Question of the Month: What are Social Members and Should All Clubs Have Them?

We’ve written in the past about flying clubs being considered and treated as social clubs by the FAA and IRS, albeit social clubs with aircraft rather than pickle-ball courts.  In that case, aren’t all members of flying clubs “social members”, so why are we writing a new article about this?

Well, it is widely known that many clubs use the term “social member” to mean people associated with the club in a non-flying capacity, and they (may) pay different dues for different benefits than regular (flying) members, so there is definitely something to consider here, especially if you’ve listened to Flying Clubs Radio Episode 25, “Membership Tiers Will End in Tears”.

In that recording we discussed—and royally denounced—the notion of different levels of club membership, such as family and student memberships, since we believe that they violate a number of FAA/IRS rules.  So, you may now challenge us, have we changed our minds?  Are we now saying that that clubs with “social memberships” and “regular memberships” do not violate those same rules?  Well, yes.

Let’s dissect this a bit more.

Firstly, our stance against membership tiers is based around different levels (tiers) of flying memberships.  That is, some flying members being more—or less —equal than others and some members paying different fees, dues and rates to get access to the club’s equipment.  We protest against “family memberships”, whereby members of a family collectively pay lower fees and dues, and the  bizarre “student membership”, where student pilots pay less than certificated members to be in the club, and yet clearly cost the club more in maintenance and risk.  In both cases, the members: a) are not equal (does the student pilot have an equal vote?  Can members of the family fly different club planes at the same time…and do they all have a vote or just one per family?) and b) are not paying the same rates, so “someone” is receiving a benefit compared with someone else.  There’s a lot more to our displeasure on membership tiers, so again, review Flying Clubs Radio Edition 25 (“Membership Tiers Will End in Tears”), for the full treatment.

Now, in the same Radio Show, we provide an easy solution for the common case of flying members with different certificates, ratings and skills. Basically, is it fair that a new PPL, who only flies the club’s A152, pays the same dues and usage rates as an ATP member who flies the A152, Cirrus, Bonanza, etc.?  Clearly not, so we solve the problem by considering the different component parts of club membership.  It is pretty obvious that very different airplanes incur very different operating and usage costs, so we deftly separate the monthly dues to be an equal member of the club, which gives access to the club itself, its various facilities, social and educational opportunities and so on, from dues based on the actual flying privileges a member enjoys.  If you fly the A152, you pay the club membership dues and a dues surcharge for access to the Cessna.  If you fly the A152 and the Bonanza, you pay the same club membership dues, the same A152 dues and now another dues surcharge to cover the (shared) costs of the Bonanza amongst members who fly it.  It might sound complicated, but it does works and keeps you honest with the FAA and IRS.

We are now ready to consider the difference between a flying member and a non-flying member.  As we have labored, flying members have access to one or more of the club’s aircraft and they pay membership dues to maintain their good standing in the club.   Such flying members are expected to participate in club leadership roles (rotating board and officer positions), to be involved in the club’s business and operations, and to be actively engaged in all aspects of the flying club.  They are also expected to “do their bit” in order to keep club costs down by volunteering their expertise and skills.  Every member has something to offer, even if it is cleaning-up the hangar after the party!

This is all well and good but misses to opportunity to involve non-flying members in the club’s activities.  We’ll look in a minute at why a person might want to join a club as a non-flying member and, indeed, why a club should be bothered with such members at all, but at this stage, in order for this notion to work, we must clearly differentiate between flying and non-flying members.  If fact, the root of the issue lies in the dual use of the word “member”. As we explained right at the start of this article, the FAA and IRS are quite clear about what constitutes a member, and there is only one definition in their phraseology.  A member of a flying club is a person who has access to, and flies, the club’s airplanes.

Although it may sound silly and just semantics, in order to avoid any confusion and misinterpretation, we could just use “member” in the context of members with flying privileges.  All right then, so it appears that we shouldn’t be using “non-flying member” or “social member”, so we need another term for people who desire to be associated with the club, but in a non-flying capacity.  It seems like we have answered our own question—let’s call them club associates!  Some clubs get a bit more inventive and refer to these people as “ground crew” but that, of course, can have different layers of misunderstanding.    For the rest of this article, however, we’ll use the conventional (but strictly incorrect) term of social member to refer to people associated with the club in a non-flying capacity.

By the way, if you do have social members, you’ll be wise to ensure that the club’s bylaws and operational rules are crystal clear on the distinction.  In our book, social members are effectively “guests”.  They should not have voting rights, they should not be involved in club business, should not be in positions of power or influence, and may or may not be required to pay fees for the privilege of their association with the club—if they are charged a fee, it should be made really clear what they should expect in return.

With this nicely agreed, let’s now look at the why…

  • Why do people want to be associated with a flying club in a non-flying capacity and what should they expect from the club?
  • Why should clubs consider associates at all, and if they do, what are their additional obligations and responsibilities?

We’ll take these one by one—the people perspective first, followed by the club perspective:

People perspective:

  1. Many people enjoy a strong love of aviation and yet, for various reasons, don’t become pilots. A good friend of mine is an avid aviation buff, is a very skilled airshow photographer and is deeply immersed in flight simulation including operating “in the system” with services such as Pilotedge. Being involved in a flying club gives him another outlet for his hobby and also brings benefits to a club in the form of amazing photos and advanced flight simulation skills.
  2. You may recall that the Flying Clubs Initiative is one of four in the AOPA Foundation’s You Can Fly program. The others are: a: High Schools, b. Flight Training, and c. Rusty Pilots. Let’s look at each:
    1. High Schools. The High School team has created an unparalleled 9-12th grade STEM curriculum centered firmly around aviation. The goal is to get more high schoolers and their teachers aware and interested in all aspects of aviation in order to feed the pipeline—and it is working. More than 300 schools and 10,000 students, nationwide, are using the program. In addition, the You Can Fly team manages a variety of scholarships funded by the AOPA Foundation—click here for more details. The scholarships provide opportunities to high school students and teachers to learn to fly, and of course, all learners benefit greatly from total immersion.

      Now, for many reasons, we advise flying clubs to be very careful when accepting student pilots as members, especially if there is a flight school on the same airfield.  Our reasoning can be found in these articles:  “Is Our Club Still Viable? andSo, You Want to Start a Flying Club to Teach Kids How to Fly, eh?”. In the latter article we further caution against starting a flying club for the purpose of teaching anyone to fly.  Nevertheless, flying clubs provide wonderful opportunities for student pilots to be immersed in an aviation organization, especially in a club that treats education, continuous improvement, and safety as key components of its culture.   We fully encourage scholarship winners to seek out and join (as social members) flying clubs to help with this immersion.

    2. Flight Schools. Flight schools are an integral part of an airport’s infrastructure and ecosystem. That is why we caution flying clubs to be really careful when accepting non-pilots as flying members, as there will be an implied promise to teach them to fly, and we should leave that to flight schools. We talk a lot about “flying clubs and flight schools are friends” and collaborating in the journey of a new aviator is a wonderful way to achieve this. For this reason, we strongly encourage learner pilots to join a local flying club as social members in order to consolidate their one-on-one training from the school with the wider benefits of club membership, camaraderie and the opportunity of being mentored by pilots whose only objective is sharing the love.

      Moreover, even though there is no such thing as a “club CFI” (see “What Can Flying Clubs Do About the CFI Shortage?”), many club members utilize the services of independent and flight school CFIs for currency and proficiency training, so it makes sense to provide an opportunity for those CFIs to be more closely associated with the club.  These CFIs are also wonderful sources of stories, best practices, WINGS presentations and more, so if one shows an interest in being a club associate, jump at the opportunity…but do ensure that all associates are treated in exactly the same way. Perhaps it is tempting to permit a CFI to be an associate and not charge them the same fees as other associates, but this could get the club into trouble, as the club could be considered as “providing” the CFI, which can run afoul of several rules and regulations.  Bottom line—all flying members must pay the same club membership fees as other flying members, and all associates must pay the same fees as other associates.

    3. Rusty Pilots. Once a pilot, always a pilot is proven truism, but sometimes a really rusty pilot might not know how to get back into flying. The flakier the rust, the more difficult it can seem. Along with the AOPA Rusty Pilots program, which has helped more than 10,000 rusties get back into the left seat, the next best thing is, again, total immersion and flying clubs offer that in abundance. We are talking about pilots here—just ones that need some help getting back on their game, and trust me, the satisfaction of helping a lapsed pilot get back to flying is immense. The Rusty Pilots program provides a three-hour seminar that satisfies the requirements of the ground portion of a flight review, and we also introduce participants to local flight schools to get the flight portion completed. We fully encourage rusty pilots to join a flying club as social members during their training, and once current, to join as full flying members to prevent become rusty ever again. 
  3. Many people who own their own airplanes also join flying clubs. We certainly know of owners who elect to join a flying club for access to different types of aircraft, but there are also opportunities for owners to enjoy the camaraderie and social intermingling offered by clubs. Those of us lucky enough to be in flying clubs are fully aware of the benefits and opportunities that come from a sense of belonging, and most of us are keen to share this with other pilots. It truly is “camaraderie”—a spirit of friendly good-fellowship— and sole owners on your airfield may well be missing out on sharing their passion with likeminded others.

Club perspective:

We next consider why a flying club might choose to have non-flying club associates at all, and if they do go down this path, how it should be managed, and what obligations they take on.

  1. Let’s get something out of the way very quickly. If you are thinking about taking-on social members as a way of helping with club finances, you are barking up the wrong tree. Social members will not solve any money issues and will not substantially influence the cost of operations for flying members. Again, refer to the articles “Is Our Club Still Viable?, and “How May Flying Clubs Raise Money?” for the Full-Monty on this. In fact, it will likely make things worse, as now you have more people to keep happy. If the club has financial issues, memberships issues, etc., then solve those first.
  2. We have published many articles in the past about how clubs can help educate the public about general aviation—and goodness knows that the public needs all the education it can get, with all the misinformation and agendas of various anti-GA movements. Here are some ways to do this, without necessarily taking on the extra work of having card-carrying social members:
    1. Invite local pilots to your club meetings. Especially invite them to your safety meetings. We (Steve and Drew, your flying clubs team) present the FAASTeam Topic of the Month at our club meetings and open them up to all local pilots. This is really easy to do using a remote platform, such as ZOOM. This has the added bonus of becoming known as a safety-conscious flying club.
    2. Same with guest speaker events but think about inviting a wider audience. Many non-pilots are interested in hearing about weather, the ATC system, air navigation, and so on.
    3. If there is a high school in your area that uses the You Can Fly Curriculum, think about “adopting” them. There are high school students and teachers who would love to get to the next level of immersion in aviation. Help them with their studies by giving hands-on explanations of systems, avionics, use of simulators and so on. If you are interested in discovering whether a school near you is participating in the program, please send an email to [email protected]
    4. Same with Scouts of America. Drew tells the story of getting his first taste of GA as part of the Boy Scouts Aviation Merit Badge—things like this literally change people’s lives, so reach out to your local troop to see if they have an interest in attending club events.
  3. All of the above can lead to people being interested enough to want to be a part of your club in a purely social capacity. There is something uniquely alluring about that “airplane smell” and people from all backgrounds gravitate to aviation. Just look around at any airshow—the majority of people are non-pilots but love it anyway. This also helps debunk the myth that aviators are rich people with toys. Letting “the public” see that flying clubs work hard to lower the cost of entry for all members and that the members all pitch-in to keep flying affordable, will go a long way to explaining why pilots are rich in passion, but poor in money!
  4. There are a number of other “sources” of social members to consider:
    1. We spoke earlier about letting students, who train at local flight schools, attend club meetings and activities. This is immensely helpful to the students as it anchors their training with real life situations and stories….and as pilots, we all like a fresh audience to hear our oft-repeated adventures! Once they are certificated, you’ll very likely find that the newly minted pilots will apply to join the club as full flying members, so this is a wonderful recruitment tool.
    2. Talking of recruitment…we regularly hear of clubs that keep a member waiting list, so that they can always operate at their target number of flying members. There is always someone, prequalified, waiting in the wings to fill a slot when a member leaves. To ensure engagement, why not go the extra distance and require that people on the waiting list become social members? In the same way that full members are expected to attend meetings and help with club activities in order to remain in good standing, you could require that those on the waiting list help in certain ways in order to keep their position on the list.

      By the way, we will tackle the interesting topic of “required engagement” in a future edition of Club Connector.  Some clubs have become remarkably innovative to ensure that members stay actively committed to club life, and don’t regress into being just “renters”.   Stay tuned!

  5. If you are so inclined, think about hosting a Rusty Pilot seminar, and indeed, perhaps making an “Aviation Day” of it. As mentioned earlier, the Rusty Pilot program has helped more than 10,000 lapsed pilots get back into active flying by participating in seminars held nationwide, and then flying with CFIs to cover the flight part of the flight review. Flying clubs are excellent places to provide the support and networking that many rusty pilots crave to get back in the game.

    By hosting a Rusty Pilots event, you will not only get the word about your club, but also ex-rusty pilots in your area will be delighted to find a local club that will help prevent them from becoming rusty again.  Take a look here, if you are interested in hosting a Rusty Pilot event, and please contact me (Steve Bateman) if you would like to hear more about Aviation Days, where we run a Rusty Pilot event in the morning and other seminars in the afternoon.  Local pilots and airport managers love these events, and they are useful sources of recruitment for both flying and non-flying club members.

  6. Before leaving this section, there is one other group of people who make excellent social members, and that is pilots who, for whatever reason, have had to hang-up their headsets. They may have been flying members in your club, or perhaps have retired to your area—either way, having access to years of experience and stories can be priceless for current flying members. We talk more about this in the “Is Our Club Still Viable?” article, where we further suggest that if members are not flying (again for whatever reason) they should be redesignated as social members to free-up flying memberships for other people to enjoy.

Charge Social Members?

We now need to poke at the question of charging dues for social members.  As mentioned earlier, social members should not be considered as a way to bail-out a club from any financial difficulties.  Indeed, is it unlikely that such members would agree to an amount that would make any significant difference to club operations.  The question of how much to charge really depends on what the club is trying to achieve by having social members, and the perception of “value” by both the member and the club.  On one hand, we all know that if we give things away there is little respect for value, and on the other hand, charging a lot drives the expectation for something tangible in return.

If your club is really going to provide something of repeatable value to non-flying members, then perhaps a monthly charge is reasonable.  This could cover access to educational events, guest speakers, club nights, and so on.  If, however, you are not intending to do anything much different than before, you’ll have to consider what people are prepared to pay.

The bylaws of my club permit it to have club associates, which we did for a while, but then we got to thinking.  We’re anyway going to hold events and socials for the benefit of full members, so why not just invite “guests” to join us?  This becomes a form of community outreach and avoids the hassle of keeping rosters for non-flying members and collecting different monthly dues.  We’ve also found that guests are very pleased to make “good will donations” to cover the cost of food, and are usually very generous, as they appreciate being invited—and treated—as guests.

On the topic of rosters…be really, really sure that you do NOT include non-flying members on your insurance renewal application!  List only active flying members to avoid unpleasant surprises.

As always, fly lots, and fly safe.

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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