some owners. This has happened in Europe and with mogas, the price delta against avgas can be considerable. Yes, I know all about ethanol mandates and blender credits, but that's no reason not to try. A 100-octane replacement will find its way to market unbidden, but it will cost more than 100LL does now. Owners who don't need the octane should have a lower-cost option. AOPA has a role to play.
Second, AOPA should use some of its large financial reserves to sponsor an AOPA Fuel Prize to the first company or companies that devise market-ready 100LL replacements. This might encourage innovation and allow smaller companies to recoup investment. Even research grants from that $70 million the association is sitting on might not be a bad idea, although it would have been a better idea three years ago.
No More Cannibal Competition: Many—including me—complain about AOPA's penchant for launching business lines that compete with companies in the industry. With its tax-free status, it enjoys a competitive advantage. It should cease or dial back this process. It sours the relationship with many members and companies who feel they're being betrayed by the very association they're urged to support. Instead of constantly seeking new revenue to support high embedded costs, it should look to the expense side of the ledger. (See cost control, above.)
Go for Broke On Third Class: AOPA's proposal to conditionally eliminate the Third-Class medical is another right-track idea. But several commenters suggested AOPA has been too timid with the FAA in pursuing it. While it's true that the rank-and-file don't grasp the political realities AOPA works under, it's also true that members still expect more aggressive action. Many believe that's what they're paying for.
Lose the Jet: There, I've said it. We in the aviation press, ever stooges for the industry, often sing the praises of GA aircraft for business travel. And while they definitely have their place, most of us also know that on some trips, the airplane simply isn't cost efficient, but is just a tax-deductible excuse to go flying. As a few readers noted, with its jet, AOPA has an appearances problem. It often approaches members for more donations while simultaneously seeming to fly executives around in turbine luxury. In the current economy, that sends the wrong message. When AOPA maintained pistons—as it still does—and a turboprop twin, we heard no such complaints.
If it needs a jet on some trips—and it probably does—the association should consider a fractional position or partnership with other companies. To me, that sends a more fiscally responsible message without abandoning a commitment to GA. Lots of companies that use—and need—jets, don't own jets.
That's my short list. Will the AOPA board be receptive to any such ideas? Beats me. But I surmise that Fuller's early departure suggests dissatisfaction of some sort between the president and the board. If the board continues to drive in the direction it has been, in my view, it can expect fewer members and more disaffection from those who remain.