“Unfortunately, we are left with no choice but to shut down.”
So wrote the co-founder of Flytenow, a now-defunct flight-sharing service, in 2015. The service promised to connect thousands of private pilots flying small aircraft with travelers heading to myriad locations not well-served by the nation’s largest airports.
Such a service would be a boon for vacationers heading to distant beach, lake, or mountain destinations. But the service was grounded courtesy of arbitrary government action.
The Federal Aviation Administration effectively shuttered the business by reinterpreting a decades-old agency memo and reclassifying as “common carriers” private pilots who listed with on Flytenow.
The reinterpretation subjected the pilots to the same heavy-handed regulations applied to large commercial airlines. It was a 180-degree turn from the FAA’s own regulations, which allows private pilots to carry passengers willing to share the costs of the flight.
Pilots have long used bulletin boards to post upcoming flights, attracting passengers able to defray the flight’s expenses. Flytenow brought that practice into the 21st century by letting private pilots and would-be passengers join an online network posting flight plans.
But FAA bureaucrats decided that, while corkboard postings are fine, pixel postings are beyond the pale.
European regulators disagree. The European Aviation Safety Agency interpreted European Union cost-sharing regulations — which are nearly identical to the FAA’s rules — to permit companies like Flytenow to operate. A British-based entity called Wingly now maintains a community of 10,000 pilots serving 150,000 users primarily in Western and Southern Europe.
The FAA’s aberrant decision has denied benefits for the entire aviation industry, which faces a shortage of general aviation pilots, both private and commercial, whose numbers have fallen by more than 20 percent over the last decade. General aviation provides a pipeline of qualified pilots to regional airlines, some of which have had to cease operations due to the shortage.
Obtaining a private pilot’s license is expensive: about $9,500. Moving further to a commercial certification requires even greater more time and money. Introducing flight-sharing would help pilots mitigate the cost of obtaining and maintaining their certifications. Wingly has saved its member pilots over $600,000 since beginning operations in 2016. Furthermore, the service would provide much needed choice to consumers flying to rural or exurban areas, and could replace costly and wasteful federal subsidies currently designated for such purposes. As for safety, general aviation operations are likely the safest they have ever been.
There is hope for the flight-sharing industry. The Aviation Empowerment Act (S.2650), introduced by Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, would revive online flight-sharing businesses in the U.S., restore clarity to a muddled area of the law, and spur more innovation.
The bill would adopt the FAA’s traditional definition of “common carrier” and authorize private pilots to share their flight plans, offer to transport property and up to eight people at a time, and maybe even make an honest dollar doing it.
The bill would not block the FAA from redefining common carriage if and when that became necessary. But it would force the agency to do so through the rule-making processes laid out in the Administrative Procedure Act, rather than through guidance, letters and other administrative maneuvering.
The proposal would further enhance the flight-sharing market by creating a new “personal operator” category. It would allow private pilots who operate only aircraft with eight or fewer seats to fly passengers or property without being subject to certain commercial airline regulations.
Existing airlines and unions may find that compensation issue controversial. But if people are willing to accept the risks, real or perceived, of flying with FAA-certified private pilots, why stand in their way?
The arbitrary nature of the FAA’s ruling and the benefits expected from expanding innovation in flight-sharing clearly justify rethinking the current treatment of the nascent industry.
If Congress chooses the status quo, then we can watch those benefits unfold in Europe while flight-sharing remains grounded in the United States.
This piece originally appeared in The Washington Times