Are Flying Clubs Really Worthwhile?
If you're given to semantical flights of fancy, you can build quite a spirited discussion about the difference between cheap and frugal. But leave me out of it. I'm utterly comfortable with my innate cheapness; frugality isn't a trackable target on my radar.
That's why I tilt positively toward the idea of airplane partnerships and flying clubs, which have both popped up in our news coverage recently. Like the considerable majority of certificated, it not necessarily active, pilots, I will never own an airplane myself. Ever. For me personally, it's just too much money tied up in a thing that can't possibly see enough use to justify the expenditure. If I did own an airplane, I'd want something like a late-model Cirrus SR22 or maybe a Mooney Acclaim or Ovation. Figure on a $300,000 value, and it costs maybe $25,000 to $35,000 a year to own and fly such an airplane 100 hours a year. If I pulled down in excess of $200K, maybe. But I don't, so however much I might secretly like to cast off the chains of my skinflintism, I've been dealt a different hand.
I'm hardly alone, which is why I like seeing initiatives that promote partnerships and clubs. It's true that these aren't ideal ownership options for everyone, but they're a worthy alternative to no access at all to flying. One blog poster recently asked if there's any difference between renting from an FBO and a club. In my experience, having done both, there's definitely a difference. But it also depends on the type of club. Some clubs are commercial, for-profit entities that are simply an extension of an FBO or school's rental business. In exchange for a monthly fee or some other arrangement, you get a break on hourly rates and perhaps more liberal booking options. Sometimes, they're not much more than block-time sellers. Such operations have pros and cons. The larger ones may have a wider variety of airplanes to choose from—from trainers to twins, with glass as standard equipment. But the rental rates will be high and they're likely to be managed in a way to limit the ultimate freedom of the commons offered by sole ownership. That can be good and bad. It's good because there's some oversight on who flies the airplanes and when; a little pushback against pilots who think it's okay to launch into a low overcast on 10 hours a year of average flight time. It's bad if you're that pilot.
In my view, true clubs are member owned. Five, a dozen or 30 people pool their resources and buy an airplane or several airplanes appropriate to the membership's needs. Since these entities are non-profit, rental rates are set such that they're near the true cost of operating the airplanes, with some margin built in. There's definite economy of scale here, since fixed costs are divided among many members. If access is reasonable, you get 75 percent of the value of ownership for 10 percent of the cost. But with the pros, come the cons. A club is only as good as its members and given the vagaries of human nature, clubs tend to have a mix of people and personalities. It's axiomatic that some will be impossible, selfish jerks, some will be princes and many you may never even meet. A few you'll wish you never met.
I was in a club in Connecticut for many years, whose membership varied between 25 and 40, with either two or three airplanes. I consider the experience positive enough that I'd join a club again, if I could find one as good. At the time, I was flying about 100 hours personally and instructing another 300 or so. One thing about clubs that's universally true, I think, is that in all of them, a small core of people do most of the serious work to manage the club, a few do a little and most do nothing at all. This is not a bad thing if the people doing the work are competent and conscientious.
Similarly, a small core of members will do more than half the flying, a few will do the rest and a number won't do any at all. They're in the club just to have cheap access to something they never use and for whatever social value accrues from joining a group of people with like interests. You want such members in a club, too, because they subsidize the active pilots, keeping costs down, without burdening access. Sounds cold, but everyone gets what they want. Clubs do offer the opportunity for group events like training, seminars and field trips to factories and FAA facilities. Lots of people thrive on such activities. If I did, I'd be less of a anti-social ingrate, but then again, I'd loathe having anyone describe me as personable.
I don't know if AOPA's new initiative to ignite interest in flying clubs will make much headway or not, but it's on the right track and I'm happy to see it. It adds the additional twist of trying to network clubs together so benefits in one might be transferable to another. Not a bad idea, really. Setting up a club is not easy, but my gut tells me there's potential opportunity at many airports that may just need a little nudge to gel. And for clubs whose vitality is flagging, maybe the network idea can gin things up a little. In a market as depressed as the one we're experiencing now, even one or two clubs where none existed before counts as progress.