Flight-sharing Debate Bubbles Up as Senate Preps FAA Bill

Aug 13, 2018 - 3:30 PM

As the U.S. Senate continues to prepare to bring comprehensive Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization legislation to the floor for a vote, a lobbying frenzy is continuing behind the scenes on the potential of an amendment addressing legal limits on flight sharing. Flytenow, working with the Goldwater Institute, has been pushing a possible amendment based on Sen. Mike Lee’s (R-Utah) bill that would open the door to online flight sharing in the U.S.

But the Lee measure, the Aviation Empowerment Act, S.2650, is drawing fierce opposition from aviation organizations that fear it will compromise safety and open the door to gray charter by altering definitions of pilots, compensation, and common carriage. One of the major objections to the legislation is a measure to permit private pilots to receive compensation for flying persons or property if operating an aircraft with eight or fewer seats.

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The bill would reimburse certain airports and businesses affected by TFRs and would call for better Part 135 incident reporting data.

The Goldwater Institute last week fought back against those objections, releasing an editorial titled “Special Interests Try to Kill Flight-Sharing in the U.S.” The editorial opens with a scenario of people who wish to fly between Boston and New York essentially having only the options of flying on an airliner or charter. Noting the inconvenience and expense of those, the editorial said Flytenow has been attempting to provide a third option—enabling pilots and passengers to connect via the internet—and adds that Europe has permitted such efforts without incident.

The FAA shut down that effort, saying pilots were illegally operating commercial operations, and a court case to overturn that determination failed when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear it.

The editorial said Lee’s bill, which the Institute claims has “bipartisan support and approved language from the FAA,” can address the legal issues surrounding such operations. “Unfortunately, entrenched status quo special interests, including the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), are preventing this common-sense legislation from moving forward,” according to the editorial. These “status quo forces,” the editorial adds, “are removing an entire segment of affordable travel options for passengers across the U.S.”

While the Flytenow effort has received objections from multiple aviation groups, including the National Air Transportation Association, the editorial takes further aim at AOPA, reminding of the association’s stated mission “to preserve pilot freedoms to keep general aviation accessible to all” and adding, “Yet AOPA has never surveyed its members to determine whether they support internet communications for flight sharing—a huge number of whom plainly want this basic freedom."

The editorial further says the safety objections are a red herring because such flights must comply with all general aviation safety standards. “It is also a fallacy to compare flight-sharing to commercial operations, such as an ‘Uber of the Skies,’” the editorial added. “Flight-sharing merely defrays operating expenses—commercial profit is simply not possible on the platform as pilots must always pay a pro rata share of operating expenses.”

AOPA, meanwhile, responded that it has “always supported cost sharing for flights with others who have a common purpose and we have no issues with how pilots communicate.” But given recent court cases and legal interpretations, such activities must be done in a safe and deliberate manner, with safety parameters at the forefront to properly manage risk.

“If, however, that risk is not managed, the reaction and ramifications could do real harm to general aviation,” AOPA said. The association added that it has worked with lawmakers on a measure that would pave the way for flight sharing to move forward. That measure would seek clearer guidance from the FAA and a study on what is permissible.

NATA also endorsed that language—Section 516 in the House-passed reauthorization bill. But in a fact sheet outlining its opposition to the Aviation Empowerment Act, the association said the legislative fixes now sought by Flytenow “would provide carte blanche authority for private pilots to establish public transportation services. It would undermine the distinction that rightly exists between private aircraft flights where expenses are shared by individuals with a common purpose and commercial flights where members of the public are transported by aircraft for remuneration.”

As for the reauthorization bill, which could be a likely vehicle for the Aviation Empowerment Act, the fate is still uncertain. Comprehensive FAA reauthorization legislation has wide-ranging support from both the House and Senate, and Senate leaders continue to work to find floor time. Senate and House aviation staffers are due to meet soon to hammer out initial differences in their respective bills even though the Senate bill has not yet passed. Lawmakers are hopeful that having consensus on the bills will make reauthorization easier to pass in the Senate.

The bill could come up at any time, but it is unclear when it will reach the floor.