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…
We’ll take these one by one—the people perspective first, followed by the club perspective:
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?” and “So, 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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.