A Terrible, Bad, Really Wrong Idea


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.