By Paul Bertorelli
Last week’s announcement that AOPA President Craig Fuller will be stepping down came as both a surprise and a coincidence for me. It was a surprise because we had no inkling it was coming; I don’t recall Fuller having made just a five-year commitment. It was a coincidence because I’d been thinking that my current membership in AOPA would be my last year. More on that in a moment.
What of Fuller’s tenure? I’m not sure what the AOPA board had in mind—is anyone?—if it hired Fuller for a five-year hitch. Fuller took the helm in 2009, just after the economy tanked, the Dow headed south and there was a palpable fear of a second Great Depression. Fuller followed an 18-year run by Phil Boyer, who was generally considered an energetic, relentless promoter of GA. That Fuller is only the fourth president in AOPA’s 74-year history makes his short time in office a glaring outlier. If he was thought by the board to be a bridge executive, it’s not clear from what to what. GA was headed for the dumps when Fuller stepped in and although the association’s investments suffered, it never experienced the mass downsizing that many companies throughout the economy suffered.
Under Fuller’s tenure, AOPA has done its usual mix of legislative outreach, advocacy and promotion. I can’t put a letter grade on the lobbying work because it happens in the background and it’s impossible to say if the association is as effective at this as it tells us it is. As for promotion, AOPA has been active in airport defense projects, in group ownership efforts and, recently, in a pilot recruitment and flying club programs. In my view, these are good and proper things for an association to do. Like everyone else, I can carp about whether AOPA is doing these things effectively, but my own smell-the-coffee view is that whether well executed or not, they won’t have a meaningful impact on the GA slide because it’s simply propelled by much larger market forces than any member association can hope to affect much. Perhaps it’s time for AOPA to roll out a much more aggressive learn-to-fly campaign. Maybe that would make inroads.
My own disenchantment with AOPA relates to its fiscal stewardship and its turn under Fuller’s leadership toward an association that sometimes seems to view its membership as a ready market for new revenue streams as much as it does a community under siege and in need of strong, grass-roots leadership that keeps membership interests in mind. Two years ago, we had a look at AOPA finances and we found that while the association had taken a hit during the 2008 downturn, its policy is still to maintain a large cash and asset reserve—more than $70 million—even as it approaches members for more donations. Similarly, AOPA’s associated foundation also has a large reserve.
Moreover, it continues to aggressively pursue products and services that compete with some of the very people and organizations from whom it expects support, most recently in the tablet app market. The fact that AOPA enjoys tax-exempt status in at least part of its operation gives it a considerable competitive advantage. This helps AOPA, but it saps the morale if not the vitality of the GA business community that struggles for its very survival. If there’s any repetitive complaint I hear from small companies in the industry, this would be it.
When we asked Fuller about this, he was unapologetic, insisting that these ventures were in the members’ interest because they both provided benefits and services and revenue for the association to carry out its lobbying and promotion. There’s truth to this, but also a stunning lack of awareness of how bad things are in the GA hustings. What used to nip a little flesh from the GA corpus, now cuts bone. While smaller businesses struggle or even fail, companies lay off workers and sales lag, AOPA still maintains generous salaries for its top executives and a staff little diminished when compared to many companies who are a shadow of their pre-2008 size.
The boilerplate explanation for this is that AOPA’s fiscal frame of reference is not GA, but the world of associations. In that context, AOPA’s salaries are in line with other associations of like size. And therein lies the rub for me. Associations are of the world of Washington and the governments they orbit around and only secondarily of the industries they represent. Fuller came to AOPA from the National Association of Chain Drug Stores and while his interest in GA is certainly genuine, when the discussion turns fiscal, he’s an association guy.
So just as I’m unenthusiastic about the idea of government expenditures remaining high because they always have, I’m similarly unimpressed with the notion that AOPA top-tier salaries and expenses are high because those of other associations are, too. Or that it maintains fat cash reserves of more than twice annual revenue because that’s what other associations do. (Fuller, by they way, resigned from the NACDS amidst grumbling that community pharmacies hadn’t been well represented.) Further, AOPA’s finances are hardly transparent. Fuller rebuffed some of our questions about specific line items in what little of the AOPA budget we could see.
So in looking toward Fuller’s replacement, the AOPA board faces both a challenge and an opportunity. Does it look for another association guy like Fuller or a GA salesman like Boyer? Or a hard-to-find mix of both? The latter may be that fantasy Washington-outsider candidate we all hope for but who probably doesn’t exist. Nonetheless, that’s the type of AOPA leadership I’d want and perhaps the one who would keep me from abandoning the association when my renewal comes up later this year.
Further, as a member-supported organization, why aren’t AOPA’s financials more visible? Why can’t we, as members, get lucid answers to questions about major expenditures that aren’t itemized? Why should the answer be none of your business, as it was to some questions we asked?
In business and politics, you pay your money and you take your choice, but for me personally, I’m not choosing more business as usual from the aviation associations I join. I’m looking for creative leadership that recognizes by thought, word and action that those of us out here in the trenches aren’t having an easy time of it. We aren’t getting raises. Some of us aren’t even holding on to to jobs in aviation. Worth noting is that now both major GA associations—AOPA and EAA—have top leadership vacancies and both face a world in which the universe is in decline, a world in which they are likely to have even less influence. Like the rest of us, they’ll need leadership that understands the need for cost control and at least doing the same with less. In my view, AOPA hasn’t grasped this yet.
You may feel differently, so feel free to state your case below and to take our survey on how well AOPA has done its job under Fuller.