Clear the Runway: The Fight Over ‘Uber for Planes’ Is Coming to Congress
Long before anyone was talking about the sharing economy, private pilots across the United States were already engaging in it. They used bulletin boards at general aviation airports to advertise planned trips to prospective passengers who might want to come along for the ride and share the costs of the flight.
Pilots do that because flying is an expensive hobby. The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association warns would-be aviators to be prepared to spend more than $225 an hour when all flying costs—including fuel, insurance, and airport fees—are included. Since private pilots have to log at least three takeoffs and landings every 90 days to maintain their licenses, there aren’t many viable ways to dodge those costs. So they’ve been sharing costs with passengers since at least the 1960s. For pilots, it’s a crucial method of financing a flying habit. For passengers, it’s an alternative way to reach a destination.
In the age of Uber, it has the potential to be much more. But the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) stands in the way.
In 2014, the FAA shut down attempts to turn those analog billboards into digital ones, ruling that pilots who use online flight-sharing apps would be regulated as “common carriers” like commercial airlines. While that ruling doesn’t directly ban those apps, no private pilot making weekend trips in a single-engine Cessna is going to subject himself or herself to the additional licensing and certification requirements (or mandatory liability insurance) necessary to be a commercial pilot in the eyes of FAA.
In the wake of the agency’s ruling, one of those just-launched apps, FlyteNow, took the federal regulator to court. But last year the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take the case, seemingly grounding the apps for good.
Now Congress has an opportunity to overrule the FAA.
“A personal operator or a flight operated by a personal operator does not constitute a common carrier,” reads part of the Aviation Empowerment Act, a bill introduced today by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). The legislation maintains the current prohibition on private pilots making a profit off flights offered via flight-sharing apps, but it would otherwise allow for the creation of digital billboards advertising trips.
“Innovation is key to competition and accessibility,” Lee told Reason. “Studies and experience with cost-sharing services have proven to be safe and effective in other countries, and it is past time we enact them in our country as well.”
Allowing flight-sharing is a win-win for aviation enthusiasts, whether they are pilots or just enjoy flying. And the small number of private planes and pilots, along with those rules against letting noncommercial pilots earn a profit for their services, means that flight-sharing is unlikely to disrupt commercial airlines in the same way that Uber disrupted the taxi industry. Almost everyone has a car; very few people own private aircraft.
Apps like Flytenow and AirPooler launched in 2013, not long after Uber was becoming a ubiquitous part of non-airborne transportation. Naturally, the apps were often referred to as “Uber for the skies” as the subsequent regulatory and legal battled played out.
But that characterization is not entirely accurate. Unlike Uber or Lyft, these flight-sharing apps intended to do nothing more than the bulletin boards in general aviation airports: They connected pilots and passengers for the purposes of sharing the cost of a flight. Unlike with the ride-sharing services, no one was earning a profit—that, they feared, would violate the FAA’s rules.