AOPA's Baker: Look For Focus On Airport Access, Protection

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Newly installed AOPA President Mark Baker said Wednesday that the key to pilot recruitment and retention is protecting access to airports. “All things in aviation start with an airport. We’ve got to make that accessible and fun,” Baker told AVweb in an extended interview on Wednesday, which is available in today’s podcast. He added that it’s unrealistic to expect AOPA or any member organization to drive pilot starts in a significant way just through programs intended narrowly for that purpose. “As far as believing we can lead by ourselves in changing the pilot population, I think that’s probably a bridge too far at this point,” Baker said.

Since taking over the association last month, Baker has been educating himself on the organization and its membership, but he’s already steered AOPA toward a more airport-centric culture and he said this will continue. In announcing the cancellation of the annual Summit show for 2014, Baker said this will save member funds and allow the association to focus on regional events instead. 

“We want to make sure that the pilot population embraces the neighborhood and that the neighborhood embraces the pilot population. We’ve got to bring the message out there and that’s part of this whole regional kind of appeal that I’m working on, to be there on Saturday at the pancake breakfast or Tuesday night at the airport meeting,” Baker said.

When asked if this signals a tilt away from turbines and toward smaller aircraft, Baker replied, “Our members want us to expand all the way from a J-3, through an ultralight they may have built, to a turbine. A very small percentage of the market goes to turbines, but they still have the same airport needs.”

Baker concedes that there’s measurable dissatisfaction among the membership, ranging from disagreement over policy decisions to the association’s fundraising efforts, which some members say come too frequently. An AVweb survey done last March revealed that 53 percent of AOPA members surveyed gave the association high marks for effectiveness, but 17 percent rate it poor to mediocre.

“[That’s] not acceptable. I look at that as an opportunity. My initial response to that is give us a chance with this regional approach to make sure we’re hearing those members. You won’t be able to get to everyone, but I don’t see why this can’t be an opportunity to turn that around,” Baker said.

Baker said AOPA will devote some efforts to addressing the high cost of flying, but cautions that members shouldn’t expect too much. “The cost of flying is going to a challenge for a long time to come. Getting the FAA to move on the Part 23 revision could be a significant contributor to lowering the cost of aviation and having a better experience. Fuel is going to be what fuel is going to be. But if you look at used airplanes today, they’re actually a great value,” Baker said.

We also asked Baker about another member sore point: frequent fundraising efforts for reasons that aren’t always obvious. ”I don’t think we’ve always been as clear about what these things are and my perspective is to make sure these buckets are very clear. It’s my intent to try to maintain membership dues where they’re at,” Baker added. But Baker said everything is on the table for review, including another area that’s generated complaints: the number of aviation businesses AOPA has launched that compete with the owners and pilots who support the association. Baker told us that all of the association’s revenue streams and programs are subject to review. “We’re going to review them all. If they make sense, they’ll go forward, if they don’t, they won’t,” he said. He added that fundraising will be more targeted and “probably, overall, less traffic.” As for continuing competitive businesses or launching new ones, Baker says he’ll have more to say on that later.