Ride Sharing Takes Off – Literally!

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We’ve all seen the seemingly endless headlines about legal controversies surrounding a new category of transportation services. The string of legal battles is what’s to be expected when innovative companies leverage the latest technology to disrupt highly regulated industries—in this case the transportation industry, which is highly regulated with good reason: ensuring public safety. And after years of fighting, the battle is still raging on.

As recently as last month, the California Public Utilities Commission (which only just last year approved formal guidelines for how “transportation network companies (TNCs)” like Lyft, Uber, and others must operate within the state) threatened to revoke the licenses of TNCs whose drivers continue to offer rides from the airport. Undoubtedly, there will continue to be legal fights as the industry and regulators iron out the limits on TNCs’ operations. As Charley Moore recently explained on Article 3, the challenge for regulators of these new categories is to strike a balance among “public safety, competition, and innovation.”

But now, long before the dust has completely settled around this new category of businesses, the fight around ride-sharing is taking to the skies. A new crop of ride-sharing companies wants to help connect airplane pilots who are flying themselves to Monterey or Lake Tahoe for the weekend with travelers who are willing to chip in for some jet fuel in return for a seat on the plane. Given how vastly unregulated U.S. airspace is (please note sarcasm), its almost hard to believe that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is already deliberating whether such companies are legal.

As you can probably imagine there are very different regulations for traditional air travel providers (i.e. Southwest, United, American, etc.) and private pilots who operate their own or a rented aircraft. In fact, under the Code of Federal Regulations, title 14, part 61.113 specifically prohibits private pilots from acting “as pilot in command of an aircraft that is carrying passengers or property for compensation or hire,” essentially prohibiting anyone with a pilot’s license from operating his or her own airline service. That said, the same part of federal code permits pilots to be reimbursed by passengers for the costs associated with the flight such as fuel, oil, airport expenditures, and rental fees. So if your pilot buddy takes you with him up to Tahoe in his plane, you can reimburse him for half the gas & other expenses.

Flight-sharing startups like Flytenow and Airpooler argue that they are simply helping people connect with pilot buddies and thereby making flights cheaper for pilots and passengers (jet fuel is by no means cheap). Both companies require pilots to list extra seats on flights in order to remain in compliance with federal law. In other words, you as passenger can’t decide that you want a flight from SFO to Truckee and book it – you have to find a pilot who is already planning on traveling from the Bay Area to Tahoe and offer to pay your share of the flight costs for that flight.

In search of clarity about their legal right to operate, Airpooler has submitted “an official request for legal interpretation” to the FAA (as TechCrunch reported last week). According the report, the FAA is expected to respond within 120 days to the request. While it waits for clarification, Airpooler has stopped listing flights on its website.

Much like the fights that continue around ground transportation-sharing, the questions over flight-sharing focus on public safety. On the one hand, isn’t this just the modern equivalent to calling all your friends to see who is game for a road trip so you can split the gas? On the other, there’s a reason the FAA imposes such strict regulations on commercial aircraft carriers and this is potentially a way around those safety precautions. We might see the FAA borrow the Supreme Court’s “if it looks like a duck” precedent from the recent Aereo case and determine that even if there are operational differences, these services amount to air carriers and therefore need to be regulated as such to protect public safety.

Technology seems to be flying in the face of the FAA (pun intended) recently with all the ongoing fights over drones, the development of jetpacks, and now a new controversy over plane-sharing. Our national airspace is likely to continue to be the backdrop of incredible advances over the next few years. The FAA has the incredibly complicated job of helping to nurture these innovations while making sure we’re safe on the ground and in the air.

 

About John Wilson

John Wilson is an analytical communications professional, with a passion for sifting through data for compelling stories and insights. John started his career on Capitol Hill and chased his love of data and communications out of politics and into opinion research and public relations. John graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the George Washington University where he studied political science and statistics. Beyond work, John loves the mountains and can be found skiing or hiking in both the Sierras and the Rockies.
Posted in: Society, Technology