By Rebecca Mulholland, Director, Legislative Affairs and Chief of Staff
As NATA prepares for Congress to release its FAA reauthorization legislation, we meet with Members of Congress and their staffs on potential issues (see our Major Policy Issues for the 115th Congress), a big part of that is protecting against provisions that undermine safety and/or are harmful to our members. One such provision would create “flying Uber” websites (examples include Flytenow, AirPooler, and others) that deliberately bypass the FAA’s safety net of required pilot training and aircraft maintenance for commercial flights.
Earlier this month, I attended a listening session on Capitol Hill that focused on aviation innovation. A Flytenow representative gave Hill staff and other attendees an overview of the company’s structure and attempted to defend the company’s business model. Following the overview, the audience had the opportunity to ask questions. Flytenow’s answers were instructive of how internet innovators often miss the point of various FAA safety regulations.
How many hours of flight time are required, under the company’s model, before a Flytenow pilot can fly passengers?
- Flytenow Answer: The private pilot can fly, and share the cost of the flight, with passengers with as little as 40 hours of flight time.
- Fact: Would you put your family into an aircraft with someone you don’t know who has 40 hours of flight time? The general public is not trained to judge what constitutes enough flight hours or what levels of certification are needed to ensure a safe flight. The consumer doesn’t know how to evaluate what they are getting. On an Uber ride, I know enough about driving to know if the driver is acting dangerously or breaking the law. But how am I to know if aircraft safety checks were performed, or if a storm is coming that the pilot should not be flying in? Placing the burden of rating the safety ability of a pilot on the consumer is inappropriate.
How informed do passengers need to be? Do the methods of communication matter?
- Flytenow answer: We are slowly moving away from the days of posting a flight on a bulletin board at the airport, and extending the practice to the internet seems like a logical progression. As stated during the listening session, “You shouldn’t have to put your flight on a bulletin board, you should communicate with the latest and greatest technology.” A March 16th Wall Street Journal article, authored by Mercatus Center fellows, noted that using the internet will allow private pilots to find more passengers, save on fuel costs, fly more routes, and gain proficiency.
- Fact: NATA President Marty Hiller responded in the Wall Street Journal shortly after the article appeared that “Supporters of this proposal continue to try and distract readers by focusing on the technology used to communicate, despite clear direction from the FAA and courts that it isn’t the method but rather the intent and outcome of the communication that matters.” Pilots can communicate via telegram, phone call, email, text or snapchat to make arrangements for legitimate, permissible expense sharing flights. Already, there are other startup software apps that have legally entered the field, including FlyOtto and Linear Air, who are eager to support methods to bring more air taxi capacity online. These companies are successfully working with smaller operators to offer affordable single-engine piston charter (typical of that envisioned by Flytenow).
What about the issue of compensation?
- Flytenow answer: The Flytenow model does not benefit the pilot – it is simply a service whereby private pilots and the general public can share the cost of a flight and fly to a destination. The intention is to make flying more accessible, fun and enjoyable.
- Fact: Those who offer the public transportation by air and receive compensation for it (not just money, but through the accumulation of flight hours and gaining proficiency as well as savings on fuel costs – mentioned above) are common carriers. They must be a commercial pilot and often must have an air carrier certification. The FAA has always said that the money received from sharing expenses is compensation. But when a pilot is sharing expenses with passengers with whom he/she shares a common purpose, the FAA created an exception to the otherwise well-established need for a commercial pilot/air carrier certification (FAR 61.113). Also, FAA Legal Interpretation 1985-24 states, “…any payment for a flight, even partial payment, means that a flight is for compensation or hire. This is true even if payment is made under the expense sharing provisions…” During the listening session, it was admitted that flight-sharing “helps me to fly more so I can be a more current and safer pilot.” That’s true, and it’s important to build hours and gain experience, but not at the expense of the safety of the traveling public. Compensation does not mean strictly monetary compensation, so holding out for a flight so you can fly more means you’re building flight hours, which constitutes compensation and requires more stringent certification standards and aircraft maintenance.
As I go from Hill office to Hill office, I have been gratified by the response we are receiving to the real facts. Once they understand that if you want to fly people for compensation or hire, you need higher levels of certification and aircraft maintenance, staffers get it. More than just opposing a dangerous idea, we also suggest policymakers consider additional steps to streamline the process to grow the pool of pilots that could provide safe single-engine piston charter. Such a proposal will help young professionals build time to meet the 1500-hour Airline Transport Pilot certificate requirement and reduce the growing problem of illegal charter. This would increase the number of people already available to offer that service legally and safely, regardless of the means of communication – it helps everyone.