by Jon Riches
If you wanted to fly from Boston to New York City today, you would essentially have only two options: commercial airliner or charter service. The former is fraught with the inconvenience and expense we have come to expect from commercial air travel, and the latter is cost-prohibitive for most Americans. But imagine if there was a third option—one where you could take a small, private aircraft at a general aviation airport for a fraction of cost of other travel options.
Up until a few years ago, an innovative company called Flytenow was making this a reality. Until the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) shut them down.
Now, thanks to the efforts of Sen. Mike Lee, there is a legislative effort—with bipartisan support and approved language from the FAA—that can address this problem and allow expense sharing to take off in the United States. Unfortunately, entrenched status quo special interests, including the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), are preventing this common-sense legislation from moving forward.
Expense-sharing among general aviation pilots and passengers has been common since the earliest days of aviation. It has also been expressly approved by the FAA for over 60 years. Pilots and passengers have been able to connect with each other to share flight plans using whatever communication devices were available to them, including e-mail, telephone, word of mouth, or posting flyers on local airport bulletin boards. Flytenow simply applied this framework to the digital age by allowing pilots to post flight information on the internet.
This act of using the internet to communicate, however, was too much for the FAA. The FAA deemed private pilots of small four- to six-seat aircraft who used the internet to communicate “common carriers,” subject to the same regulations that apply to Delta and American Airlines pilots. The FAA then issued an order that shut down Flytenow and its website on which pilots communicated.
At the same time the FAA was taking this action, the European Aviation Safety Agency—the FAA’s European equivalent—was allowing the very same internet flight operations in Europe. Europe has now successfully permitted internet-based flight sharing for years, without incident.
Yet, status quo forces want to prevent pilots from using the internet to communicate, and in the process, they are removing an entire segment of affordable travel options for passengers across the United States.
Introduced in the U.S. Senate by Sen. Mike Lee, the Aviation Empowerment Act would do what should have been done years ago: Make it clear that pilots can use whatever means of communication they feel is appropriate, including the internet, to communicate their flight plans. The language in this amendment is supported by Republicans and Democrats, and it has been reviewed by the FAA. Quite modestly, it says that private pilots who share expenses are not the equivalent of commercial airline pilots and should not be treated as such by regulators.
Oddly enough, the bill has been met with opposition from AOPA, whose stated mission is to preserve pilot freedoms to keep general aviation accessible to all. Yet AOPA has never surveyed its members to determine whether they support internet communications for flight sharing—a huge number of whom plainly want this basic freedom. As a result, AOPA’s opposition seems to be driven more by the shortsighted views of a few managers who prefer the status quo rather than the views of its pilot membership or the flying public.
Safety objections to flight-sharing are also a red herring. Internet-based flight sharing complies with all existing general aviation safety standards, and because pilots and passengers have more information about one another than they otherwise would, it is actually safer than flight-sharing as it exists today, where passengers and pilots communicate by airport bulletin boards.
It is also a fallacy to compare flight-sharing to commercial operations, such as an “Uber of the Skies.” Flight-sharing merely defrays operating expenses—commercial profit is simply not possible on the platform as pilots must always pay a pro rata share of operating expenses.
As Flytenow has observed, internet-based flight sharing that would be permitted under Sen. Lee’s bill decreases the cost of aircraft ownership, promotes safety by allowing pilots to keep their skills current, stimulates economies at regional airports and integrated airports, and brings the U.S. in line with Europe, where internet-based flight-sharing has been experiencing tremendous success for years.
Yet rather than adopt new views to meet new technologies, AOPA and other special interest groups would prefer to prohibit internet communications outright.
The predictable result for general aviation in the U.S. has been less innovation, higher costs, and fewer choices for consumers. It’s time for the FAA and AOPA to catch up to the digital age, or at least recognize that in 2018, Americans use the internet rather than bulletin boards to communicate. By recognizing this simple fact, Europe has provided enormous opportunities for general aviation pilots and passengers. It’s time that Americans enjoyed those same communication and travel options right here in the birthplace of aviation.
Jon Riches is the director of national litigation at the Goldwater Institute.