Question of the Month: Does including flight hours in monthly dues make for more proficient members?

If you peruse the archives of earlier Club Connector editions, you’ll see that we’ve talked a lot about member proficiency—that elusive goal of having all flying club members fly a lot, be current and, vitally, be well trained and safe.

We have also explained the difference between currency, which is a regulatory requirement, and proficiency, which is being well practiced and sharp on all three parts of the ACS—flying skills, knowledge, and risk mitigation/management.  We have stated that simply being current is not a surrogate for being proficient, since, apart from the flight review and IPC, there is no regulatory requirement to fly with a CFI.  You can go off and do three take-off and landings for day and night passenger currency, but there is nothing in the FARs that stipulates how well you should do them.  You could bounce your way down the runway at night (when one is watching…or are they…?) and still log currency. 

So, again, we must strive for proficiency, and the February 2022 Question of the Month: How can we be better prepared for unexpected in-flight situations? goes a long way to explain some of the ways that we, as individual pilots, can achieve this.

We have also previously touched on the topic of flying clubs “mandating” currency by effectively second-guessing the FARs, and somehow trying to take responsibly for what always must be a primary pilot-in-command (PIC) responsibility—that of operating within the privileges and limitations of airman certificates, including adherence to all applicable FARs.  Currency is a PIC responsibility, and a flying club should never impose anything on its members other than to follow all rules and regulations.  

Nevertheless, many clubs actually do this—that is, they insert the club (effectively, its board-of-directors and officers) between members (PICs) and the FARs.  This usually takes the form of rules such as:

  1. All club members must conduct a flight review with a club CFI every 12-months.
  2. All members that have not flown in the previous 90-days must get a check-out with a club CFI.

Firstly, as we have written about before, there is no such thing as a “club CFI.”  Indeed, if a club “provides” one or more CFIs that members must use, then they are likely encroaching on at least two FAA rules for flying clubs, namely, that of (not) being a commercial operator, and the necessity for 100-hour inspections.  More on these points can be found in these references:

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly here, a club that mandates currency requirements (especially if they are “tighter” than the FARs) now has responsibility to ensure and enforce that all members follow these rules.  We have this straight from our colleagues in the AOPA legal team—if a club mandates currency requirements, then it must put in place appropriate structures and mechanisms to prevent members, who are outside of the currency requirements, from flying the club aircraft.

This would be really difficult to enforce in practice.  How, realistically, can a club prevent a paid-up member from flying a club airplane, especially as most members likely have hanger access.  The reason this is critically important is that, if a member does fly a club plane and is involved in an accident, you can bet that someone’s lawyer will crawl all over the club’s documents and records, and if it transpires that the member was not in adherence to the (club’s) currency rules, the club could be found liable for failing to enforce the rules. This, they will claim, was a precursor to the accident itself. Don’t shoot the messenger here—this comes from the AOPA legal team, and it has happened.

So, what’s a club to do? You never want to second-guess the FARs and mandate non-standard currency requirements, yet you want to operate a safe club.  Furthermore, in these times of increasing insurance premiums and the risk of being labelled as “uninsurable” if you make a claim, how can a club reduce its risk profile, maintain affordable insurance, and keep its members safe and well? (We talk more about insurance and how clubs can do more to help themselves in Flying Clubs Radio Editions 3 and 14).

We tackled the topic of proficiency head-on in the May 2020 Question if the Month: How can flying clubs encourage members to stay proficient?, and in Flying Clubs Radio Edition 8, where we introduced the idea of WINGS for Clubs—that is, using the FAA’s general aviation proficiency program as a way to keep members proficient—please read the article and listen to the radio show to understand the many advantages of basing your clubs safety management system on the FAA-provided program.  More on WINGS for Clubs later in this article.

All right then, back to today, but before we tackle the title question of this article—"does the inclusion of flight hours in monthly dues make for more proficient members?” —let’s ask a fundamentally related question—"why do some clubs include flight time in monthly dues at all? “

Why do some clubs include flight hours in month dues at all?

After talking with many clubs over the years, we have formulated three stances on this:

  1. We won’t spend too much on this first one, but some clubs still haven’t read the memo about covering all fixed costs with monthly dues. We can pretty much guarantee that if you artificially keep monthly dues low, then you must be relying on money from per-hour flying fees to keep the club afloat. This may work—until the plane is down for extended maintenance or there is a string of bad weather and yet the monthly bills still have to be paid on time. Rather than fixing the problem at the root—by increasing monthly dues to cover all fixed costs—some clubs will apply another band aid and add some flight time to the dues. That is, the (increased) dues now include a couple of hours of pre-paid flight time. In this way, even if members don’t actually fly the hours charged per month, the club still gets money to pay the bills.
  2. We also will not send much time on the second perspective of why clubs add flight time to monthly dues—that of trying the get club planes flying more. We all know that planes that do not fly regularly may incur more maintenance than these that do fly, and so, again, rather than looking at the root cause of why the planes are not flying, club management tries to entice members to fly more by building-in flight time into monthly dues. In our experience (see the reference coming up) this is unlikely to work. People are not flying for a reason, and it is unlikely to be just cost if they remain as a member of a flying club. It is more likely that the problem is something else, like the plane, or the club’s culture or structure.

    You can read more about this in the epic May 2021 Question of the Month: Is our club still viable?

  3. We now get to the factor that bears most relevance to this article—that of proficiency. From our work with clubs nationwide we see that, as they mature, club operations tend to drift into an equilibrium of trifurcation, where (i) some people fly a fair amount, (ii) others fly occasionally, and (iii) others don’t fly at all. The latter group has no impact on club safety as they don’t fly, but what about the other two groups?

It might be argued that the first group (who fly a fair amount) are therefore proficient—but we question that conclusion.  What if they fly the same hour, hour-after-hour?  Are they really becoming more proficient or just complacent?  Case in point was a gentleman in a club of which Steve was a member some years ago.  Every week, he flew his wife of many years (he was 87 at the time) 45-minutes there and 45-minutes back to an airport that had a shopping mall in easy walking distance.  Four hours a month equates to 48 hours a year, pretty close to the horrifically low average that most recreational pilots fly per year.  Steve conducted the flight reviews for this gentleman, as indeed he was, which often required several hours of air work to get him back to (the then) PTS standards.  The moral of this story is clear—even if you fly a fair amount, you still may not be proficient, or at least not proficient enough to handle situations outside of the norm.

It is, of course, the second group that is cause for most concern.  A pilot flying, say, 1 or 2 hours a month can at best stay level, and most likely will go slowly backwards in ability on every flight.  It is this profile—the creeping loss of proficiency—which gives most flight instructors the willies when conducting flight reviews.  The pilot appears to be confident, but it soon becomes evident that skill, knowledge and risk awareness (let alone risk management) have become seriously eroded.  The good news is that a properly conduced flight review can reset the pilot, but it is the 23rd month (or earlier) that poses the biggest risk for the pilot, the insurance company, and hence the club. 

With this in mind, some clubs try to force members to fly more in the hope of increasing their proficiency by including some number of flight hours in monthly dues.  The notion being that if they are paying for it, members will fly and so (may) be more proficient.  This is probably true for the first few months as the increase in dues will inevitably be front-and-center in everyone’s mind, but over time, as the memory of cheaper dues fade, members tend to drift back into whatever it was that caused them to not fly much in the first place.  Once again, trifurcation emerges, and the proficiency problem returns.

Banked Hours

If it wasn’t already discussed during the initial club meeting that introduced the idea of pre-paid hours, it is around this time that someone will raise the idea of “banking” hours—that is, accruing the paid-for hours so members can save them up for another day…perhaps hoping that their schedules will free up, or for that big trip on the horizon.  On face value it is a reasonable idea—if members can’t fly in any given month, why can’t they save-up the hours and use them in another month?  Consequently, clubs may move away from the restrictive “use-it-or-lose-it-in-a-month” limitation and allow members to accrue hours.  We’ve seen a number of variants of this:

  • Hours can be carried over by one month, or two, or whatever.
  • Hours can be accrued monthly up to a cap of, say, 6 hours, after which time the account stays level.
  • Hours can accrue forever. That is, nothing is lost, and the hours keep building.

Let’s dissect these a bit more.  For illustration, let’s also assume that the monthly dues include two pre-paid flight hours.

The first two cases are very similar, at least in the end result.  Members accrue hours at the rate of two per month and the club determines the period (number of months) or the maximum number of hours (cap) that can be banked.  After this time, members will still be charged the same monthly dues, but will not add to their balance of banked hours.  This seems to be a reasonable compromise in that some members may, legitimately, not be able to fly every month, so it gives them the opportunity to catch-up when they can fly. 

It is now, however, unlikely that the original intention—that of building-in flight hours as a way to keep members proficient—will actually achieve the goal.  In fact, we’d argue that the situation could be worse than before.  For example, a member saves-up fight time (and is therefore likely to be rusty) yet launches on a long trip where there is more likelihood of something going sideways.  As we have preached many times before in our safety articles and presentations, proficiency has a limited shelf-life—it decays quickly over time and requires constant effort to stay level, and yet more effort to steadily climb the incline of experience.

The third case cannot be any better than the first two but could be considerably worse.  Here, a member could save-up, say, a year’s worth of flight time and go off on a really big trip—after not flying for a year.  To rectify this, a club might now be tempted to require members to undergo 90-day (or whatever) checkouts…and we are back to the liability of second-guessing the FARs discussed earlier!


One other aspect to consider is that of complicating the treasurer’s life.  As we have written about previously, we, your knowledgeable flying clubs team, are firm believers in using some sort of club management tool to help with operations.  Many of these tools include calendar-based scheduling, dispatch, check in, maintenance tracking, invoicing and in some cases, automated billing, and these tools simplify the stressed life of a club treasurer. Most of these tools treat dues as a fixed cost applied to each members’ account at the start of every month, whereas charges for aircraft usage clearly depends on the hours actually flown per month, and so is variable.   Are these tools capable of recognizing that a stated number of hours per month should not be charged, and even trickier, are they able to handle the notion of banked flight hours?  Well, we didn’t actually know, so we contacted our friends at Flight Circle.  Both Drew and Steve use Flight Circle in their clubs, but as neither club includes flight hours in dues, we asked—and, as we have come to expect from the Flight Circle support team—we had an answer within the hour!  It turns out the Flight Circle does indeed handle this—here is a link to the documentation page that explains it.

Even so, we see a couple of other “complications” that need to be thoughtfully considered. The pre-paid flight hours clearly have value, so what happens if a member decides to leave the club (or is otherwise removed for some reason)?  Will the club reimburse the value of the banked hours?  Will the reimbursement be made at the rate in which the hours were originally charged, or at the value of flight hours at the time of reimbursement, which, with the passage of time, could be significantly different.

As you can see, this must be fully and carefully thought out and most definitely should be captured in the bylaws so that that everyone is on the same page.  As we have written about previously, things can quickly get heated and contentious when a leaving member starts demanding refunds, reimbursements, and “their share” of club funds.    

Another related consideration is one of financial liability.  If a club does allow the accrual of pre-paid flight time, and for some reason permits reimbursement when members leave, then the club is keeping a huge liability on the books.  This could be financially crippling if the club allows for lengthy accruals and a long-time member leaves for some reason.   Imagine what would happen if several members decided to leave at the same time, perhaps due to some internal dispute—this could decimate the clubs’ coffers.

Does the inclusion of flight hours in monthly dues make for more proficient members?

We are now able to tackle the original question—does this actually increase proficiency?  As you’ll gather from the above discourse, we don’t think so, at least in general.  Perhaps some members will fly their pre-paid hours every month, but we doubt that this will change the relative ratios of the trifurcation mentioned earlier.  Furthermore, the chance of members saving-up hours—that is, not flying regularly—and then launching on some long adventure really doesn’t line up with the spirit of proficiency.

Many clubs we have spoken with about this openly wish that they had not gone down this path as, over time, members fly about the same number of hours as clubs that don’t include flight time in dues. So, the only tangible benefit seems to be that the club gets more predictable income from the higher dues, which doesn’t at all lead to the goal of club-wide proficiency.

Is there a better solution?

Why, yes, we do believe there is a way to achieve the desired goal!

You’ve heard us talk about the FAA WINGS program in the past and, as FAASTeam representatives, we (Steve and Drew) very much believe in the program and the power of proficiency education and training.  We also have written and spoken about WINGS for Clubs, where clubs adopt the FAA WINGS program as the basis of their safety system, and we are pleased to report that many clubs have adopted the idea.  You may recall that the January 2022 Club Connector Safety section discussed how we can train to better handle unexpected in-flight situations, and the February 2022 Safety article went further by outlining some positive steps that we can all take to increase our ability to react and handle such situations.  This dovetails nicely with the WINGS program since you can do these expanded envelope flight exercise as WINGS flight activities.  You get to fly with a CFI at least three time a year (rather than once every 24 months) and if you also do (at least) three knowledge activities, you can earn a phase of WINGS.  Earning a phase of WINGS brings many benefits, including the primary goal of being more proficient, but other items such as sweepstake entries and, very likely, lower insurance premiums.  Check out the slides in this month’s Safety section for all the details on Pilot Proficiency and WINGS, and please do use this material at your next safety meeting.  If you would like help or more information, please contact Steve or Drew—we’d be delighted to help.

All well and good, but a frequent comment we hear from clubs pushing forward with WINGS for Clubs concerns members moaning about the expense of “having” to fly with a CFI three time a year (yeah, we know—what price safety!).   So, we’ll now propose a modification of the original idea of including flight hours in monthly dues that will actually get people flying in the WINGS program—think of this as a payment plan for proficiency.

Let’s assume that the usage rate of the club plane is $100 per hour and an approved CFI is $50 per hour.  So, completing three WINGS flight activities in a year will amount to $450, which is $37.50 per month, $9.38 per week, $1.23 per day—less than some people spend on a cup of coffee.  We propose that the $37.50 is added to member’s monthly dues and that every quarter, members fly a WINGS flight activity with a CFI.  Over the year, every member will earn a phase of WINGS, all members will be more proficient, and the annual insurance premium will likely be significantly lower—a saving that should then be passed-on to club members in the form of lower dues, which will help them cover the original $37.50 increase!

Okay—but what if a member doesn’t complete a phase of WINGS in the year between insurance renewals?  Well, we suggest that members only get reimbursed the full $450 when they have actually earnt a phase of WINGS—members who do not compete a phase will not be reimbursed, and the money will be used to offset the higher insurance, by virtue their nonparticipation.  The cycle then renews every “insurance year”.

So, there you have it.  We really doubt that the “traditional” idea of including some number of flight hours in monthly dues has any long-term impact on member proficiency.  People may well fly more, but if they are not following some sort of plan, the goal of proficiency will likely remain elusive.  On the other hand, following a proven proficiency program such as WINGS, and spreading the cost of flight activities over a year will, by design, have a positive impact.

As always, fly lots and fly safety!

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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