Going Direct: With Drone Members, Will AOPA Pilots/Owners Be Left In The Cold?

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.

If you want more commentary on all things aviation, go to our Going Direct blog archive.

10 thoughts on “Going Direct: With Drone Members, Will AOPA Pilots/Owners Be Left In The Cold?

  1. After over 30 years of AOPA membership I upgraded to Life Membership when I renewed in 2016. I had the same thoughts when I read this week’s announcement, for the same reasons you cite, Robert: the inherent conflict over airspace and the concern that less of my lifelong membership investment will be put to use for the reasons I made that commitment.

    The issue of airspace conflict goes deep, because the drone community would probably put “universal ADS-B” equipage, elimination of Class G airspace, and “All aircraft on flight plans under positive control” on its ultimate wish list. That makes sense for RPVs/UAV/autonomous flight vehicle “sense and avoid” operation. But it runs counter to many of AOPA’s stances up until now.

    I wonder also how much of the Air Safety Institute’s resources will be diverted from programs for traditional, piloted aircraft to create a bevy of online courses to appeal to drone operators. To attract the new membership ASI will need a lot of drone content (the topics overlaps are not as common as the AOPA press release suggests). Those courses are NOT cheap to produce. I suspect we’ll see a lot of effort in the drone realm for a couple of years and consequently not so much new course development for traditional pilots.

    I may be wrong to be concerned (I frequently am). But it will be very interesting to see how AOPA educates and advocates for its 75-year constituency and its new growth market at the same time.

    Thomas P. Turner
    Mastery Flight Training, Inc.

  2. Just grab that tar baby, Robert!
    AOPA’s most-basic core interest is to maintain itself and increase its revenue. It has chosen advocacy as its best path to that end. More members = more money.
    As for the fact that commercial drone pilots face most of the same restrictions and requirements that real aircraft pilots do (and check the regs about how real pilots must fly them), AOPA isn’t making any stretch at all.
    But — is a hobby drone an “aircraft?” Is an R/C airplane an “aircraft?” Given the realities of finance, does anyone at the corporate level care? To what extent can, or should, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association advocate for them?
    An analogous question might be, “Does the Experimental Aircraft Association let people who don’t own, build, or fly experimental aircraft join?”
    This all sounds like a Board and membership decision, and since the current membership can be predicted to want its current interests protected, it will be up to the Board to consciously “lead” (i.e., oppose the current membership until the drone pilots’ voices reach some critical mass) the organization to encompass the new technology.

  3. Definite conflict of interest. AOPA should create a separate entity to represent drone pilots.
    I am a pilot for 26 years and do not like sharing our airspace with drones.
    If AOPA becomes an advocate of drone pilots I will seriously consider not renewing my membership.
    David Krakowsky, AOPA member and aircraft owner

  4. When I can go to the store of my choice and buy a vehicle that flies under it’s own power but does not have but a 5 pound payload and I do not have to have any training or pass an examination by the FAA. How can it be on the same plateau as being a licensed and trained pilot that has passed all the tests and paid a lot of money and time and with training to get that license. If AOPA wants more members then just make it a separate and unequal part of the organization. I would think that AOPA needs to rethink how they are going to go forward with the drones as I think that they will have the opposite effect by loosing many members because of this approach.

  5. I have a hobby drone, but do not fly it outside the confines of my back yard.
    I am a 35 + year member of AOPA and would not appreciate any AOPA pilot (read real airplane pilots) funds be directed into drone expenditures.

  6. I’m shocked. Who ARE you people? I think you’ve twisted something good into something you are afraid of.

    I am neither a pilot nor an aircraft owner, but I am a long time AOPA member because I love aviation and support the advocacy that AOPA provides. I’m also a producer of aviation podcasts, both manned and unmanned. That’s not a conflict of interest – it’s synergy. It’s about sharing the airspace, be it GA, unmanned aircraft, hot air balloons, commercial flights, ultralights, whatever. None of us owns the airspace exclusively. It’s there for all of us.

    As for those who fly drones recreationally, they have the AMA. I don’t think AOPA intends to draw in those with micro quadcopters. Let’s instead consider the emerging commercial unmanned aircraft industry. To say they want to ensure “broad and unfettered airspace access” is a gross mischaracterization. What they want is safe operations for precision agriculture, structure inspections, real estate sales, newsgathering, humanitarian and disaster response, and yes, package delivery.

    So don’t polarize the interests in the national airspace system. Embrace all the stakeholders, work together, and we’ll create good solutions for the future. We did it at the beginning of powered aviation and we can do it again.

    If you disagree with me, fine. Write me. I’ll put you on the air and we can talk about it together in a forum for all those with interest in the airspace.

  7. I believe that drones are here to stay. Having said that as a private pilot and a drone photographer, I believe that there should be heavy training and licensing to fly drones, especially for commercial use. I see kids go out and buy these and soon after go breaking the FAA rules without any penalties. They should have to do a course similar to Part 107 as enlightenment to the rules as a prerequisite to purchase one.

  8. AOPA is throwing private-pilot GA to the wolves, as is the FAA. Regardless of “drone type” as discussed in comments here, once the drone members reach critical mass, as in “GA pilots plus one,” that will be the death knell for the advocacy we have “enjoyed” up until now. Note that the FAA wants GA to go away as well. Enjoy the privilege of flying yourselves in your aircraft while you can.

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