Question of the Month: What Are the Pros and Cons of Big Clubs?

In previous articles and flying clubs radio editions, we’ve bandied about the term “big club” when discussing clubs that are “bigger” than, well, “normal”.   In this month’s QoM, we’ll take a broader and deeper look at the advantages—and disadvantages—of different size clubs, as related to club organization, operations, culture, and membership.   So, before we take this much further, we really should try to define what a “big club” actually is!

Let’s poke at some data, from which we can start to categorize clubs based on size, but first, let’s look at where we get the data.

The Flying Clubs team launches a survey towards the end of every year.  This survey is carefully designed to guide us in the provision of resources and assistance that modern flying clubs want from their membership organization.  Furthermore, by comparing data over several years (actually, since 2017) we can determine emerging hotspots, trends and so on. For example, this is how we know that club insurance premiums have been increasing, on average, by 16% year over year, and that the shortage of hangarage is now at record levels, nationwide, and is starting to impact aircraft sales.

We’ve now launched the 2023 annual flying clubs survey—it closes on October 18th. Requests for participation have been sent all clubs listed on the AOPA Flying Clubs Finder tool.  We send the request to the person listed as “club admin”, who is the named person with the ability to edit their club’s entry on the Finder.  There are two reasons why we send the survey to the club admin:  firstly, we know that this non-elected position changes hands less often than board and officer positions, and secondly, we use the vehicle of the survey email to remind admins to check their club’s entry for accuracy and continued relevance. As an additional incentive, clubs that complete the survey and check their Finder information, are entered into a sweepstake for a Sporty’s handheld radio. 

As a reader of Club Connector, please, please, please check with your club leadership to ensure that your club has participated in the survey.  We need to hear from all clubs to maintain a statistically viable population.  If you don’t know who your club’s admin is (this is not listed on Finder itself…yeah, we know….we’ve been trying to get that changed for several years now), or you want to assign the position of admin to a different club member, then please contact me at: [email protected]

By the way, participation in the survey has been so poor over the past few years that we are seriously thinking about automatically delisting non-participating clubs from the Finder on an annual basis.  We would rather not do this, but we cannot have clubs out there with stale or irrelevant data.  We regularly get calls from prospective club members complaining that a link doesn’t work, or that no one returns their calls or emails.  Just to be clear, clubs are responsible for their own data as we have no way of knowing when things change.

We plan on sharing the results of the 2023 flying clubs survey next month, so for this article, I’ll use data from the 2022 survey.  From this we know:

  • The average club has 30 members, of which 23 are flying members and seven are social members. The median is 19 members, total.
  • The smallest club has three members, the largest has 218.
  • On average, clubs operate two aircraft.
  • Most clubs operate one aircraft, the largest operates 15 aircraft.

Note:  92% of clubs operate single-engine piston aircraft, 4% operate only LSAs.

From the above, and admittedly from a dose of wet-finger-in-the-air intuition, I’ll suggest some definitions.  Note that I’ll only include flying members.  Social members certainly bring an added dimension to a club, but IMHO they should not be voting members and should not be eligible to stand for board or officer positions.  Furthermore, social members should not influence club operations or strategy, apart from, perhaps, social events and general community outreach.

  1. Small club: Three members.
  2. New club:  Four to five members.
  3. Average club: Six to 15 members.
  4. Medium club: 16 to 50 members.
  5. Big club: More than 50 members.

Let’s now visit each one of these to understand the relative pros and cons.

  1. Small Clubs:

    We think that three people are the bare minimum for an entity to consider itself a social/hobby club, as defined by the FAA.  Co-ownerships are completely different—two or more people may decide to form a co-ownership, often erroneously called a partnership.  These entities usually form as LLCs (rather than non-profit corporations for true flying clubs) and generally lack any interaction other than just sharing the cost of ownership.  If a co-ownership grows beyond five, their insurance company will probably require them to re-designate as a flying club.  This can have consequences, especially if the co-owners do not hold equal shares in the LLC…as we know, flying club members must be equal in all ways, including any equity share.

    As mentioned above, three members is really borderline to be considered as a flying club—a hobby/social entity where interaction and comingling (a term beloved by the IRS) are central components to members’ experiences.  We, (the AOPA flying clubs group), have been known to recognize properly established entities with only three members, but on the assertion that they intend to grow to at least five members.   There are several reasons for this.  Firstly, three people hardly make a club in the accepted sense; secondly, there is a lot to do to run a club and with only three members people will be very busy; and thirdly, a club needs to have sufficient leadership and governance in place, not only to ensure smooth operations, but also to satisfy legal requirements and obligations imposed by the State that issued the business license. 

    Now, we are not draconian about this. We understand that a new club may have difficulty getting off the ground (so to speak), and sometimes it may rely on a leap of faith by 3-4 dedicated founders to get things running, but the point, sharply whittled by our experience, is that clubs which stay at three or four members are more likely to fold than (slightly) bigger clubs, and this has a lot do with workload.  After all, flying clubs are meant to be fun.

    On the other hand, a club of three or four good friends may work really well—for as long as they stay friends! In such cases, everyone fully knows and appreciates their role in the club, and everyone needs to be fully involved and engaged in order to make it work.  Indeed, we have heard of four-people clubs that decided to grow by a couple of members, and quickly regretted it.  By that time, the original four would have established a working culture, and new people can quickly erode that unless they are also within the circle of friends…and even then, as we will see throughout this article, more people equate to more divisions, cliques and the potential for drama. Again, flying clubs are meant to be fun, so be careful what you wish for (see the September 2022 Question of the Month).

    So, we are starting to understand the vital importance of culture as pertaining to the living entity of a flying club.  If you extrapolate this beyond the social aspects and apply it also to the aircraft, you’ll quickly see that culture, interaction, trust, and so on, are hugely important when being part of a group that flies the same aircraft.  Whilst we all, of course, do thorough prefights before we fly, it would be nice to know that all members do the same, that they treat the aircraft as though it is their own (which of course, it is), and that everyone honestly reports all matters of concern, especially those caused by themselves.  So, let’s add integrity to the list of required attributes for all flying club members!

    Pros of small clubs:

    • Probably a close-knit group who are, or will become, friends.
    • Open access to a club aircraft—very few scheduling conflicts.
    • Easy to book the plane for longer trips.
    • Fewer people mean fewer egos, so disputes rarely get overheated and are quickly resolved.

    Cons of small clubs:

    • Everyone will have at least two jobs in order to keep things running smoothly and legally.
    • Fixed costs, per airplane are, well, fixed.  The bills for hangarage, predicable maintenance (e.g., the annual) and GPS databases are independent of the number of members.  Insurance will probably be more expensive per member, so adding to monthly dues.
    • For equity club with few members, the cost of aircraft acquisition (outright purchase or down payment and monthly loan repayments) will be relatively high.
    • In the case of non-equity clubs, the base lease fee will be divided amongst fewer members, so, again, monthly dues will be relatively high.

    It is easy to see from the above that there is a trade-off between more members helping to cover fixed costs, and lower availability of the plane—we’ll keep seeing this compromise as we progress though the article.

  2.  New Clubs:

    Even though the notion of a “new club” is very transient, it does help to illustrate important points about initial, and eventual, size of flying clubs.  It also allows us to question the very need for a flying club to grow at all.

    At any one time, Drew and I are working with more than 50 qualified leads—that is, people and groups who are very active in various stages of forming new flying clubs.  This has been ramping-up, year-over-year…the news is definitely out about the benefits of flying clubs compared with sole ownership and renting.  These benefits go beyond the obvious cost sharing and include softer aspects such as a vibrant social fabric, camaraderie, mentoring opportunities and a common safety system. 

    These “clubs in formation” (CiF) share the common desire to start new flying clubs, but the underlying reasons are many and varied.  Perhaps are there no aircraft to rent, perhaps the only way to afford to acquire and operate an airplane is by sharing all costs, or perhaps an aircraft owner is considering ways to offset the cost of ownership by leasing the plane to a flying club.  Either way, new clubs face similar quandaries—some self-imposed, others not.

    All clubs require the same three major components—people, planes, and processes.  People are the members who will fly the planes and pay the bills; Planes will either be owned or leased; Processes include setting-up the initial club structure, bylaws, operating rules and so on, but also the recurrent obligations of filing various reports and returns, as well as regular amendments to club policies and procedures. 

    The most usual situation is where a number of people realize that, for whatever the reason, a club is needed at KXXX.  We work with the group and help them get established and operational.  On the other hand, we sometimes work with just one person who has the dream and the drive to get a club started, on the firm belief that a club is required at KXXX, and members will come once they see the club is operational.   We have never seen this “build it and they will come” philosophy fail, although it does indeed require a leap of faith by the initial founder(s).    Either way, the question about the number of members will quickly raise its head.  Should the group try to find 10 initial members to help keep down start-up and initial operating costs, or does it just get the club running with five initial founders?  What about the case of a sole initial founder? The common question is “how many members do we want in the club?” and we are back to the previously mentioned compromise between lower monthly dues (by having more members paying the bills), versus fewer members, which increases everyone’s access to the airplanes. 

    There is not a single solution to this compromise, but there are a few factors that must be considered when tackling it.  Read on...!

    Pros of new clubs:

    • The founders of a new club can shape it according to common objectives.  Will it cater to the local flier or the cross-country warrior?  Will the club offer a very particular airplane make/model…perhaps a Citabria or Piper Lance?  The choice of aircraft and the size of the pool of potential members are intimately linked, so this requires considerable thought.  Yes, a club with a twin or other sophisticated aircraft will always be cheaper than sole ownership, but even the shared costs will be high and will limit the number of pilots who can afford to join.  The pool will be further filtered by pilots with the appropriate certificates, ratings and proficiency.
    • Generally speaking, new clubs can instill good operational and behavioral practices from day one.  By learning from others, a new club can get started with a sensible set of enforceable bylaws and operating rules, and preferably with a safety program in place right off the bat.
    • A definite pro for a new club is that it can decide how many members to initially start with.  New clubs usually strive to start with around 10 members to keep acquisition and fixed operational costs low, but still provide good access to the aircraft—but there are a couple of traps with this thinking.
    • The first trap is to assume that the generally accepted ratio of 10-12 members per airplane applies to new clubs.  It doesn’t, at least not initially. When a club crosses the line from CiF to being fully operational, the pent-up demand will result in a very full schedule.  Everyone wants to fly the club plane and fly it they will. Club leadership will start thinking, “Gosh, we need to think about a second plane, already”.  Trust, us, they don’t…at least not at this stage.  We suggest that you wait at least six months, 12 if possible, to see how the club and the aircraft schedule shake out before adding any more members.
    • The second trap involves insurance.  Flying club insurance is based on risk, and the more members, the bigger the risk. Insurance for flying clubs is also not a linear thing…it’s not just x% extra per additional member.  As well as members’ aviation experience, age, the type and value of aircraft, insurance (and claims) history, your insurance premium will be based on the number of members.  The cheapest way by far to get flying club insurance is to have five named pilots on the roster.  With all other factors being equal, going to a sixth member will likely double the premium, as the policy will allow for up to 10 members…but only six will be paying the bill.  Similar thresholds exist for 12, 15, 18…members depending on the insurance underwriter.
    • So, the moral of this story is to start a new club with exactly five members.  This will give the lowest cost insurance, per member, and will also allow members to book the plane amidst the flying frenzy.  We suggest that you also keep a vetted and approved waiting list, and when you get to five, bring them all on board and update the insurance policy, so achieving the sweet spot of around 10 members per plane. 

    Cons of new clubs:

    • Beyond the work needed to get a new club running and the trials and tribulations of finding members and airplanes, there really are no “cons” about starting a new flying club.  Check out the AOPA Flying Clubs website for everything you need to know about starting a flying club—and then call us to chat about your specific ideas.
  3. Average club: Six to 15 members.

    This really hits the “sweet spot” for the combination of lowish monthly dues and easy access to club aircraft.  These clubs typical operate one aircraft.  Many older clubs started at, or grew to 10 or more members. Ten is an easy number by which to divide all costs and the cost of insurance is (all other things being equal) very affordable as long as you look at it per member.  That is, $4,000 for the club policy sounds a lot, but this is only $400 per member per year for 10 members...probably less that most member’s auto insurance.  We know from our survey data that 21% of members (in mature clubs) are non-flying.  Okay then…$4,000 between eight flying members is $500 each—still a good deal if you think about it.

    Pros of average-sized clubs:

    • Low monthly dues to cover the fixed costs.
    • A pretty open schedule for airplane reservations.
    • Not too big.  Business can be conducted in an amicable fashion, as people quickly get to know each other, and the club truly is a place where “everyone knows your name”…Cheers!
    • Easier to negotiate schedule changes if you really must have the plane next Saturday.
    • Easy to instigate a solid club safety program, and to notice if some members habitually don’t participate.
    • Along the same lines, easier to enforce rules, as everyone quickly gets to know about digressions.
    • Big enough to fill needed board and officer positions, with a few “spare” to serve on committees.
    • Small enough that factions do not develop.

    Cons of average-sized clubs:

    • Could be perceived as very cliquey to outsiders, which may be a hurdle when trying to attract new members.
    • Board and officer positions will be shared between relatively few people, limiting the infusion of fresh and modern ideas.  At the very least have members rotate through the board and officer roles every two years or so.
  4. Medium club:  16 to 50 members.

    These clubs definitely benefit from more members helping to pay fixed costs, so for a one-plane club, dues will be very affordable.  Problems arise when there are many flying members and it becomes difficult to book the plane for long trips.  Even with two aircraft, such a club may suffer from scheduling bottlenecks.  See Flying Clubs Radio Edition 47 for some ideas on how to handle this.

    Clubs of this size tend to have a fairly large percentage of non-flying members.  We’ll differentiate here between social members, who have no flying privileges at all, and non-flying members who are full members, but choose not to fly for whatever reason.  As we will see, there truly are pros and cons to this situation.

    Pros of medium clubs:

    • Generally, a high ratio of members per airplane, which reduces everyone’s monthly dues.
    • Full members who do not actually fly will be (artificially) subsidizing those members that do fly. Great while it lasts…but it doesn’t. Sooner rather than later, these non-flying members will realize they should switch to social memberships, and then flying-member dues will increase.  Better to move (or remove) such members and open up flying membership to people who actually want to fly.
    • Medium clubs have a good-sized pool of members from which to fill board and officer position.  This is good, as it provides the opportunity for regular rotation of leadership duties and responsibilities.  Whether this happens, however, depends on many factors…see some related cons, below.

    Cons of medium clubs:

    • More members per plane can cause significant scheduling issues, so clubs must put in place clear, enforceable, and enforced rules about block bookings, scheduling hogging, and so on.
    • Full members who don’t actually fly retain their opinions.  This can be dangerous as they will have a voice in matters pertaining to flying operations, which really should be left to the actual flying members.  Yet another reason to move long-time non-fliers to social memberships.
    • As stated above, medium clubs should be able to draw upon members to rotate board and officer positions.  This allows more members to be engaged in the running of the club, along with new ideas, strategies, and so on.  These clubs, however, are just about the right size to allow members to “hide”.  They fly the aircraft, maybe attend and vote at club meetings, but are otherwise invisible.  This can be self-perpetuating in that the 20% who actually do step up, will just keep on doing it.  Whilst it is not fair to chastise these highly active members, they may in fact be perpetuating the problem as it becomes increasingly easier for others to rely on them, so making it easier to hide. We believe the solution is simple—club bylaws should impose term limits on every board and officer position.  Many clubs falsely believe that no one will step up and the club will fold.  We have never seen this happen and even if it did, and the same people continue to do the same jobs, the club is anyway destined for failure.
    • Over time, people get used to the “take-control 20%” doing all the work, and engagement in all aspects of the club will fall.  Everyone starts to complain. The 20% complain that other members are not engaged, and the 80% complain about the "cabinet" making all the decisions—and often, neither do anything about it.  Again, a solution is to enforce term limits.  There will still be 20% of the membership doing the work, but at least it is a different 20% every two years or so, and all members will eventually be required to do their duty.

      See other Question of the Month articles for more ideas, including the intriguing notion of requiring all members to log “service hours” on behalf of the club, such that they remain in good standing—a necessary condition in order to be on the active flying list. Umm…interesting!

  5. Big clubs:

As stated earlier, we’ll consider “large” to mean more than 50 flying members, which likely goes hand-in-hand with more than five aircraft.

Now, I need to state upfront that both from personal experience and from observations made whilst doing my job, it appears that the bigger a club gets, the more difficult it is to remain as a member-focused, member-run social club.  On the other hand, having just read Steve Schapiro’s Club Spotlight article on the Monmouth Area Flying Club and the Jersey Aero Club, I'm hopeful that perhaps my personal experiences are not typical.  Both are big clubs, and both have remade themselves to be vibrant and member centric organizations, but as you’ll read for the case of the Monmouth Aero Club, this only came about after truly exceptional effort from a group of dedicated people….and that is one of my points…it is so much more difficult to get things done and keep everyone happy in a large club—and at the end of the day, it is meant to be fun!  Another successful big club we have previously written about is the Flying Particles, based at Livermore, California.  Again, a team of dedicated members keep the club humming. 

On the other hand, we know about other big clubs that are just not clubs at all…having crossed over to the dark side to become thinly disguised commercial operators.  If your club (actually, of any size) offers introductory rides, if it advertises that people can join to learn to fly, if it sells gift certificates and merchandise to the public…then it is not a flying club in the FAA defined sense of the term.  Hey...don't the messenger, read the rules!

Pros of big clubs:

  • Big clubs have many aircraft for members to fly, possibly different makes and models, which can enrichen the experience for members.
  • These clubs have the potential to allow many members to be engaged in the running of the club.  There are always things to do, even if not in the form of official positions.
  • There is the potential for many varied social and educational activities.  Quality guest speakers and representatives from pilot organizations, ATC, FAA, and so on, would much rather speak to a full house rather than too few people in a hangar.
  • There could be many opportunities to mentor and be mentored, as big clubs should embrace and enjoy wider and deeper member diversity. Notice the words “could” and “should”.

Cons of big clubs:

  • Whether members actually take advantage of different makes and models of club aircraft is a matter of debate. Just trying to stay proficient in different aircraft would be time consuming and expensive—perhaps this is why many big clubs operate the same essential make/model—for consistency and ease of moving from one N number to another.  
  • In such cases, a club will have scaled-up operations and hiked the upward spiral of more members and aircraft to maintain a workable ratio of members to planes, but, at the same time, will have increased the likelihood of member factions and drama.  Sorry, but this is just human nature, and because of what we do and how we do it, pilots are known to be vocal and, ahem, opinionated.  Bigger is not necessarily better!
  • As a club grows beyond, say, 20 members, a self-sustaining spiral may develop.  A full aircraft schedule may initiate a discussion about adding aircraft, which, on one hand is a good thing, but on the other, can become controversial.  The higher costs involved in operating additional aircraft then leads the discussion towards adding more members.  More members equate to more people flying the aircraft...once again resulting in a full schedule…and on it goes. Furthermore, the batch of new members may well have different ideas than the original members, which can result in culture-eroding friction.  We saw this recently in a smaller club where an influx of new members formed a clique and forced the club in a very different direction.  Sometimes this is good, sometimes it is not.
  • It seems to be a lot easier for club leadership to edge towards dictatorship in larger clubs.  This isn’t speculation—I’ve heard it many times from members of large clubs.  I don’t think that clubs intend to end up like this, but the combination of a small group of energetic and driven people wanting the club to succeed, and the remainder letting the same people do it year after year, may result in a closed cabinet, rather shared responsibility on a day-to-day basis. 
  • Often, but by no means always, we see big and growing clubs move slowly but surely towards divided membership.  There are the few who are interested in running the club and serving its members, and there are those that are perfectly content to be served.  The words that club leadership use to describe this is “lack of member engagement”.  Whilst this can (and does) occur in clubs of any size, it becomes really noticeable in big clubs.  Poor attendance at club meetings and events, the majority of members not stepping-up to take their turn in the running and organization of the club, may result in the emergence of what I call the “renter class”.  These members book a plane, fly it, perhaps clean it up, and put it away—and that is the extent of their involvement.  This is the biggest reason why I fear that many big clubs can lose the sense of being a social club.  Even if there is socializing and camaraderie amongst the broader leadership, it is too easy for the majority of members to act as renters—and IMHO, flying clubs of any size are not places for renters.  Now, interestingly, there is another side to this story, which is the version we hear from members rather than leadership.  Many members either do not know how to become engaged in the workings of the club or feel that the leaders are not allowing them to be involved.  Gosh—interesting!  I wrote about this in the July 2022 Question of the Month…so take a peek!
  • It appears that many larger clubs feel responsible, and what's more, entitled, to try to solve many of GA’s problems on their airfield.  For example, they may operate "trainer aircraft" for that very purpose—to provide primary training to non-pilot members (that is, student pilots).  When asked about this, club officers may state that the local flight schools are rubbish and students want an alternative.  Okay…but let the open market take care of this. If a flight school really is that bad, then it will close, and someone better will step in.  It is not a club’s role in the airport ecosystem to solve this problem.  This is why we encourage flying clubs of all sizes to be really careful with primary flight training.  When you add-in the additional costs of insurance and maintenance brought about by student pilots, it makes little sense to do this…yet many clubs feel it is their duty to go down this path.  Not so, and this behavior may move a club across the line that differentiates flying clubs from flight training providers. Take a listen to Flying Clubs Radio Edition 48 for more on this controversial topic.  In brief, be careful what you wish for!
  • So, you might well ask, why do airport authorities not do something about this?  Well, it is to do with size, influence and money.  Big clubs spend lots of money on fuel, maintenance, and other services, which helps an airport’s bottom line.  Furthermore, big clubs with many aircraft contribute greatly to the number of operations to and from the airport, which improves the case for federal funding.  I won’t mince words here…some (but certainly not all) big clubs bully their way around the rules and regulations for flying clubs.  Yet another reason (again IMHO) that some big clubs are not really social clubs, at all.
  • When a club starts to grow beyond what well-meaning volunteers can handle, the next question we are often asked is about hiring people, which adds another layer of management on top of leadership and membership.  The worry here is that careers and job protection may start to get in the way of service. 
    Rather than regurgitate my concerns about this, please take a look at the October 2019 Question of the Month “Can Flying Clubs Employ People? and the September 2022 Question of the Month “Be Careful What You Wish For”.

    Okay then, drawing this to a close.

    Any economies of scale that may come from growth might well be at the expense of a sharing and shared culture, which is truly the heart of volunteer-based social/hobby clubs.  Non-profit, member-run flying clubs should never feel any pressure to grow and should carefully consider all pros and cons, and of course, should be approved, or otherwise, by the membership, according to the clubs bylaws.  

As always, fly lots, and fly safely!

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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