Industry Sentiment Grows Increasingly Skeptical Of The Current Course Of The Once-Mighty AOPA
News/Analysis By ANN Editor-In-Chief, Jim Campbell
OK... let me start off with the following -- no one likes to do stories like this... but after weeks and months of questions, concerned input from readers/correspondents/sources, and no small number of complaints -- all combined with the over-riding concern that GA is swirling the drain and no one seems willing and able to help it -- it seems that it's time to relate some of the many curious and worrisome details that are emerging with today's AOPA.
First of all... not all appears well at 421 Aviation Way, AOPA's HQ. Over the course of the last few months, and in particular, under the direction of current president Craig Fuller, AOPA is dealing with some tough issues and reportedly losing ground -- some say, rapidly. ANN has received growing and credible and/or substantiated reports of member disillusionment, the pull-out of major donors, the loss of senior personnel, an alleged downward trend in AOPA's influence in Washington, spending controversies, staff morale issues, and an increasing insistence in making money while the once-well-defined mission, overall, seems to be off-target, confused and muddled.
The result appears to be an AOPA either in, or heading towards, crisis. An organization that once boasted of 415 thousand members is having a tough time keeping them, and complaints voiced to ANN (and others) have reached an all-time high. While high-visibility goofs like the infamous AOPA Wine Club created some temporary scandal and even a little comedic critique, the issues AOPA faces right now seem quite serious and devoid of any real humor.
Mind you; any organization claiming to represent GA interests in this economy and under the current Administration, would have a tough time keeping their heads above water NO MATTER WHAT; the current difficulties seem more self-inflicted than external.
The 'Decline' Of AOPA
Over the past few years, serious heartburn has been experienced by AOPA members (commenting to ANN) over the org's incessant and often clumsy fund-raising efforts, the manner in which these efforts are conducted and the seeming lack (as compared to previous AOPA operations, pre-Fuller) of a solid and proper direction for what was once promoted as THE world's greatest aviation organization. The current operation seems more than willing to compete/interfere directly with private industry, has poorly communicated its intent and mission goals, has become increasingly sensitive to criticism (and has occasionally gotten quite ugly with those criticizing it), has gotten heavily into overt self-promotion and other institutional arrogance, has reportedly engaged in questionable spending practices, alienated other associations, and seems less concerned about what's happening to the average member's ability to get in some flying time, than it was can be deposited in their bank.
A primary case in point... after engaging in what has been reported as overtly competitive behavior (and allegedly, not all that successfully), in the insurance, publications, media and flight planning business models; a number of prominent industry leaders and companies are voicing concern -- and opposition.
ANN started seeing a massive change in public attitude about the course of AOPA several years ago, but watched an aggressive uptick in concern at Oshkosh 2012. While amusing anecdotes about watching a make-up person attend to AOPA staffers as they undertook yet another self-promoting AOPA video program got some grins and a few shakes of the head, the general attitude towards AOPA's decision to offer products competing with those already offered by such luminaries as ForeFlight, Jeppesen, WingX and others, was certainly getting under member's skins... and mind you, the complaints we heard generally did NOT come from those affected directly in the Online/Mobile Computer Device Flight Planning companies, but from those who appreciated the products used by them. These users felt that AOPA's efforts were anti-competitive and destined to squelch the productivity of one of the most innovative aero-market segments in decades. The actual commentary from the affected companies was fairly
short and quiet... not because they didn't feel strongly about the matter, but because they feared AOPA's displeasure if they spoke up.
Over the course of the last few months, the sentiment grew increasingly negative and a small group of powerful aviation companies decided that they had had enough. In a letter sent to AOPA prior to the weekend, the group wrote AOPA's Craig Fuller and expressed their concerns.
The letter noted that, "For many years now, the collective companies authoring this letter have been strong supporters of AOPA. However, some of the association's recent initiatives, as well as other new products and services 'said' to be in development, have given rise to concerns. We believe it is important to share these issues with you directly and in person."
The carefully worded letter added that, "As advertisers, sponsors and members, we applaud AOPA's efforts to build the pilot population, protect airports and promote safety. The advocacy work performed by AOPA is second to none and the avenues for advertising allow us to share our message with a qualified audience. We understand this work requires revenue."
That said, the offended aero-group explained that, "However, we believe AOPA products and initiatives that detract from the organization's main goals are bad for members and the industry in general. And, as advertisers, we feel our financial contributions are furthering these initiatives that will ultimately compete with our own products - essentially we are funding a competitor."
Seeking a solution, rather than a war with AOPA, the letter suggested what appeared to be a reasonable course of action... "Our overarching concern is AOPA's shifting strategy and mission. We are concerned that this new approach could threaten AOPA's status as an independent organization and thus weaken the association's ability to advocate on behalf of pilots. Although not explicitly listed in this letter, our conversations with other large and small aviation businesses who advertise and support AOPA show there is growing industry concern with AOPA's aggressive change in course. We would like the opportunity to meet you in Frederick to discuss our concerns and learn more about AOPA's plans. We propose a meeting with you and one representative from each of our companies, as well as at least one AOPA board member."
The letter furthered offered to, "...call your office next week to set a convenient date and time. Thank you for your attention to this matter and we look forward to meeting with you in person."
It did not take long for AOPA to respond and we have been told that AOPA has not only refused the meeting on the terms suggested... but allegedly cited legal conflicts involving the competitive aspects of these concerns, as reason to avoid further discussion... or as one party to the letter noted, "AOPA lawyered up."
Dear Sporty's... You're FIRED!
ANN can disclose that one of the parties to this letter, and by no means even the largest company to oppose AOPA's current course, is none other than Sporty's Pilot Shop... a long time partner with AOPA -- until last Friday. In a phone conference conducted separate from the concerns and issues in the letter detailed above, Sporty's had a frustrating meeting with members of AOPA's Senior Staff about the status of a long-time marketing program conducted by Sporty's on AOPA's behalf that marketed a number of AOPA-centric products. Over the course of the meeting, Sporty's was informed that the many-years-old relationship with AOPA was terminated.
Over and out.
Mysteriously, though, until AOPA cut the ties last Friday (a move that reportedly shocked a number of underlings at AOPA), Sporty's reports a number of extended and semi-recent efforts to 'entice' the company into joining as AOPA as a "Strategic Partner" -- a grand distinction that would cost them $250,000... per year -- and for a minimum of two years. AOPA staffers painted a lavish picture of the benefits of such sponsorship... including special editorial consideration in AOPA publications, and other 'bennies.' When the larger number was politely refused, other (less expensive) numbers and enticements were suggested... all of which were not accepted by Sporty's.
The decision is mystifying. Sporty's, under the leadership of long-time AOPA member Hal Shevers, has been directly and indirectly tied to the donation of millions of dollars for AOPA programs and despite his growing unease with AOPA's insistence in competing with his companies, over the course of several years, thought it best to try and keep the bridge from being burned... until (as one observer noted) "AOPA apparently figured it couldn't get another pound of flesh, lit a match, and torched it."
As this story was being prepared, we received a late Sunday call from a recent hire at AOPA, former GAMA Director of Communications, Katie Pribyl (pictured below), and now AOPA's Vice President of Communications. We'd talked to Katie earlier in the week... who is still new to the gig and had limited information yet at her disposal (and to be fair, that's entirely reasonable, a new gig like that is like drinking from the fire hose).
Pribyl told ANN that AOPA "denies asking" Sporty's for any money -- at least in the Friday meeting that resulted in Sporty's' "Firing" -- but did explain that AOPA was going a different direction for the kind of merchandising formerly conducted by the long-term Sporty's operation.
While we had a chance to fill in some of the blanks that were presented by the plethora of conversations that had inundated ANN HQ, ANN asked about what happened to former AOPA Chief Operating Officer Robert Moran... and were told that no information was available at this point on that topic... nor on the departure of many of the organization's former senior players.
Pribyl does state, unequivocally, that AOPA CEO Craig Fuller will be happy to meet with the companies that wrote the letter noted above -- but individually, company by company -- which would still seem to exclude the group meeting suggested by those submitting the letter.
AOPA As Investment Group?
In recent weeks, ANN has received varying details about an alleged and quite aggressive expansion of the AOPA mission... this one would entail the organization taking on the role of investor or capital/funding partner to 'promising' aviation enterprises. The matter seems keyed, initially, to the mission that former EAA Senior Staffer, Adam Smith, was hired for as 'Senior Vice President, Center to Advance the Pilot Community.' The investment scheme has been cited as allegedly being on the lookout for opportunities in the Flying Club, as well as Hangar and airport import improvement businesses... but AOPA refuses to explain what's going.
Pribyl couldn't release much detail about the program other than to acknowledge that something IS happening in this area... and despite concerns about the industry's fear of having to compete with AOPA business activities, she was, "Not going to get into a debate about that... our Board of Trustees feels strongly about this... after all, we've been involved with flight planning for years and thats been one of our most popular offerings in years."
Pribyl refused to discuss the concerns raised by those in the aviation business arena who may find themselves in competition with the organization and the difficulties that might place on those already struggling to stay alive in these turbulent times. Further; one concerned aero-business (via an email) complained that, "Of all the things I have to fear, AOPA stabbing me in the back shouldn't be one of them. I've had to build my business through sheer willpower, trial and error. And they expect me to compete with a business blessed or backed by AOPA -- an organization that I was supporting for years and years and YEARS? Worse than that; I'm not sure that these are the right guys to be running any kind of aviation investment program or telling others how to run any kind of business. Aren't these the same brainiacs who brought us the 'AOPA Wine Club?' Please..."
ANN has talked to entities that claim to have been in negotiations with AOPA for possible funding and investment -- who assert that these negotiations ARE taking place... one reported that AOPA definitely was looking for projects and products to invest in, that those products often had competitors, but that he ultimately decided not to do business with the aviation organization, "because they wanted to own everything," -- offering little return/incentive for the folks who conceived of the concept/business.
AOPA already has a number of offerings and business interests that have caused no end of consternation to those competing in those business spaces... with promoted/published interests in "credit cards, loans, deposits, partnership programs, lifestyle collection, legal services plan, car rental discount, insignia merchandise, and aircraft title services" -- among others. More troublesome; AOPA's ability to act aggressively towards 'competitive' entities is already well-known... with their oft-bitter feud with Flying magazine being of particular note... as well as attempts to (first) partner with and then replicate other products and business models that have previously been available to the aviation community long before AOPA decided to take them on or replicate them for themselves.
The issues remain ponderous... and leave one wondering that with all this seemingly "for-profit" type of activity alluded to, how an organization registered as a non-profit entity can countenance activities that undermine and compete with private business... and whether or not such operations are, ultimately, lawful and proper.
When asked about this over-riding concern, AOPA's Pribyl wouldn't address the issue, only stating that, "Our mission remains the same... we have never wavered from that. We will never waiver from that."
ANN is monitoring the reports that are coming in with increasing rapidity, from self-described AOPA members, that these operations, program and plans are NOT what many in the community thinks they signed up for. ANN remains committed to investigating the course of this organization... a massive operation that once boasted 415,000 members (Pribyl would not specify current membership numbers, since she was not in her office at the time of our conversation), and is reported to have slipped quite a bit from that pinnacle. The organization, which last reported some 178 employees and $62 million in revenue (according to various IRS 990s) is reportedly not held in quite as high esteem as it once was under Phil Boyer's management, while its current mission seems muddied, confused, off-target and a bit off the mark in responding to the very specific hazards the GA industry faces right here and now -- over-regulation, user fees, security interference, cost of operation, negative
public perception, lack of appreciation and attention from our government, the decline of the pilot population, serious legal problems and a lack of true innovation and progress.
Members, one after the other, repeat their concerns over these and associated issues... and then ask ANN why AOPA seems to have abandoned the fight against what worries them most -- while continuing to ask them for more and more money...
Coming Up Over The Next Few Weeks: ANN will be looking at reports of some questionable spending practices, AOPA staff salaries and 'benefits', Fund-Raising practices and concerns, more details on their 'investment' program(s), the organization's lack of transparency, alleged anti-competitive conduct, some fascinating details from AOPA's IRS Form 990s, the organization's alleged loss of political influence, the flight of former AOPA Senior staffers to other organizations and jobs, the loss of major donors and what many of the members think of all this... and much more.
To be continued...