Why, in a country that’s traditionally supported ingenuity and innovation, is this happening? The truth is, we have the innovation to save general aviation in the U.S., but opposition from regulators and special interest groups invested by the status quo is preventing that innovation from occurring. It’s time for Congress to step in.
General aviation, or GA — civilian aviation other than passenger airline service — serves as the cradle of future airline transport pilots. It is a laboratory where the most advanced aircraft are built, and it provides a lifestyle filled with passion and wonder that supports local economies.
Unfortunately, rising costs have put pressure on this important segment of our economy. Since 1980, the cost of aviation fuel has increased over 1200 percent, making it increasingly difficult for people to enter aviation, and not surprisingly, the number of certificated pilots has dropped by more than 30 percent since that time. And as the number of pilots drops, local economies suffer, too: As airports close, the jobs that go with them — from restaurants to aviation services to air traffic control — also disappear.
But we can save GA by applying commonsense innovation to an age-old general aviation practice. For decades, private pilots have been legally sharing flying expenses with passengers. For pilots, flight-sharing defrays the high costs of flying, and for passengers, it’s an alternative way to reach a destination or experience flying in a private plane.
In 2013, we founded Flytenow, an Internet-based, flight-sharing startup offering an online bulletin board to facilitate cost-sharing arrangements between pilots and passengers. By showing a pilot’s qualifications, confirming them with the Federal Aviation Administration, and enabling both parties to connect via social media and direct messaging, we created a safe, efficient method of flight-sharing that can help pilots defray the costs of aircraft operation and ownership by as much as 75 percent.
That was, until the FAA ruled in mid-2014 that any pilot using the Internet to communicate had to comply with the same regulations applicable to commercial airlines. With that ruling, flight-sharing in the U.S. came to an abrupt halt, and general aviation continued its downward trend.
Meanwhile, as the FAA acted to shut down online flight-sharing in the U.S., its European counterpart, the European Aviation Safety Agency, embraced it. Today, online flight-sharing in Europe is on track to do 60,000 flights per year and has been so successful that EASA has even expanded it to allow more types of aircrafts.
Since the FAA’s ruling, we committed to working with Congress to pass legislation with a simple guiding principle: A pilot should be able to communicate to an audience of any size using whatever means he or she chooses to share a flight, including the Internet, so long as the flight is not for profit.
Now, thanks to the efforts of Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and several members of Congress, there is bipartisan support for the revised Aviation Empowerment Act, which allows for Internet-based expense sharing. The 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 EASA.
Oddly enough, the bill has met with opposition from some in the general aviation community, including the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, whose stated mission is to preserve pilot freedoms to keep GA accessible to all. But make no mistake: Pilots want this bill, and GA needs this bill.
The rest of the world is either moving toward an embrace of flight-sharing or has already done so, but special interests are stifling this innovation in the very birthplace of aviation. Congress should not be beholden to these forces bolstering an unsatisfactory status quo. Members should act swiftly to pass the revised Aviation Empowerment Act and make flight-sharing a reality here.
Matt Voska and Alan Guichard are the co-founders of Flytenow, a flight-sharing service.