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Question of the Month: What Can Clubs Do to Attract Younger Pilots? (Younger Pilots Speak Out Edition)

We’ve skirted around this question quite a bit lately in Club Connector and also hit it full-on in Flying Clubs Radio Edition 21—but let’s set the scene before we provide some thoughts and ideas on how to make your flying club attractive to younger pilots.  To start with, we, your Flying Clubs team (Steve and Drew) are from different generations, so we represent the span of ages we are considering here.  We do not intend to suggest that there is anything wrong with “typical” flying clubs regarding age, but we do suggest that they can be better—for both older and younger aviators.

Secondly, we absolutely do not suggest that you take the easy ground to lower the average age in your club by recruiting lots of really young members.  Again, don’t get us wrong here.  There is nothing wrong with a club having, say, teenaged pilots in their ranks, in fact we fully support this, but—and this is a gross generalization—we know that more certificated pilots are over the age of 21, than under.  So, we are not suggesting that you “achieve the goal” by recruiting younger non-certificated flying members (aka “student members”).  This gets to a topic that regular readers will be familiar with—that of flying clubs not offering or providing (primary) flight training, especially when there is a flight school on the same airport.  For more information on this, lend your ear to Flying Clubs Radio Edition 27: Flying Clubs Naughty or Nice List, and Edition 25: Membership Tiers will end in Tears. By the way, there most definitely is a legal and ethical way to achieve the laudable goal of “teaching kids to fly”, but it is not by accepting youngsters as student pilot members in a club.  For more on this topic, listen to Flying Clubs Radio Edition 23: High School and Collegiate Flying Clubs, and the October 2021 Question of the Month: What Should Prospective Members Look For In A Flying Club, and What Should A Club Look For In A New Member?

Now, as a long-time six-sigma advocate, Steve knows full well that you can’t change something unless you can first measure it.  Basically, it is difficult to know where to go if you don’t know where you are and how you got there!  In true process improvement fashion, we asked the very people we think will benefit from being members of flying clubs, namely, certificated pilots under the age of 44. We see this opportunity as a two-way street—younger pilots benefit from the camaraderie and overall experience of being in a club of like-minded people, and clubs benefit from having new, energetic members, as well as “new blood” to put a modern perspective on club life and operations.  You can learn more about the results of these interviews in this month’s Club Spotlight, but there were some key takeaways that we’ll reference in this article.

When writing this article, it became clear that the topic is essentially an aspect of earlier Club Connector Questions of the Month, and some recent Flying Clubs Radio shows.  We’ll provide links to these resources at the end of this article.

The scene now well set, so let’s look at what your club can do to attract younger, certificated, pilots.

Equipment:

Surprise…! Most people join a flying club to fly airplanes.   So, a good question to ask is “are the club aircraft attractive to younger pilots?”  This also applies, to a lesser extent, to hangar equipment and the hangar itself.  You are used to it… but would a new member feel alright taking friends and family for ride in the club’s plane(s)?  We’re not so much talking about the age of equipment, but rather condition and overall presentation.  This is an easy trap for established clubs to fall into.  The plane was state-of-the-art 30-years ago, and many of the original members still fly it. It does the job, it is familiar and is right there in the comfort-zone of most members…so what’s the problem?  Well, now look through the eyes of a new 20-something pilot who learnt to fly in a kitted-out C172 sporting a Garmin stack.  In fact, it doesn’t even have to be that radical—perhaps they learnt in a 152 with a couple of Garmin G5s and a GNS430W navigator, but the club plane has vacuum-driven gyros and an old NARCO radio.  (Try explaining the operation and reliability of vacuum powered instruments to a new pilot…they’ll think you are pulling their leg).

The point, then, is that upgrades to the fleet, whether new/different airframes or modernization of the existing fleet, is absolutely essential if the club is to remain viable beyond the existing membership.  Put another way, such upgrades are an investment in the club’s future and should never be thought of as just an expense.  We know full well that a primary benefit of flying club is the sharing of costs and expenses, and this certainly applies to upgrades—every member of the club will get the same access to a modernized aircraft, but at a fraction of the overall cost.  There are probably considerable “reserves” in the bank, so think about spending the money to update the equipment.  Yes, some of the old-timers may well leave in a huff, but you will be well positioned to bring in some new blood.

The desire for modern avionics was very high on the list of the people we interviewed for this article. On that topic, we will be holding more focus-group sessions early in 2022, as we have just scratched the surface on understanding the dynamics of younger clubs and their members—please contact us if you are interesting in being part of this study: [email protected]

Impressions:

We regularly have conversations with clubs that are desperately searching for ways to attract new members.  It is similar story—an older club with many of the original members who like “their” club just the way it is, thank you very much.  Our counsel to these clubs “is change or wither” and, of course, change can be difficult and uncomfortable.  Membership will, eventually and inevitably, age-out at some stage and the club will fold unless there are younger members to carry it forward.  We talked earlier about upgrading equipment and there may be a similar resistance to changing the culture of the club, such that it is more attractive to younger members.  Take a serious look at these aspects of your club:

  1. First impressions. The focus group members agreed that the front-face of the club is very important, especially if there are several clubs in the area to choose from. Although you should not think of “competing” with other clubs, in a way you are…at least for good members, so present a good first impression.

    Younger prospective members expect a “modern” club to have some sort of online presence.  This might be a club website, social media page, and certainly being listed on the Flying Club Finder.  If you go down this path, and you should, remember the golden rule of this type of media—it must be relevant, easy to navigate and kept up to date.  A website that looks old and hasn’t been updated in years is probably a negative, as a prospective member may presume that this lack of attention permeates all aspect of the club. 

    One of the primary reasons for maintaining a social media presence is to make it easy for people to see what you are up to—it is called “social” media for a reason.  If prospective members like what they see, the next step is for them to contact you.  Make this easy!  Have contact information front and forward and please, please…don’t use one of those Contact Us! forms that generally get sent to an email inbox that no one monitors.  Very few things will turn-off a prospective member as quickly as not being able to contact the club, so our advice is to elect (wisely) a tech-savvy person to the position of Membership/Media Officer.

  2. Second impressions. In the October 2021 Question of the Month, Steve compared the process of recruiting new club members with that of a company hiring new employees – the “hiring dance”, he calls it. After many years as an executive in the competitive world of Silicon Valley, he knows a thing or two about selecting people, and, on the other side, selecting good companies. There are several steps in the dance, but they exist to see if both sides can tango…together. There are clearly some standard, tangible practices involved—such as application forms and required qualifications (learning the dance steps), but it is probably the intangibles that make the all-important “cultural-fit” decision (adding some flair to your swing).You can probably see where this is going. If the club’s culture is over-formal and stuffy, then it will likely be perceived as not very inviting—a cultural misfit. On the other hand, if there are no processes in place, it might appear to be too casual—another misfit.

The focus group took this a bit further and commented that, in their experience, clubs have too many barriers to entry and are hard to join.  We need to dig further into this as it begs several questions:

  • Are clubs considered “difficult to join” because they are very particular about who they accept as new members, or is it because their processes raise unnecessary hurdles? An example of this is the requirement for prospective members to attend a certain number of club meetings before being interviewed. Is this an endurance test—only those with the stamina to attend club meetings will be accepted? As we think about this…a typical club meeting is probably the wrong place to make an impression on a new member, especially if there is something contentious on the agenda, with high potential for drama.
  • Suggestions from the focus group revolve around a more social, rather than working, introduction. Perhaps once a quarter, or whatever the recruiting cadence of the clubs is, hold a social gathering, inviting all existing as well as prospective members. In this way, the dance partners can meet and intermingle, but without the officiousness of a club meeting.
  • These suggestions were very interesting to the Flying Clubs Team, as they re-emphasized an important aspect of any flying club—that of being a social club with airplanes. We maintain that there are two major benefits of club membership—namely shared-cost access to nice airplanes, and social camaraderie. Perhaps, and this is purely speculation until we find out more, the social side of existing clubs diminishes over time and yet this is one of the top reasons for younger, less experienced pilots to want to join a club. Umm…

    Governance and operations. 

    Every club needs documented processes for governance and operations.  This usually takes the form of bylaws and operational rules.  We’ve talked a lot in earlier Club Connector editions about the objectives and differences between these two formal aspects of club life, but here we will reemphasize their importance for everyone to be on the same page, but also their shelf life.  These documents and the associated behaviors reflect the club’s culture—and the culture will change over time, especially if the club is changing or growing in members and fleet.  We advise that both documents should be examined and reviewed on a regular basis—every two-years seems to be a good rate.  As well as accommodating obvious changes such as additional officer positions (adding a Membership/Media officer, for example), this is an opportunity to craft the documents in a way that is understandable and acceptable to all members, but, at the same time, keeping it as simple as possible.  Less is more when it come to rules, so don’t ty to capture every eventuality.  Statements such as “at the discretion of the board of directors” go a long way to allow situations to be discussed and debated, rather than simply enforced.  Don’t get us wrong—if you stipulate rules, then you must enforce them, but if you make a new rule every time something happens, you’ll end up with bylaws the size of the FAR. 

    Our focus group members were quite vocal on this topic.  They understand the need for rules but expect to be treated as PIC—we agree—so when you review your bylaws and operational rules, do so with new members in mind.

    Cost of club membership:

    Last month, we did a deep dive into the two types of club structure—namely equity and non-equity clubs. See the November 2021 Question of the Month for more details, but our observation is that new clubs started by younger pilots are more often than not established as non-equity clubs.  Recall that this is where the club leases its aircraft, rather than every member being an equal co-owner of the airplanes.  The reasons for this are actually quite understandable—lifestyle choices of younger people steer them away from having to own everything, and of course, the substantially lower cost of entry as there is no upfront equity share.  Given that younger people are less likely to have several thousands of dollars available for an equity share—especially if they have recently completed their pilot training—then the non-equity club route is very attractive.  We’d actually call it an essential option, as these newly minted pilots are the ones most in need of easy and cost-effective access to airplanes in order to gain experience and maintain proficiency.

    If your club is a more traditional equity club, it will be more difficult to attract new members, since there will be a smaller pool of pilots with the financial means to join.  As mentioned above, due to the general distribution on wealth, finding younger members to reinvigorate an equity club is going to be tough, so perhaps such a club is almost destined to be “older” in its membership.  A caution here—don’t go down the path of different tiers of membership as a way around this.  For more on that topic, listen to Flying Clubs Radio edition 25: Membership Tiers Will End in Tears.

    Interestingly, we’ve seen a number of equity clubs “convert” to the non-equity structure as a way to recruit younger members.   A number of existing members “buy-out” the other members and become the owners of the aircraft, which they then lease, exclusively, to the club. Members pay a membership joining fee, which is considerably less that an equity share, and of course pay similar monthly dues to cover the fixed costs (which will now include the lease fee), as well as the per-hour usage rate.  This effectively changes the cost of club membership from one of upfront capital outlay, to monthly payments, which is more in line with the lifestyle choices of young, mobile professionals.

    Expanded Involvement:

    This was a really encouraging bit of feedback from the focus group—that of wanting, indeed, expecting, to be very involved with club operations.  We all know how easy it is to “just do it myself” rather than train others, but this certainly doesn’t help the case of engagement and involvement.  We see this in many areas of more established clubs:

  • Little or no turn-over in board positions. Sure, the board will be experienced, but will likely become entrenched in their way of doing things. Longtime members will properly tolerate this as it means they don’t have to step-up, but new members will see this as a negative. They will soon lose interest if they are treated as “upstarts” and not given the opportunity to be involved. One way around this is to set term limits on board and officer positions. Understandably scary, as what will happen if no one steps up? Well, if that is the case, the club is anyway on a slow ride to failure since members will inevitably age-out. Interestingly though, we've never seen this happen. At seemingly the eleventh hour, members will realize that their club, and so their club benefits, are in peril and will do something about it.
  • Another comment from the group concerned involvement in other aspects of club life, such as learning about the responsibilities of aircraft ownership and upkeep. This is really great to hear, as we more typically hear from clubs that are desperate to get more member “engagement”. This got us thinking…it seems like prospective members would really like to be deeply involved, but if the structure of the club prevents it, they will eventually give up trying and become disengaged. So, in the future when we hear from clubs about the lack of member engagement, we’ll challenge them to look inward and see if they are maybe causing the problem by not making it easy for others to join in and help. Perhaps a quick text to all members to tell them when the next oil change will be done or turn a hangar clean-up day into a social event, rather than bemoaning that “no one else does anything so I’ll just do it myself”.
  • Some clubs try to encourage involvement by requiring members to work a certain number of service hours per quarter. When we initially heard of this idea, we really liked it. Members know that they have to be involved in order to stay in good standing, and to remain eligible to fly club aircraft. Now, based on the (still small) set of data from the focus group, we wonder if “mandatory involvement” could actually reduce engagement, as it becomes a chore, rather than a learning experience. Yet another “umm”…

Summary:

The good news from our initial focus group is that they, younger certificated pilots, are fully aware of flying clubs, they absolutely understand that clubs offer a wonderful opportunity to learn from others, they wish to be involved in all aspects of club life and not “just” the flying, and they definitely like the idea of the lower cost buy in of non-equity clubs.  We will be running more of these interviews to broaden and deepen the data pool, and we fully intend to blend the information so gained into our growing flying club resources.  Again, the good news is that younger pilots do want to join flying clubs, so it up to us, in existing clubs, to make the process easy, enjoyable and aligned with their lifestyle and aviation goals.  Stay tuned for more on this fascinating topic!

Additional Resources:

We referenced some related articles in the text of this Question of the Month, but for completeness, here is the list of Club Connector articles and Flying Clubs Radio shows that will give some background and context.

Club Connector Question of the Month:

NOVEMBER 21, 2021: QUESTION OF THE MONTH: WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF EQUITY AND NON-EQUITY FLYING CLUBS?

Over the past few years, we’ve seen an interesting shift in the way that new flying clubs’ structure themselves.  For example, of the 34 flying organizations we’ve helped start so far in 2021, 21 are equity clubs, 10 are non-equity and three are co-ownerships. From our records, it is also clear that the ratio of non-equity clubs is steady increasing.  In this month’s Question of the Month, we dig a bit deeper and look at some of the pros and cons of the two main types of flying clubs—equity and non-equity.

OCTOBER 17, 2021: QUESTION OF THE MONTH: WHAT SHOULD PROSPECTIVE MEMBERS LOOK FOR IN A FLYING CLUB, AND WHAT SHOULD A CLUB LOOK FOR IN A NEW MEMBER?

As the benefits of joining or starting a flying club attract more and more interest, we are getting many requests for information on what is, essentially, two side of the same coin. 

In October’s Question of the Month, you’ll get a two-fer. We’ll look at flying clubs from the point of view of prospective members—what they should consider and look for in a club—and then from the perspective of a club that is recruiting new members…what they should consider and look for in new members.

JUNE 20, 2021: QUESTION OF THE MONTH: HOW CAN OUR CLUB PRESENT WELL TO NEW MEMBERS?

Flying club members are a proud people.  We know there is no question that our club is great, and we don’t care who knows it. That may be true, but how do you show prospective members how great your club is?  This month we will take a look at our clubs from the outside in to find some ways we can attract new members who will contribute to our club in a positive manner.

MAY 16, 2021: QUESTION OF THE MONTH: IS OUR CLUB STILL VIABLE?

Flying Clubs are living, breathing multi-celled organisms comprising three main component parts—People, Planes and Procedures—and as with any such system, they need feeding, watering, and nurturing.  They also have a “life-cycle”.  They start, grow and unless cared for, may fizzle and expire.   Assessing the on-going viability of your flying club, understanding its current phase in the life cycle, and then actively doing something about it is as important as collecting monthly dues, since a lack of attention to either will present some real challenges, even for an apparently “well-run” club. In this month’s QoM, we’ll think a bit deeper about “viability” and then suggest some ways to answer the question with a resounding “Yes, but with a call for action”!

We’ll also tease you with some ideas we are working on to help a new generation of pilots find a welcoming home and to own their aviation journey, through the medium of flying clubs.

 

Flying Clubs Radio:  All editions are at this link: https://youcanfly.aopa.org/flying-clubs/flying-club-radio

Edition 26 Equity and Non-Equity Flying Clubs

Own or lease? That is a question every forming flying club has to decide. Steve and Drew discuss their own flying clubs and weigh some of the pros and cons of each model to help you decide what will work best for your club.

Edition 23 High School and Collegiate Flying Clubs

Steve and Drew look at how high school and college students can get involved in aviation through flying clubs.  They discuss some pitfalls and common misconceptions, as well as some ideas to help get young people involved in aviation.

 

Edition 22 You Got Your License Now What

You did it! Congratulations on earning that certificate. You showed your designated pilot examiner that you have “the right stuff” to be a pilot. What are you going to do with that “stuff” now? Access to airplanes for a new pilot can be a little limiting if you don’t know where to look. In this episode, Steve and Drew talk about how flying clubs are a logical next step for newly minted pilots and chat about their personal experiences with their clubs.

Edition 21 Making Your Club Attractive to Younger Members

Have you ever wondered what the average age of the pilot population in the USA is? Spoiler, it’s around 44 years old. What is the average age of your flying club? Your club may be getting older and wiser and there is certainly nothing wrong with that, but wouldn’t it be a good idea to get some “new blood” in the mix? In this episode, we discuss what younger members might be looking for in a flying club and how your club can do some simple things to accommodate the younger pilots out there.

 

Edition 19 Places for All Faces

As flying club members, we all know how awesome flying and aviation is. The question is, how can we share aviation with people from diverse backgrounds? This episode dives into how flying clubs have a unique opportunity to get more people over the airport fence and engaged in aviation.

Stephen Bateman

Contributor, You Can Fly Program
Steve retired from AOPA in April 2024, but continues to contribute to You Can Fly programs. Contact Steve at [email protected]

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