Flight Sharing Startup Seeks FAA Approval

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With the FAA reportedly scrutinizing apps and websites that have sprung up to match general aviation pilots and potential passengers to fly and split expenses, at least one startup has formally asked that the FAA rule on its legality. According to TechCrunch, AirPooler's request will be ruled upon in the next few months. In the meantime, AirPooler has stopped listing flights on its site. AirPooler’s attorney, Rebecca MacPherson, a former FAA assistant chief counsel, said, “This is an issue that the FAA is very uncomfortable with because they’re worried about abuses. They’re looking at what restraints they could put on the response to make sure there’s a minimum number of bad actors in the marketplace.”

14 CFR (FAR Part) 61.113 prohibits a private pilot from receiving compensation for flying—and the FAA has long considered free flying time as compensation. He or she may, however, split the cost of a flight that has a common purpose—although the costs are limited to “fuel, oil, airport expenditures, or rental fees.” The FAA has ruled that an aircraft owner pilot cannot include the costs of maintenance, hangar rental and insurance when splitting costs with passengers, although a pilot renting an airplane can split the full cost of the rental. In general, once a pilot receives any compensation or the passenger pays more than the pro-rata cost of the flight, the FAA generally considers the flight to be “for hire” and holds the pilot and airplane to much stricter “common carrier” safety standards. Historically, pilots have used word of mouth to see if anyone wants to fly with them and split the costs—and the FAA has brought enforcement actions against pilots that the FAA thought were acting as illegal air taxi operators while claiming to just be splitting costs. Apps and websites allow pilots to put the word out to a much wider audience—and the app or website takes a cut of the money the passenger pays, both of which have the FAA wary. 

MacPherson said regulators “certainly have some legitimate concerns that these kinds of operations [like AirPooler] would require a little more oversight than they’re used to giving the general aviation community.” She was hopeful that the FAA will preserve the planesharing ability, but make it officially legal for pilots to list extra seats on flights they were planning on sites like AirPooler, and allow companies that facilitate the connection to earn a cut of the passenger’s contribution.