AOPA in My Rearview?

The aviation news resource AVweb recently published an article titled, “Revenue Down, Salaries Up At AOPA.”

For any readers who don’t know, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is “a non-profit political organization whose membership consists mainly of general aviation pilots. AOPA exists to serve the interests of its members as aircraft owners and pilots, and to promote the economy, safety, utility, and popularity of flight in general aviation aircraft.”

According to AVweb: “While the aviation industry in general suffered massive layoffs and pay rollbacks in 2009, AOPA’s top managers got an overall 14.5 percent pay increase, according to the association’s IRS filings. In addition, an AVweb review of AOPA’s publicly available tax returns revealed that the association’s expenses increased by 25 percent in 2009, with association expenses exceeding revenues by about $5.1 million. To cover its rising expenses in part, the association recently raised its membership dues from $39 to $45, an increase of more than 15 percent.”

AVweb provides a number of facts in support of the implication that AOPA’s actions vis-a-vis senior management are inconsistent with current economic realities and the resultant pervasive financial environment of belt-tightening. Along with the increase in membership dues, the standout statistics for me were 1) the contrast between the alleged actions of AOPA and the fact that about 39 percent of companies are making downward adjustments in salaries while others are freezing them in place or offering increases in the 1-3 percent range, and 2) total salary costs for other workers at the association — whether through attrition or rollbacks — were reduced by about 12 percent.

If you accept the article as substantially accurate, then it’s not hard to conclude that this is simply another in a long list of cases in which the fat cats get fatter while the masses subsist on crumbs.

As you might expect, a letter to AVweb from Craig Fuller, AOPA President and CEO, challenges the article: “[Your article] is flat-out wrong. As stated on the Form 990 we filed with the IRS, ‘compensation of current officers, directors, trustees, and key employees’ for 2008 was $3.957 million. In 2009, that figure was $4.838 million. But the 2009 figure included $1.770 million in deferred compensation paid to our retired president, who served the organization faithfully for 18 years. When you remove this single payment, compensation to ‘top managers’ actually fell to $3.068 million—a reduction of $889,000. It should also be noted that AOPA’s trustees are unpaid volunteers who donate their time because they believe strongly in the work we do on behalf of the general aviation community.

“These are the facts, and we ask that you correct the record immediately. Unfortunately, this is not the only error in the story. Many of the other figures cited in your article are equally misleading. In the interest of accuracy, we would be happy to meet with you to discuss the article and the figures you cite. We look forward to setting the record straight.”

I don’t know which side of this issue presents a more accurate picture of reality. By nature, I’m skeptical of those at the top and probably more likely to believe they take care of themselves with an almost obscene arrogance whenever they can. That said, AVweb’s article might be full of factual errors. Whether by omission or commission is another question altogether.

I’ll be watching this story and another one closely for two reasons. First, if and when I believe that the AVweb article is a closer version of the truth, I’ll consider putting my AOPA membership in the rearview mirror and never look back. Second, AOPA has a “cozy” relationship with Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) because he’s one of the few national politicians who is licensed as a commercial pilot, and he has always been influential in Senate and Congressional debates involving aircraft regulation.

But as mentioned in a previous Rants and Raves post titled, “Arrogance + Pilot = Brain Dead,” Inhofe is also an extraordinarily poor example of what it means to be a pilot. If AOPA, an organization on record as a leader in promoting general aviation flight safety, ignores Inhofe’s blatant failure to exercise the most basic good judgment expected of a pilot in command, I’m through considering what to do. AOPA and I will part ways.

At least one of us will say, “Good riddance.”

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