April 19, 2021
By Jon Riches
President Joe Biden has proposed spending trillions of dollars to modernize everything from trains to roads to airports (while also stretching the definition of “infrastructure” farther than the Transcontinental Railroad). But there’s one thing Congress could do to bring transportation into the 21st century, and it won’t cost a penny: eliminate outdated regulations that are clipping the wings of innovators in general aviation by passing legislation proposed by Sen. Mike Lee.
Today, if you want to fly from Chicago to St. Louis or Boston to New York City, you really only have two options: fly commercial or charter a plane. The former is getting more and more inconvenient (especially now with COVID regulations), and the latter is too expensive for most Americans. Good news is, there could be a third way—one where you could take a small, private aircraft at a general aviation airport for a fraction of the cost of other travel options. Trouble is, regulators at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are stuck in the Stone Age and are getting in the way.
For over 60 years, the FAA allowed pilots and passengers to connect with each other to share flight plans using whatever communication devices were available to them, including email, telephone, word of mouth, or posting flyers on local airport bulletin boards. A start-up company called Flytenow simply applied this framework to the digital age by allowing pilots to post flight information on the internet. .
Europe has embraced web-based flight sharing for years to tremendous benefit to pilots and the public, but the FAA would have none of it and effectively banned the practice in 2015. The Goldwater Institute teamed up with Flytenow to challenge this interpretation, with the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately declining to take the case.
But now, there’s new hope for bringing this innovation back to the air thanks to two laws proposed by Sen. Lee—the Aviation Empowerment Act and the Flight Sharing Freedom Act—which would reverse the FAA’s ban on online flight-sharing by allowing private pilots to communicate with the public through the internet, or in any manner they deem appropriate.
Internet-based flight-sharing complies with all existing general aviation safety standards. Moreover, because pilots and passengers have more information about one another than they otherwise would, it is safer than flight-sharing as it exists today offline. Yet rather than adopt new rules in response to new technology, the FAA has refused to engage in reasoned rulemaking about flight-sharing, prohibiting internet communications outright.
From Uber to Airbnb, “sharing-economy” technologies are upending nearly every industry in the United States and across the globe—to the benefit of consumers everywhere. But while the internet is changing the way people live, work, and travel, government agencies, including the FAA, have been slow to embrace technological change.
The predictable result for general aviation has been less innovation, higher costs, and fewer choices for consumers. It’s time for the FAA to catch up to the digital age—or at least to recognize that in 2021, 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 abroad. It’s time that Americans enjoyed those same communication and travel options here at home. It’s an easy way for Washington to modernize transportation, and it won’t cost trillions of dollars—or even one taxpayer penny—to do it.
Jon Riches is the Director of National Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.