A Terrible, Bad, Really Wrong Idea

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I had a sinking feeling the other day when I read that a senator in Utah has introduced a bill to try to make it OK for pilots to seek out passengers by using apps and the Internet, joining the “sharing economy” of Uber and Airbnb. This argument already played out, over a year ago. So far, the courts have upheld the FAA’s notion that pilots who try to share flights online are essentially “holding out” and engaging in “common carriage.” Now Senator Mike Lee, of Utah, is sponsoring the Aviation Empowerment Act, which argues that sharing the expenses of a flight with passengers does not amount to “compensation,” so the FAA’s scruples don’t apply.

Some pilots argue flight-sharing online is no different really from hanging a note on the airport bulletin board, which is just fine with the FAA. Some (including AVweb’s Paul Bertorelli) say flight-sharing amounts to a private exchange among grown-ups, and the FAA should leave it alone. Some point to Wingly, a flight-sharing site based in Europe, that claims to have helped arrange more than 10,000 bookings since it launched last year. Wingly pilots must have logged at least 100 hours and verify that they’re current. As far as I can tell, from a quick Google search, people seem to like it, and I found no reports about safety concerns or reports of accidents.

But I still think it’s a bad idea for the U.S. I think there are pressures and hazards specific to aviation that make flight-sharing a whole different thing from ride-sharing. Mainly, my concern rests on the fact that for many pilots, building time, in itself, has value. Even if a pilot is just breaking even on the flight expenses, the more hours you log, the closer you get to qualifying for the next certificate needed for the next job. This puts extra pressure on pilots to want to make those flights happen.

With the reach of the Internet on everyone’s cellphone, it would be immeasurably easier to keep that airplane full and flying, as compared to that lonely note on a bulletin board. The Skyhawk or Cirrus becomes a de facto little airline, only with no oversight. Your private pilot, age 17 and up, with maybe 100 hours of flight time, or less, is the final authority. Yikes.

My other concern is that flight safety depends on a zillion parameters that may not be easy for the casual passenger to understand — weather, and TFRs, and weight and balance, and all kinds of variables that might affect the flight’s outcome. This is less true when it comes to sharing a ride in a car — especially since most passengers are also licensed to drive, and there are fewer variables to determine a safe arrival. When passengers show up at the airport, ready to go, and the clouds roll in, will that 100-hour private pilot have the confidence to disappoint them? What if the pilot is just not feeling well, or tired? Will safety parameters be decided, and abandoned, on a whim?

It’s easy to imagine all the million ways this could go bad. The upside is, I can’t imagine that the FAA will let it happen. But Bertorelli could be right … the speed of modern life will carry us along to flight-sharing, sooner or later. If he’s right, then I’m hoping I’m wrong.

Comments (24)

I think I'm on the side of giving it a shot, as long as the passengers, who presumably are not aviation-savvy, are fully informed of just what private, Part 91 flying, really is, and get an accurate picture of its safety relative to driving or airline flying.

Would you get on the back of a motorcycle with someone you've never met before? I personally wouldn't, but there are those who would.

As long as the passengers realize that is close enough to what you're doing by stepping into a private plane with someone, I'm inclined to say we should try it. If nothing else: it could get people flying more, and more hours means more currency and, one would hope, more safety.

Even if this bill passes, which I have my doubts about, I don't think much will come of it, anyway. In the end, the insurance companies have just as much say in what people can do with their planes as the FAA does, and I'd hazard a guess that they'll all pretty much carve out public ride-sharing as not covered without a commercial policy, and the experience and operational requirements that come with it.

Posted by: Joshua Levinson | April 12, 2018 10:51 PM    Report this comment

PB is correct. But not for 100 hr Private pilots. Maybe a minimum of 250 hr PIC with an instrument rating.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 12, 2018 11:00 PM    Report this comment

The European case is quite interesting as it gives both a regulation and practical example. It seems that the European Aviation Safety Agency (the EU FAA) is a strong supporter of these platforms. Indeed they built a Safety Charter that they officially display on their website and that platforms such as Wingly have signed and advertised on their website too.

I do hope that if ever such a concept works in the US that it will be an American platform and not a French-based start-up benefiting from the strong conservatism of our institutions on the topic.

Posted by: Arthur Becherant | April 13, 2018 3:23 AM    Report this comment

I've written about this a few years ago for HuffPo.

I can't post the URL, but search for it under my name and Huffington Post.

Passengers will never understand the risks (see the helicopter crash in NY as an example). Instead, spur innovation through changes to the single pilot 135 certificates and put it into a regulatory oversight framework. People understand the risks of getting into an Uber, but they will never with a 1970s C152 flown by someone who last shot an IFR to mins on their check ride.

Posted by: andrew schmertz | April 13, 2018 4:05 AM    Report this comment

Uber is a bad example: The concept is great but stories about their low caliber behavior were coming out within a year of starting. Dishonest, dot com nonsense is part of their MO: especially how they called their taxi service some sort of ride-sharing thing. All their drivers formed unions and they've lost all their senior people in bad circumstances.

There has to be a way to make a spare-seats system work in this digital era. It makes sense within the bounds of common (uncommon?) sense. Low time and low proficiency pilots couldn't be involved though. There must be no way for passengers to influence the start and end points of flights. Water finds it's way through any rock eventually but this is something that couldn't be allowed to get gamed.

I'd get an actual ride-sharing service going on the ground first: drivers post their movements and potential passengers can see and maybe snag a ride.

Posted by: Cosmo Adsett | April 13, 2018 5:31 AM    Report this comment

What could possibly go wrong here, let me count the ways, or as Joshua points out, let your insurance company count the ways.

Paul is right about the agreement between grownups, my problem is trying to tell the difference between grownups and axe murdering psycho drug running snake handlers. Seriously, you take on enough liability flying with friends, acquaintances, Young Eagles etc. Sure, most of the time things would probably work well but problems are inevitable and lawyers are plentiful.

For those who like the idea, you're welcome to it, but as for me, I won't participate as either pilot or passenger.

Posted by: Richard Montague | April 13, 2018 8:08 AM    Report this comment

I'm with Mary on this one. Just in the last week a wing fell of of a PA-28 at Embry Riddle and a Comanche went down within minutes after take off. All we need is a few of these kinds of accidents and all the negative publicity and law suits that will be thrown around to further diminish GA.
In theory it's a nice idea: but only if the pilot is super conservative, and we know that private pilots are as much into flying as they are into adventure, which means an appetite for what amounts to adrenalin rushes via skydiving, motorcycle riding, etc. The airlines are safe precisely because flying commercially is pretty boring and automated with the rare and occasional "oops" occurring. PAX will never "get it" and to make matters worse, to quote an old acquaintance of mine, "Ya know how dumb the average person is? Well 50% are dumber!"

Posted by: Richard Katz | April 13, 2018 8:12 AM    Report this comment

Andrew is dead right. Passengers will never understand the full ramifications of getting into an airplane whether it be an Uber type flight or just a plain old joy ride with friends or family. They just won't and don't. Transportation three dimensionally is a whole lot different than transportation two dimensionally. I'd be willing to bet a substantial amount of people would have second thoughts of flying 121 if they fully realized what they were getting into. For most, ignorance is bliss. Not me.

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | April 13, 2018 8:14 AM    Report this comment

I remember a distinct time in my dark past where Wingly was a topic. It seems to work quite well over here in EASA land but like most dinosaurs, I believe it's just one major screw up low time pilot kills famous beautiful person away from creating damage.

Everyone is bent out of shape happy to be part of it, especially on the financial part. No matter how you turn it, deep down its "holding out" for flights and creating a financial reward for pilots who at times seem challenged enough with their solo ADM, however the ones I am really concerned about are unsuspecting passengers.

The counterargument that UBER passengers have equally little protection from unsafe drivers and vehicles has never struck me as valid. I can actually walk around the car and understand what I am looking at, and I'll tell you one minute after getting in a car if I feel as if that may have been a mistake. Then the vehicle stops and Mr. Baker gets run over by a dump truck while trying to cross the street to get to a cab stand...

The chicken and egg debate will be if regulators should be more stringent on Aviation operations than on Automobile rules, however I can kill a very famous business person in my car tomorrow and I can be pretty sure it won't hit national news, nor will anyone sue BMW for having produced my car 16 years ago. Further, no armchair quarterbacks will discuss just how safe driving cars really is.

Consequently, nobody out there would put their nanny hat on and ask the Congress to protect the public from inherent risk and ban or significantly restrict people in their freedom to travel anywhere and anyway they wish, and to risk their skin, while doing so.

Posted by: Jason Baker | April 13, 2018 9:34 AM    Report this comment

The above-elucidated arguments against flight-sharing with strangers apply easily to flight-sharing with friends and family. Be careful what you advocate and/or condemn, because asserting that "only professionals should be allowed to carry passengers" will be populist music to the ears of the non-aviating majority. Proposition: Why should your bowling buddy have less regulatory "protection" than anyone else? Well, that's how this topic will be framed.

How did the FAA step in it, with their (rational and defensible) holding-out argument? They prohibited online out-holding, but approved cork-board out-holding. That leaves them in the position of having to defend the indefensible. Not good for their credibility; not supportive of their logic and consistency.

Essential proposition: Forget about how they meet; should a pilot be allowed to offer a non-compensated ride to a stranger? If you answered "yes," then please define "stranger." Because somebody will have to. Just sayin'......

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | April 13, 2018 9:55 AM    Report this comment

"The above-elucidated arguments against flight-sharing with strangers apply easily to flight-sharing with friends and family."

They can indeed, Yars, but I'm still against such "flight sharing" platforms.


"should a pilot be allowed to offer a non-compensated ride to a stranger?"

As I often answer to many aviation-related questions, "it depends". It first depends on how I met that person, and who they are. Do I have any relation (personally, professionally, familiarly) with, and how strong is that relation. If they're a coworker, or friend, or friend-of-a-friend (that I've met before), or relative (that I know), or other similar relationship that is more than just a barely passing acquaintance, I don't consider them a "stranger". Otherwise, I do.

The next question I ask is, what is the purpose of the flight, and is it driven by me or by them? Let's say I have a non-stranger (as defined above) who wants to take a trip to a nearby favorite of mine, Block Island. If it's some place I would go to by myself anyway, and I feel like going there, I'd say that's ok, even including splitting the good old "pro rata" share of the costs. But if it's to fly a "stranger" into a grass strip for a wedding just to be cool and arrive in style (don't laugh, this is actually a real proposition I was asked about), I would call that a commercial flight that goes against Part 91 regs.


So the way I see it, there are just too many variables to take into account as to where the line between "flight sharing" and commercial on-demand flying is. This isn't too different from organizations like PALS, but at least those are volunteer flights, there are certain minimum flight experience requirements to become a pilot, and the organizations provide at least some information to the "unsuspecting public" that it's not the same as an airline.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | April 13, 2018 10:48 AM    Report this comment

Gary:

Just to be clear, I'm neither endorsing nor condemning flight-sharing apps. I am conjecturing about the regulations that surround the passenger-carrying privileges of Part 91 operations.

Proposition: The relationship of the pilot to the passengers is not material. How the pilot hooks up with the passengers is not material. The material - and corrupting - factor is the sharing of expenses.

Question: If expense-sharing was outlawed, how would you feel about "online out-holding?"

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | April 13, 2018 11:41 AM    Report this comment

Just checked my log book, I started giving rides the days after acquiring the privileges of a Private Pilot. 20 years old with less then 100 hours under my belt and I didn't kill anybody.

Why do we have all these regulations preventing accidents if you folks don't think they work? Commercial truck drivers hauling thousands of gallons of explosive fuel have less requirements then a Private Pilot. The truck driver or drunk can change lanes at the last second and run you over and you never had the choice of sharing the highways with them.

Bad news people, transportation is dangerous! A Flight instructor and a Designated Examiner both feel that a newly minted pilot is ready to share our highway in the sky. A 17 year old LSA pilot with 20 hours can carry one passenger. We fought hard for these rules now accept them.

The pilot shortage comes from the attitude that a new pilot is not capable. So you think only an old cantankerous elite pilot can be safe? I'm going out on a limb here..., most all of you reading this where a low time pilot at first, am I right?

Once we give flight-sharing passengers an extra tax then everything will be fine. Maybe it's about the money? We send our youngest and finest to war, as long as they are protecting ME. Maybe it's about the 'ME'? I'm saying, let the other ME's have their turn, their liberty.

There's no immunization for death. Life is worthless if you don't live it too it's fullest.

Posted by: Klaus Marx | April 13, 2018 11:56 AM    Report this comment

Regulatory and liability differences left aside, I fail to see who advocated on behalf of so-called professional Pilots. For all I personally care, there is no difference in death, no matter if you die a little bit in my car after 23 years of driving and 1.5 million miles under my belt or in my airplane after 28 years of flying and most of the boyscout badges, including the precious FAA Master Safety pins, collected.

It also strikes me as a giveaway that a stranger who paid money for being passenger in my airplane views self as a "customer" of sorts. Our EU and particularly German legal framework allows for the restriction of liability, up to, but not including gross negligence.

None of the dead is any deader than the next dead guy or gal but maximum liability is restricted and judges have been known to do common sense "holding water" tests. With the right famous person dead, this logic seem to go out the window, due to public scrutiny and pressure.

The condondrum seems to be resting with how the non-flying public perceives Aviation accidents and how the press slaughters each little sliver of Ding into a fiery crash of epic proportions. Maybe Mary is more concerned with that and the unlimited ways the average ambulance chaser will find to hit the jackpot.

For me personally, I feel just as unsafe or safe with a 100 hour pilot in a 57 year old airplane, as I feel with a Airline Captain Veteran with 23489 hours of Autopilot Long Range time in the logbook in a brand-new Cirrus. Why, because I know what I am getting into and am capable to at least attempt to rectify a bad situation.

Asking the FAA for guidance or common sense solutions seems akin to trying to clean the plaque off a Crocodile's teeth...

As for the definition of stranger I'd select a frame that allows to evaluate the likelyness of a lawsuit in response to an accident involving bodily harm to someone who thought he was "booking" a particular pilot, airplane or destination. This risk evaluation seems rather impossible to complete in the land of the "the one with the most expensive lawyer is right" free...

Posted by: Jason Baker | April 13, 2018 3:17 PM    Report this comment

"So you think only an old cantankerous elite pilot can be safe? I'm going out on a limb here..., most all of you reading this where a low time pilot at first, am I right?"

Just so we have an understanding here Klaus, I was never a low time pilot and yes, only old cantankerous elite pilots are safe. Klaus, you have heard the old saying, "there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but, there are not any old, bold pilots," right?

Posted by: Thomas Cooke | April 13, 2018 3:22 PM    Report this comment

The most practical solution seems to me to be:
1. Prohibit "Shared expenses."
2. Let pilots hook up with non-paying passengers by way of any method they desire (including on-line offers).

That should dry up most of the "Part 134" activity out there. And it affords the same level of protection (or the absence thereof) to ALL comers. Practical AND virtuous.

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | April 13, 2018 4:38 PM    Report this comment

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments! Interesting idea that it might end up being the insurance companies who write the rules on this... even if the Feds allow it, insurance policies could make it impossible in practice.

Posted by: Mary Grady | April 13, 2018 5:27 PM    Report this comment

This is not the first time people tried to legally get around PT135 rules. Look at what happened when the fractional industry got started. After finally seeing what was really going on there the FAA with a lot of prodding by PT135 certificate holders finally implemented PT91K to regulate fractional ownership operators. The same thing could happen if congress actually passed Sen Lee's proposal. I do think Mr. Levinson hit the nail on the head with his comments on whether insurance companies will cover pilots trying this. If the FAA did try to regulate ride sharing just like they did with fractional, I could see issues with whether the FAA would have the resources to do so.

Posted by: matthew wagner | April 13, 2018 6:51 PM    Report this comment

I think that utilizing technology to connect interested passengers with pilots willing to share could be a net positive for aviation. Now that airports are surrounded by fences and threatening signs it's uncommon for people not already involved with aviation to ever find their way near an airplane.

I appreciate all of the discussion around decision making, risk, and the lay public. Perhaps the solution is to further utilize technology to help both the pilot and passengers manage risk. I know of one 135 company that utilizes an app to help remove the pressure aspect of a go/no-go decision.

Before a flight is allowed to depart the pilot must fill out a risk assessment electronically and it is then submitted to dispatch for a quick review. The dispatcher is typically able to quickly agree with the assessment or to override it with a no go. For the vast majority of their flights a response is received within 2 minutes of submitting the risk assessment. Everyone has to agree that the flight is a go or it doesn't go.

Take this one step further in that the passengers and pilots would receive notification of whether or not the flight was approved that way the pilot is not the only source of a we're ok to go and it gives the pilot backup when they want to say no and the passenger disagrees.

Obviously this would need more of the details worked out but it could be a way to help spur more interest in GA and flying in general.

Don't forget that just a few years ago congress passed a law mandating all 121 pilots have an ATP. Congress clearly is capable of forcing the FAA to change regulations. Congress could even pass a law that could help limit legal liability to a more reasonable level.

I frequently meet people who express an interest in flying but that think it is way to expensive and don't know how to get involved so they don't. I think that if we could get some sort of ride share program going it could help spur more interest and success in learning to fly.

Posted by: Whitney | April 14, 2018 8:54 AM    Report this comment

Uber is really an internet taxi service. I have to say the experience is much better than taking a traditional taxi.

Share a seat to a destination that you were going to anyway, and only ask for the passenger to share fuel costs? Ok, your 17 year old with 100 hours could do that. Just let the passenger know the flight could be cancelled if the pilot gets a cold.

Try to make a profit on the same trip? Now you're a commercial pilot, and you need 250 hours.

Oh--only fly on demand to where the passengers want to go? You're running a charter operation if you engage regularly in the activity.

The passengers want to go fast? And not just fast, but real fast? And IFR? And go where they want to go? Then they need to ride-share with an ATP in jet equipment.

There's no reason why an app that took each of these circumstances into account shouldn't exisit. it would be great for the aviation consumer, and would increase aviation activity. All would benefit.

So, please relax, Mary. The passengers could choose the situation that met their needs. In many case, that's gonna end up being a ticket on an airliner . The app could do that too.

Posted by: William McIntosh | April 14, 2018 10:24 AM    Report this comment

Exposing my conservative-libertarian leanings, I have to say I'm not overly impressed by the argument that it's a bad idea simply because the prospective signer-on might not understand the risk. I think even non-pilots have an adequate capacity to assign a general level of risk to travel by car, boat, motorcycle, large airplane vs. small airplane, etc. It doesn't have to be a mathematically exact process.

The whole concept of carriage for hire necessarily blurs around the edges when costs are shared and it's hard for me to see much justification for treating cooperative travel by private plane any differently from cooperative travel by private car, boat or whatever. Likewise, drawing a line between an offer viewed on a cork bulletin board seems no different from the same offer viewed on an electronic one. I would just stick with the rules that the offer of sharing must be to a given destination, the costs must be apportioned with reasonable accuracy, and let it go at that.

Posted by: John Wilson | April 14, 2018 1:37 PM    Report this comment

I think many of you have forgotten about the tens of thousands of us who probably cannot get medical certificates, and cannot afford to own their own LSA, who would LOVE to fly around with a low timer for a share of operating costs. It seems everything the FAA does (to protect us) is designed to keep old or fat people out of the air at all cost. I remember decades ago when I gave charity airlift flights with only 200+ hours and no drug test. Nobody died. Nobody got hurt. No metal got bent. Nowadays, someone could probably get a life sentence for doing that.

I support the Aviation Empowerment Act. Even more, I would support an act that reinstates "promotion" of the US airspace into the mission of the FAA, which were removed in the mid-1990s, with disastrous consequences.

Posted by: Bruce Liddel | April 14, 2018 2:16 PM    Report this comment

I had a stinking feeling...? Great empires are not maintained by timidity." ― Tacitus.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | April 15, 2018 7:45 AM    Report this comment

Bruce,

There's a safe and available solution to that: Fly with a CFI. Not cheap, but certainly broadly available and much more reliable than finding pilots on the internet you've never met before.

Posted by: Joshua Levinson | April 15, 2018 11:30 AM    Report this comment

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