The strategic decision by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association to accept drone pilots (and owners?) into the largest and most effective GA advocacy organization is troubling.
It’s no secret that the numbers of GA pilots is declining, so AOPA’s numbers have as well. Of course, the fewer members, the less clout and the less revenue the organization has. That all said, AOPA has done nothing short of a heroic job these past 30 years of declining pilot population of doing good work. Its recent push along with other industry groups to advance pilot protections from unjustified FAA enforcement, update medical certification standards for pilots who fly light planes and speak out loud and clear against user fees, are the brand’s marquee efforts, and it does even more for pilots and owners every day.
That said, the move by AOPA to embrace drones is understandable. The numbers of drone pilots, recreational and commercial, already far outstrip real airplane pilots (and, yes, there is a difference between the two, a big difference). So AOPA sees an opportunity to bring in large numbers of new members while still doing the same kinds of things it’s always done for us.
There is a danger, however, that the organization’s mission will change. AOPA was emphatic in its release announcing the shift that the interests of drone pilots and real airplane pilots are very much the same, but I’m not sure that’s true. In fact, it’s sadly ironic that the most crucial intersection of drone and real plane activity is the airspace. What could be more central to what we do? A core interest of ours in this respect is very simple, to keep drones from operating where we want to fly lest we run into one.
The interest of the drone world, on the other hand, is to ensure broad and unfettered airspace access. So at a foundational philosophical and operational point, conflict between the two worlds exists and cannot be resolved. That is not to say, of course, that we can’t find ways to coexist; indeed, the current regs seem to carve up the airspace in a way that makes sense, though that’s from my perspective as a pilot. As a drone operator, I’m guessing that I’d want more, and in that position, an AOPA that represents both worlds is hopelessly at odds with itself. And this is just one of the many imaginable advocacy points where AOPA might find itself battling itself to serve a constituency with different and sometimes conflicting needs.
The mission of any advocacy organization is to zealously defend the rights and privileges of its members. Anything beyond that is gravy. So when an organization expands to include other constituencies, it is by definition diluting that mission.
One partial answer is for AOPA to firewall itself, making the two advocacy missions separate to the point that it can tolerate different missions and conflicting aims. I, for one, don’t want my membership fees to go toward drone programs or advocacy. Not a penny of it. That’s not because I’m cheap, but because I want to forward the cause of real airplane pilots and real airplane owners as well and with as focused an approach as possible.