Plane-Sharing -- Not Ready For Reality
Here's the way private GA flying is supposed to work… if you're flying to Nantucket for lunch with your friends, and they want to pitch in for gas, that's OK with the FAA. But does that mean it's OK to walk into a public place full of strangers, say "Hey, does anyone want to go to Nantucket today?" and fill your seats with what amounts to paying passengers? That's what the vendors of flight-sharing apps hope to make possible. Some might see it as a great way to reduce the cost of flying and introduce new converts to GA. But it looks to me like a disaster waiting to happen.
AirPooler made a good move in asking the FAA for clarification up front on whether their plans fit into the regulations. The FAA's response, written in the inevitable style of federal-official-legalese, didn't do a great job of clearly explaining its position. But it did make clear that in the FAA's opinion, a pilot participating in AirPooler's plan would be violating the FARs. "By posting specific flights to the AirPooler website, a pilot… would be holding out to transport persons or property … for compensation or hire," the FAA lawyers wrote.
AirPooler CEO Steve Lewis said the FAA is trying to "crush innovation" and he'll ask the agency to expand and clarify their position. If the FAA doesn't back down, he said, he'll try to tweak his business model to make it work. Flytenow, a similar operation in start-up mode, said in a blog post they plan to move forward with matching pilots and passengers, but will remove all references to expense-sharing from their website.
It's not hard to imagine the multiple scenarios that could ensue if these projects are encouraged or allowed. Sure, some pilots would have a great time, get out flying more, and meet some new flying friends. But there would also be low-time pilots with marginal skills, eager to build time, who would have an incentive to overload their airplane and push beyond their abilities. Innocent travelers, who know nothing about GA flying, wouldn't think to question whether that little airplane can really carry all that baggage, or if the weather is OK to their destination. Pilots would be distracted, trying to look after the needs of their passengers. Accidents are inevitable, and sure to keep armies of lawyers tangled up in knots for years.
There's a lot of ways the Internet helps make GA flying more productive and more fun -- by helping pilots schedule time in shared aircraft, or to find other pilots to meet for lunch, or to locate aviation events nearby. But helping GA pilots to offer empty seats to the public -- whether they pitch in for expenses or not -- seems to me like an idea not ready for the real world. The FAA might not have done a great job of defending their position, but in this case, I hope they stick to it.