Flight sharing: Europe and US at odds over a growing industry

Flight sharing is an increasingly popular way to travel abroad, with new, innovative platforms popping up to connect passengers directly with pilots. But while the European flight sharing market is growing, in the US obstructive regulation has so far been used to weigh down bourgeoning start-ups.

The concept of flight sharing, which involves the sharing of the costs of small aircraft flights between a licensed pilot and their passengers, might come as a new notion even for avid travellers. However, this has been a tried and tested method of flying since at least the 1960s, when private pilots used to advertise their routes via airport bulletin boards.

In recent years, online platforms such as Wingly and Coavmi in Europe, and (the now defunct) Flytenow and AirPooler in the US have seized the opportunity. Much like Uber or Lyft, they created accessible platforms for users to search for flights, contact pilots and secure seats on shared flights in a simple, safe and secure manner.

But while in Europe new safety regulation and financial injections are helping this new market to blossom, in the US, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) decided to outlaw flight sharing and ban any such platforms from advertising private flights to the public. What can this stark difference in approach between the two be attributed to? And can a new bill finally turn the US ban around?

A simple idea, executed well

Aviation is expensive. Whether you’re a passenger hunting for affordable deals on airplane tickets, or a private pilot, both the price of travelling and maintaining it as a hobby can be prohibitively expensive for many.

To keep their licence, pilots usually have to amass a minimum number of flight hours, landings and take-offs in a single year. According to Christopher Koopman, senior research fellow and director of the Technology Policy Program at the Mercatus Center, a pilot who flies 100 hours a year could spend about $225.30 per hour when all costs are accounted for.

In Europe, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) fortified the practice by publishing a safety charter, solidifying the principles, responsibilities and values on both the pilots’ and passengers’ part when sharing flights. As of April 2017, six online platforms (BBPlane, Coavmi, FlyBook, Flyt.club, Flytaxi and Wingly) had signed the charter.

Further guidance from the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) underpins the boundaries of flight sharing: the non-commercial aircraft needs to transport no more than six passengers; only the direct costs of flying (fuel, airfield charges and rental fee) are allowed to be split; and there should be no element of profit on either part.

Photo: Wingly