by Jennifer Tiedemann
Congress recently unveiled a bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which would set minimum seat dimensions and stop airlines from removing passengers once they’ve gone through the boarding gate. But while these changes may be designed to incrementally improve the flying experience for passengers, bigger change will be needed to create an experience that really works for customers.
One of those needed big changes is in the area of flight-sharing—the act of connecting pilots and passengers to share short-haul flights and split the costs of those trips. Right now, if you want to share a flight in the U.S., you have to go to a regional airport and check a bulletin board for information about pilots who may be making a trip to the destination you want to go. It’s a clearly anachronistic, outdated system—so one company tried to bring flight-sharing into the digital age. Flight-sharing startup Flytenow created an internet-based flight-sharing platform to streamline the process, but the FAA would have none of it, effectively banning web-based flight-sharing in 2015.
Last Tuesday, the Cato Institute hosted a panel discussion on flight-sharing as part of a day-long forum on emerging aerial technologies, featuring Matt Voska, who co-founded Flytenow, and Christopher Koopman of Utah State University. Voska talked about the purpose of Flytenow—a platform that could act as a virtual flight-sharing bulletin board—and how its efforts to ease flight-sharing and make it more accessible to more people were dashed. In 2015, the FAA defined the private pilots of the small aircraft who used the internet to communicate “common carriers,” subject to the same regulations that commercial airline pilots face. The FAA said that expense sharing wasn’t allowed for private pilots if those pilots communicated about their trips via the internet, forcing Flytenow and its website to shutter. The Goldwater Institute teamed up with Flytenow to challenge this interpretation, with the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately declining to take the case.
There are clear benefits of flight-sharing for passengers and pilots—increased flexibility and cost savings, for sure. But given that flight-sharing goes through regional airports rather than major hubs, it also opens up rural areas of the country—so-called “flyover country”—to more travel options and makes it easier to travel to smaller cities. This hits home for Koopman, who lives in northern Utah: He said that in order to get to the Cato event in Washington, D.C., he had to first drive about an hour and a half from his home to the Salt Lake City airport, passing two smaller airports along the way. A 90-minute drive could have easily been replaced by a much quicker flight to Salt Lake City—if online-based flight-sharing were permitted
And beyond convenience and cost, internet-based flight sharing has the most important benefit of all: increased safety. As Voska explained, flight-sharing offers the same pilots and planes whether they’re found online or on a bulletin board—but when these connections occur through an online platform like Flytenow, that platform can provide more insights to pilots and passengers about their trips, including information about weather. Given the high percentage of aviation accidents that are weather-related, having this information and being able to cancel flights in adverse weather conditions can have a significant impact on the accident rate. Furthermore, Koopman pointed out, flight-sharing through an online platform allows for outside verification of pilots, so customers can be more confident in the flight they choose to take.
While the Supreme Court didn’t take up Flytenow’s case, there still is a glimmer of hope for internet-based flight-sharing. Senator Mike Lee and other members of Congress have been backing the Aviation Empowerment Act, which would allow for web-based expense sharing. But in the face of pushback—including some from the general aviation community, Voska said, “we’re just getting further and further behind on Europe.” (You can read Voska and his fellow Flytenow co-founder Alan Guichard’s take on the bill here.)
As Goldwater Institute Director of National Litigation Jon Riches wrote earlier this year, the FAA must take steps to catch up to the digital age. And embracing internet-based flight-sharing is an important part of that move, so that passengers have a more convenient, most cost-conscious option to get where they want to go.
Jennifer Tiedemann is the Deputy Director of Communications at the Goldwater Institute.