The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Organization (AOPA) just wrapped up this year's Summit in Palm Springs and one of their latest initiatives is to increase the active pilot population is by touting flying clubs. This seems more productive than their earlier fixation on the flight training drop-out rates and dubious market surveying techniques because flying clubs are one way to reduce the cost of flying. Even if AOPA won't admit it, the expense of aircraft, fuel and instruction are probably the greatest impediments to keeping a pilot flying and active in aviation. Flying clubs can also provide a social activities that may otherwise be missing from the average private pilot's flying experience.
Pilot Certification Facts
A curious claim in AOPA's press release is that there are about 500,000 pilots with "lapsed certificates." What's odd about that statement is that pilot certificates in the US do not expire. That's right, once you earn a pilot certificate it's yours until the day you draw you last breath unless you voluntarily surrender it (14 CFR 61.27), are deemed a threat to national security (14 CFR 61.18), or do something so dangerous and stupid as pilot-in-command that it draws the ire of the FAA and the NTSB.
There is no such thing as a pilot's license in the US because pilot-in-command (PIC) privileges derive from a specific combination of features. To act as PIC you must 1) hold a pilot certificate for category, class and type (if a type rating is required), 2) for powered aircraft you must possess a valid medical certificate (a valid driver's license will suffice for sport pilot privileges), 3) not have any medical impairment that would prevent you from meeting the requirements of a medical certificate (14 CFR 61.53) and 4) have completed a flight review within the last 24 calendar months (14 CFR 61.56).
So what does AOPA mean when they use the phrase "lapsed certificate?" It's hard to know, but reading between the lines it would seem they mean a pilot whose flight review has expired and/or a pilot who does not hold a valid medical certificate (or driver's license for sport pilot privileges). How they were able to acquire the necessary data to arrive at the number of half a million pilots has not been disclosed as of this writing.
The Flying Club Equation
There are several factors that allow flying clubs to be more economical than a flying school or private aircraft ownership, but some of the cost-saving features may give you pause. Maintenance can be less costly for flying clubs. If a flying club's members are, as a group, the owners of the club's aircraft, then the aircraft are not considered "for hire" and 100 hour inspections are not required. Just because 100 hour inspections are not required does not mean that the aircraft won't require regular maintenance in order to be in a condition for safe flight. It's advisable for club aircraft to still have 50 hour oil changes and regular maintenance, even if that maintenance is a subset of the 100 hour inspection criteria described in 14 CFR 43 Appendix D.
Flying clubs may also benefit from free or low-cost labor from volunteers who help with bookkeeping, administrative duties, and the other work needed to keep the club going. If the club uses volunteer labor, there is no payroll to maintain, and no tax withholding to compute. This keeps a club's overhead low when compared to a full-service flight school or FBO.
Saving money is good, but it may lead to unintended consequences. If a club scrimps on maintenance, it may be at the expense of safety. Just because the regulations may not require inspections does not mean that aircraft can fly with reduced maintenance. There is a tension between affordability and safety that must be carefully managed.
Another set of factors that can drive up costs is often beyond the control of the flight school or flying club. Airports are usually managed by a local city or county government and it's common for larger airport to charge more for rent, fuel, and most anything else you can think of. It makes sense that larger airports, particularly 14 CFR 139 airports (ones that provide the necessary infrastructure for air carrier service) will have higher operating costs and greater federal oversight. The presence of air carrier service may impose security and badging requirements that are absent at smaller, non-towered airports.
Fuel costs can vary widely, but generally fuel costs less at smaller, non-towered airport than at bigger airports. The reasons for this are many, but usually there are extra per-gallon fees tacked on at larger airports which, in theory, go toward maintaining the airport's more complex infrastructure.
In addition to cost, another issue that keeps many pilots from flying is their busy work schedules. Staying gainfully employed may not afford pilots the time required to stay current and, more importantly, proficient. Hamish has a cogent description of this very predicament you can read here. Joining a flying club will likely have little if any impact on the problem of not having enough time.
Actual Cost Savings
It's unclear whether or not there are many effective strategies left for reducing the cost of general aviation flying. About all the value that can be squeezed out of flight instructor, mechanic, and line-worker salaries has already occurred. Based on their publications and press releases, it's seems AOPA is working several fronts to try to increase the number of active pilots: Eliminate the need for a medical certificate, reduce aircraft certification requirements, and prevent ATC user fees from being implemented. I'm all for keeping the pilot population at a reasonable level, but not at the expense of safety. AOPA's goal of garnering more members may be good for AOPA, but it's not clear that it's necessarily good for the aviation community or aviation safety. And how AOPA arrived at the number of 500,000 "lapsed" pilots remains a mystery as of this writing.