Ridesharing Revolution Takes Flight As Planesharing App Seeks FAA Approval
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UPDATED: Jul 14, 2014
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Ridesharing has hit the headlines recently as companies like Über and Lyft pioneer new ways to get from Point A to Point B using cutting edge apps to disrupt the traditional taxi service. While it is highly unlikely a democratization of commercial air travel will occur any time soon, the world of private flight is quietly embracing the rideshare model. And now the Federal Aviation Administration is getting involved.
While ground-based rideshare services have faced their share of legal hurdles, shared private flights—used to defer the prohibitive costs of fuel, plane rental and hangars—are becoming more common. Startups such as AirPooler and Flytenow are offering apps to allow private pilots to list empty seats on planned flights—seats that can be sold to willing travelers to help with flight costs.
The Difference Between Commercial and Private Pilots
FAA regulations prevent private pilots from running “air taxi” services for a number of reasons, safety being the foremost. Private pilots are not considered common carriers, and thus are held to looser safety standards when it comes to flights. Private pilots generally don’t advertise open seats on flights. Sure, they may ask around to see if anyone wants to take a trip to defer some of the cost, but word of mouth and app-based matchmaking are two very different animals.
The difference between commercial, for-profit pilots and private/recreational pilots is similar to the difference between Über and Lyft drivers and ordinary cabbies. Commercial passenger pilots are held to strict licensing and safety standards, and are heavily regulated by the FAA. Similarly, traditional cab drivers must have special licenses and training and must comply with government regulations aimed at chauffeurs. When private operators—be they pilots or rideshare drivers—begin dipping their toes into for-profit passenger transportation, a bevy of legal questions arise.
As the law currently stands, the FAA allows amateur pilots to find and carry passengers to facilitate the split of flight costs. A passenger may only pay a pro-rata share of the flight costs, meaning that if there is a pilot and a passenger then costs are split 50/50. A passenger may not pay more than his or her pro-rata share of the actual flight costs.
AirPooler is taking a proactive stance and has officially asked the FAA to promulgate their legal interpretation of cost-sharing arrangements. AirPooler has hired former FAA assistant chief counsel Rebecca MacPherson to lead the charge. The hope is that the FAA ruling will allow sites such as AirPooler to legally and unequivocally take a cut of the pro-rata share paid by a passenger. In return for the fee, private pilots would be free to list any open seats on their site. Costs are split, people get from Point A to Point B faster than they would otherwise, and a tech company makes a modest profit.
While AirPooler’s request seems fairly simple at first blush, the FAA will look long and hard at the ramifications of officially sanctioning such activity before making a final decision. Balancing the need to regulate amateur pilots—and protect the well-being of their potential passengers—along with the desire to make amateur flight more affordable through shared costs will be a difficult task.