10 questions for new AOPA President Mark Baker

From time to time, we ask a particular aviation personality to answer some random questions. Today it’s Mark Baker, the new president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). Baker is only the fifth president in the association’s 70+ years, and he takes over at a difficult time for general aviation. We asked him about his background and his vision for the future of GA.

1. How did your interest in aviation develop and when did you start flying?

I have always been fascinated by airplanes. I was one of those kids who rode his bike to the airport just to watch them take off and land. I guess you could say I started flying when I started bumming rides from the pilots at my local airport as a kid. I was a little older before I started formal training. I passed ground school in high school and earned my certificate when I was in my twenties.

Mark Baker

Mark Baker is the fifth president of AOPA in its nearly 75 year history.

2. You have one more flight. Where to and what are you flying?

I hate to think there will ever be a day when I have just one more flight! I don’t know if I could choose just one location. There are so many great airports and seaplane bases where I love to fly. I guess I’d just have to make a lot of stops. But I do know exactly what I’d fly—my Piper Super Cub. It’s been with me for more than 20 years, and I just can’t have a bad day in that airplane.

3. What do you bring to the job that’s different than past AOPA presidents?

Each of AOPA’s presidents has brought some excellent qualities to the role. With only five presidents in almost 75 years, we’ve really had a record of strong and committed leaders. I guess my unique perspective comes from having spent so many years in the business world. I’ve spent a lot of my career growing companies. Now I have the chance to help grow general aviation, and I think that will be extremely rewarding.

4. We’ll ask you the same question we’ve asked Mac McClellan, Richard Collins and others: are general aviation’s best days behind it?

If I thought GA’s best days were in the past, I never would have accepted this position. In fact, the first question I asked myself when I was approached for this role was whether I could make a difference for GA. My answer was “yes” so here I am.

Certainly general aviation has struggled, as has every industry in the past few years. But I am optimistic about the future. We’ve got a rush of innovation happening in avionics, airframes, training, and everything in between. We’ve got millions of people in this country who say they’d like to learn to fly. And we’ve got hundreds of thousands of active pilots who are committed to GA and want to share what they love. We can accomplish a lot if we energize our own community.

5. Many point to the cost of flying as the evil that is hurting activity. Do you agree?

The cost of flying can be a challenge, and I know that. There was a point in my own life when I stopped flying and cost was one of the reasons. (The demands of work and kids played an important part, too, as they do for many people.) That’s why AOPA fights so hard to save pilots money. It’s why we are collaborating with EAA to petition the FAA to expand the driver’s license medical standard. That would save pilots millions of dollars.

It’s also why we put so much energy into state legislative issues. Our team is out in statehouses fighting for tax cuts—and it’s working. We’ve seen big tax cuts in several states, including Indiana. And we haven’t seen a state GA tax increase in five years. That’s pretty impressive when you see what’s happening to other industries. It’s also why we have people working on regulatory issues like Part 23 reform, NextGen implementation, and avgas.

Of course, cost is just one of the challenges facing general aviation. There are many reasons pilots stop flying, and we are working to address those, too. For example, our work to support and grow a national network of flying clubs can not only save pilots money, it can also increase their access to aircraft and give them the support and camaraderie they need to keep flying.

6. What do you think could be done to encourage more student starts and, more important, more student completions?

I think work on reversing the decline in the pilot population is incredibly important. AOPA’s own emphasis has been on working directly with the flight training providers. Most recruitment and training of flight students happens at a very local level, through a patchwork of flight schools, flying clubs and independent flight instructors. Our first job is to help them find more students, which will mean creating marketing initiatives that are effective at a local level.

But, as you say, the customer experience of flight training is perhaps even more important. There’s little point attracting more students if they don’t actually become pilots. It is important that as an industry, we all work to raise standards across the flight training industry by providing knowledge, training and recognition. Finally, while we think there’s a lot we can do to help people start, and finish, training, AOPA isn’t working alone. We want to work as collaboratively as possible with all the organizations, businesses and community groups that are working hard to attract kids and families to aviation, and to make flying fun and exciting again.

7. Government and industry have vacillated between technology and basic flying skills as the key to safer flying. Any thoughts on this?

To choose one or the other seems a little shortsighted. Basic flying skills are, well, basic. Being able to control the airplane in a wide range of circumstances is critical and we have to teach and reinforce those skills. But there’s no reason we shouldn’t also use the great technology that’s available to us. Think about cars as an example. Driving skills are important and need to be maintained. But decades ago, driving meant being able to operate a stick shift. That’s no longer true, so it doesn’t make sense to demand that everyone know how to use a standard transmission. At the same time seatbelts, airbags, and even better headlights have made dramatic contributions to safety. These are technologies that didn’t exist 50 years ago, but I wouldn’t want to drive without them.

8. The FAA made EAA pay for air traffic services at Oshkosh. Do you think that set a bad precedent?

Air traffic control services are meant to provide a margin of safety to pilots and public, especially in high-traffic environments. In some ways, charging for those services defeats the purpose. What if they had been charges to individuals? Some pilots might opt out to save money. If enough pilots did that, the system wouldn’t be able to operate effectively, and that would create, not prevent, a hazardous situation.

9. If you had to pick just one, what would be your best aviation day so far?

That’s a little like the question about my last flight. How do you pick just one? Any day I’m the air is a good day. So is any day I spend with other pilots, even if we’re doing more talking than flying. I guess I’d have to say my best aviation day is the next one.

10. What can the average pilot or AOPA member do to help GA?

We can do a lot. AOPA members and pilots are such energetic people. The challenge is to channel that energy where it can do the most good. For now, though, I’d say every pilot can do two things: fly and share the experience. Every time you fly, you prove that GA matters to you. When you fly you help support our industry and you show decision makers that you’re invested in GA. Every time you share your experiences, whether that means telling people about flying or inviting them out to the airport to look around, you are giving those people a chance to fall in love with aviation, too. Every pilot I know fell in love with flying at some point—usually long before they earned a certificate. But that only happens if you are exposed to GA. Every one of us can give someone that opportunity.

21 Comments

  1. SAM SUTTLE says:

    Mark

    These are the best questions and responses I’ve read/heard from any source since you took the helm at AOPA.
    I wish you well in your endeavors!!

    • Mark Evans says:

      Mark, congratulations on your new position. Your business acumen is a strong suit toward bettering the environment in general aviation these days. You have your work cut out for you.

      Having been involved in aviation since the late 1960′s, formerly and currently, operate a business with multi-engine piston twins, and as an airline pilot at various levels over past 36 years, I see the cost of aviation as the largest barrier to success. The price and availability of piston engine aviation fuel is the largest impediment to a vibrant GA market. Until a less costly replacement alternative is readily available – which gets the alphabet groups off its’ back, quells the anxiety of the EPA, and gives people a fighting chance to afford to fly aircraft, general aviation will continue its’ descent.

      Another issue that faces GA, is accessibility. Due to the creation of the TSA, and fences around so many airports, people can no longer wander around, look at airplanes up close, dream, and talk to pilots and mechanics… like during aviation’s heyday. There is an elitist aura that now surrounds much of this tier aviation (because only a select few can afford it anymore), which is turning away many would-be aviators of tomorrow. People are losing the romance. This is not the case everywhere, but it is becoming quite prevalent with the closing of so many smaller grass roots GA fields over the past 10-20 years, mostly due to urban sprawl. I see these factors as the biggest challenges that need to be hurdled. Long term solutions in these areas will pave the way for an upward trend in general aviation for the future. Aviation has always been about dreams, and the hopes to turn those into reality. If the reasonable expectation of that process is altered, so will be attractiveness of it.

  2. @Mark, AOPA; what we need is to desperately and vigorously increase new starts in aviation. There has got to be a forced increase in demand for flight training and support services. EAA has the correct approach with the Young Eagles and Eagles (Adult) introduction to flight programs. Sporty’s is helping by joining EAA and facilitating training flights. Programs like the Coachella Valley Youth Aviation Education (www.facebook.com/cvyaep), which I and other locals proudly helped establish and fund, reach the root of the next generation of pilots where hundreds new students have been given ground and flight training by volunteer flight instructors free of charge. EAA, YAA, AOPA and the likes of CVYAEP have got to mesh at the same time in open cooperation and recognition. There are more than 5,000 airports where on-going new pilot start initiatives can be implemented. That’s how we will revitalize all aviation in America. What you in VA do and what I do here in Thermal CA matters.

  3. Gary Moore says:

    Yeah – okay – some interesting questions – though 5 or 6 of them not terrible insightful as to Mr. Baker’s goals and intentions for the organization. I would have liked to have seen some inquires into things like: 1) what will you do to increase the transparency of the organization to it’s members? 2) would you favor having the associations directors be elected by the membership? 3) Do you have plans to diversify the leadership of the association beyond it’s current make up which seems to be mainly wealthy, older, white males?

    The organization appears to have significant problems that many remembers have been pointing to for years – and little seems to be done to address them. I hope Mr. Baker can make a difference…..

  4. Mike Garrison says:

    Mark, I am very glad to see you take this position. AOPA had a serious setback during Craig Fullers time and we needed to get rid of him. I am a 53 year member of AOPA, a Master CFI and an FAA DPE. Many of my students and former students dropped their membership during Craig’s tenure. AOPA EXPO was the top Aviation Event,of the year and Craig turned this into a fund raising event, charging extra for the dinners, for some of the events, and genially ruined a wonderful event. In Kansas City we always had 2-3 Town Meetings under Phil Boyer and we have had zero under Craig. Members were not important to him, he was focused on raising money. I would renew my membership, and I have done this regularly since 1960, and the day after I renewed Craig would send me a renewal notice, a full year ahead of it being due. His only focus was raising money, not the members, not the programs, not the value, only squeezing money from the membership. I have several friends on the AOPA staff,and they personally would share with me their disappointment with the change of direction from AOPA Memebes to raising money, and squeezing the members rather thanserving the members. Tomorrow will be a glorious day to finally return AOPA back to aviation, supporting our pilot members, and moving ahead to promote GA, not to see how we can get some more money out of our members.

    I am here to help you anyway I can. I will go after those who dropped heir membership due to Craig’s mess. I think this will be an easy sell, now that we are rid of his money raising focus. I hope we will see you soon in the Kansas City area. Phil would fly in early afternoon and sit in the airport and talk to local pilots, he supported our membership. Craig never did this, he just plain did not care about anything except raising money.

    Thank you for rescuing AOPA, we need you and will support you.

    Mike Garrison, MCFII, CFII, MEI, FAA DPE

    • Bob Fry says:

      Glad you said this! I too felt that Mr. Fuller was simply a fund-raising hack with no real goal as to what to do with the money. Mr. Baker sounds like a return to a genuine airplane enthusiast in charge again. Looking forward to the new leadership.

  5. Seeking a solution, rather than another a war with AOPA? …carefully worded questions and somewhat disappointing.

  6. Robert Cone says:

    While the growth of GA is essential to survival, adding new students is a long term solution that may not see benefits for years. However, the uncertainty faced by older pilots as they mature is a blanket having a major negative impact on GA. Why would an experienced older pilot purchase a new aircraft today or invest in significant upgrades to the old faithful friend when faced with the possibility that the FAA will revoke the priviledge to fly for medical reasons. Please keep in mind that there is no evidence that the FAA does better than a proposed self certification process. There is a severe opportunity cost to this activity, to say nothing of the FAA’s unfair gamble you play everytime you up for medical certification. It is time to stop this nonsense and watch the older and experienced pilots enjoy their investment. If you don’t know this, new aircraft are more likely purchased by those who are no longer raising children and in fact. I will go anytime with the four thousant hour older pilot to the new and young 100 hour pilot. Experience counts a great deal.

    Here is hoping the new AOPA President, a self proclaimed businessman, fully understands and appreciates the concepts of risk, payback and customers who have an ability to purchase. Get rid of the unnecessary risk, eliminate medical certification for private pilots. A final question, what is the increased medical risk associated with flying IFR or at night? I really need help on this one!

    I guess government likes restrictions, it makes them feel like they are doing something! They are, they are destroying an enterprising industry.

  7. Captain William G. Miller says:

    It revolves around 3 words that control the whole of aviation. Cost, cost, and cost. All the people I know who own planes just cant fly because the price of fuel ($6.00+) is prohibitive. We are having enough trouble putting gas in our cars to go to work and the store. With a work population that is suffering from unemployment and underemployment people are just trying to get their mortgages paid for and put food on the table.There is no money for flying which is grossly overpriced.You can talk about all the other things but its the price of gas.

    • phil says:

      Its not cost so much as your wages haven’t kept up with inflation. Capitalism is about profit not fairness.

  8. Ken Lewis says:

    Congratulations Mark! GA needs support.

    I would like to comment on the FAA’s directive on developing a fuel alternative for 100LL. I know there are various organizations involved in this research study and I hope AOPA has a strong voice in this initiative.

    I belong to a flying club in Kansas City with four planes. One plane (a Cessna 172) is MOGAS capable while the others require 100LL. The 172 is consistently the most popular month after month. It has the lowest operating cost because of its rate and the fuel flexibility. I elected to join the club in 2012 for my primary training in this airplane and it saved me a ton of money.

    That said, I am convinced that finding a fuel advantage is key for revitalizing GA. I am certain they will develop an alternative to 100LL, but to the extent possible, let’s do our best to make small planes MOGAS capable. Perhaps even a higher octane version of unleaded such as 91 or 93 octane, or a kerosene based fuel could be used. I fear that any other obscure fuel alternative, strictly refined for small airplanes, will likely be as expensive or even more expensive. The general public isn’t going to care about the price of aviation fuel, but they will all care about the cost of auto fuel. Let’s get our flying on the same page with automobiles so we have more dogs in the fight for lower cost fuel.

    Hi Mike Garrison. Good to hear from you.

  9. Julián Sánchez says:

    Excelent point of view, AOPA is the best organization in the aviation world.
    I would like than You come us visit in Colombia.

  10. We, the older pilots, are the end of the era. Let’s encourage the young to fill the void left by the GA industry’s decline in the last 30 years. In time, hopefully the correct time, more new american pilot starts will turn into more airplanes in the air, more schools, more mechanics, more FBOs, more avionics, a stronger and more robust national GA. We, the old are toast, we can and should help bring the rear up, set the example, stop complaining and fly. That should be our priority, build for the future, anything else is nonsense. INCREASE NEW PILOT STARTS.

  11. My wife says it should be “bring up the rear”.

  12. James Anderson says:

    The lack of pilots has been simmering, now boiling, for 30 years. The AOPA organization, though much needed for lobbying D.C., has not done much to get 30 years of aircraft out of hangers and into the hands of people that want to fly. From the eighties to the mid 2000′s AOPA did nothing but boast how much aircraft had appreciated. Owners just raised the prices and parked them in the hanger expecting some one to pay $100k+ for any old piece of junk with wings. We had almost 85,000 20-24 year olds flying in 1980, today less than 30,000 in that same age group. Even if they have the $10k for a private license, how do you expect them to purchase a new $300k plane. And how on earth is a potential ATP going to amass 1500 hours before he/she makes $1 at a carrier. AOPA representatives I have met over the last 5 years trying to encourage new pilots to fly say “it isn’t the cost.” I have found they are either new pilots, or almost pilots or want-a-be pilots that have never owned a plane. So let me tell them here, it’s the cost, it’s the cost, it’s the cost. Mr Baker, you also will be charged with convincing the aircraft & compoenent manufacturers to reduce the cost of their products. Lycoming’s O-360 doesn’t cost anywhere near $15,000 to produce, but there list price is almost $50,000. It just back in the mid 90′s an eng OH was less than $10k, probably well north of $25k today. And their “core” tradein policy is just a blatant attempt to get older rebuilable engines off the market and away from the independent overhaul shops so they can maintain their exoribitant margins. I congratulate you on your new role and I wish you a tremendous amount of luck, cause you’re going to need it.

    • phil says:

      Most consumer goods are now manufactured by robots or from low wage countries. When you see the cost of hand made American goods and services you realise how much that your wages has gone down over time.

  13. Bob Knight says:

    As the Chairman of the Board of Sun N Fun here in Lakeland,Fla., I am proud to say we are doing a great deal to increase the pilot population. We are fortunate to have our own High School (Central Florida Aerospace Academy) on the campus of SNF. Students at our school have the opportunity to obtain their pilots license here and through our James Ray Foundation, 75% of the total cost is paid for. The remaining 25% is either paid by the student or they elect to work for SNF after school earning credit at an hourly wage. This is just one of our many programs Sun N Fun exist for and our goal is “Sun N Fun’s mission is to preserve and enhance the future of flight through world-class events, inspiring and educating people of all ages”.

  14. Bravo Bob Knight and SnF. To those who are concerned with flight training costs. Comparing the costs of flight training from 1980 to 2012 we can deduce that while the household medium income has increased about 3 fold, the cost of flight training has increased approximately 6 fold. So the proportion is about double. Thus, a PPL now costing $10,000 would have have cost, in 1980, about $5000 in todays dollars. A closer calculation is about $5,500US. Funding from scholarships and grants can cover the difference.

    To bring in new starts in aviation, attempts to cover this problem are being made by EAA, SNF, YAA, SPORTYS, AOPA, other charitable organizations and the Palm Springs Pilots Association, the guys at the Thermal airport, William Granch CFI, my wife Millie and yours truly Rafael Sierra CFI. We are aware of the problem and many of are willing to help – private and commercial aviation needs us.

    Now, new starts in aviation or those who are planning on professional careers in aviation should not expect a free ride and we, the donors and promoters, should not have to pay for all, meaningful assistance is the key.

  15. Paul Frere says:

    Ten softball questions, ten unspecific answers. I am disappointed.

    “Mark, in your management career have you had the luxury of the ratio of reserve funds to revenue that you found at AOPA? How do you think AOPA’s excess funds should be used to benefit the members and flying in general.”

    “There are indications of insider dealing and nepotism at AOPA. How do you view the fact that John Yodice’s firm has a lock on the AOPA legal services program? How do you view the fact that his daughter was selected to write a column in the magazine?”

    “The flight planning software space is well-served, even saturated, by companies that belong to AOPA members and companies that support AOPA as advertisers. Will you consider cancelling AOPA’s efforts to compete with its constituents in flight planning software and other endeavors?”

    “What about the jet? Do you see a cost/benefit argument for keeping and using the jet? Is there a PR argument, considering the fact that NBAA does not have a jet? Will AOPA members be paying to get you a type rating?”

    …. the list goes on. The stables need cleaning.

    • Steve Phoenix says:

      Paul,
      I think if you will substitute the word “customers” for “members” you will gain a better insight as to how the AOPA works. As I recall, when they bought the jet, it was made clear that the AOPA was not a democratic organization.

      Nevertheless, the AOPA does provide some good political services; which was the original product. And we, as customers, do have the choice of buying or not buying their services.

  16. MX says:

    By Robert Goyer 2012.
    “But AOPA’s move to commercialize itself is not where the organization needs to be headed. Its members are saying so, and now its clients are too. AOPA needs to do its job, working to protect our rights, trying to find new ways to create new pilots, keeping us all flying and flying more frequently and getting the word out that aviation is a great way of life. That’s a worthy mission, and if it’s accomplished by a slightly smaller organization than it once was, then that’s okay too. If it does its job in creating pilots and keeping us all flying, that trend will someday reverse itself.”

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