About two years ago I had just received my private pilot’s license and was excited to share my love of aviation with my friends. My first few flights were never unsafe, but they had their share of moments that showed just how little one knows even after training with an excellent instructor.
I learned a lot from those first few flights, and I still learn something new with every flight. That should come as no surprise: pilots that have been flying for decades, and logged tens of thousands of hours in all types of aircraft say the same. I made a few passengers nervous early on1, but over time I’ve improve not just my flying but my ability to make my passengers feel calm and safe. I’ve had one friend say she overcame her fear of flying commercial just from flying with me once!
As it happens, the FAA allows me to share the costs of flying with my friends, but only under a very narrow set of circumstances. Anything beyond that, and I’m required to at least have a commercial pilot’s license, and possibly comply with even more regulations. This make sense for ensuring the safety we expect of airlines, but would be impossible for pilots flying on their own to afford. I have to say that this allows me far more opportunity to share my love of aviation with my friends than would otherwise be possible, and my flying has improved in the process.
Of course, after the success of companies like Uber and Lyft, it should come as no surprise that someone would try to adapt the ride-sharing model to general aviation. In fact, at least two such companies have appeared: Flytenow and Airpooler. Both companies offered an interpretation of FAA regulations that allow their users to share the costs of travel with their passengers under the same exception that allows me to share expenses with my friends when I fly.
And to their credit, both companies were proactive and reached out to the FAA hoping for clarification and a blessing.
Pilots have been trying to cleverly skirt around these regulations forever (“okay, you fly me to New York for free, but then I’ll buy that pen off you for $500”) and the FAA has always stated clearly that there are no loopholes2. So when those of us in aviation who also follow the happenings of tech companies heard about Flytenow and Airpooler, many of us were hesitant to try it out. We all know the regulations (our flight instructors no doubt drilled it into our heads during our training), and there’s no mistake that our license in on the line.
It didn’t come as a surprise to many pilots when the FAA issued their ruling last week: flight-sharing websites violate FAA regulations.
But, of course, governing bodies have come out and ruled against many tech companies. And in those cases many hold the opinion that the laws are wrong, the government is corrupt, and the tech companies are helping everyone by offering a little competition to a stagnant industry. So the same logic should be applied here, and we should all lobby the FAA to allow plane-sharing, right?
Well, not so fast. It’s worth taking a minute and examining if the situation really is the same here.
What good are the regulations anyway?
I’ve always felt that many laws and regulations do more harm than good. Part of the popularity of companies like Uber, and Lyft comes not just from their product itself but from excitement about giving slow-moving monopolies or oligopolies like the taxi companies some much needed competition.
I admit myself I find it interesting that I’m taking this side. But what I’ve also found interesting is that after hours of reading FAA regulations both during and after my private pilot training, I’ve found them to be extremely sensible, if a bit complicated.
It wasn’t always the case, but flying today is incredibly safe. Through decades of work, aviation experts have analyzed every aspect of flying, from everyday occurrences to the most unusual of incidents3. While the taxi industry lobbied to create things like the medallion system and car accidents grew to one of the leading causes of death in the United States, aviation has become dramatically safer over time: the 2010 fatality rate in general aviation is half that what it was in 1970.
Why? As the saying goes: flying is not inherently dangerous, but it is unforgiving. Unlike other industries, where lobbying and public opinion have overridden careful analysis, with aviation the stakes are high, and the consequences of even a minor oversight dire. Things that don’t work have a much harder time sticking.
That’s not to say all in aviation is perfect, but more than any other part of the government I can think of, the aviation industry uses real data and real science to make decisions.
A Question of Scale
Many argued that there is no difference between asking a few friends if they want to go on a weekend flying trip, posting a paper ad on the bulletin board of your local airport offering to share flight expenses, and using the internet, perhaps with a flight-sharing app, to extend the same offer to thousands of people. In some senses, this is true.
However, the key difference, and why the FAA allows a pilot to ask a few friends if they want to go flying, will probably let pilots get away with posting at their airport but might investigate if things get fishy, and flat out refuse to allow dedicated, high traffic flight-sharing apps or websites, is simple: scale.
A well-connected pilot asking many of his or her friends and acquaintances to fly could probably set up a trip almost every weekend. At a busy airport, a note on a bulletin board might allow for a flight both days of every weekend. But imagine a pilot in a big city being able to advertise to a couple hundred thousand people or more. It would be easy to schedule multiple flights every day. There’d always be someone willing to go.
The FAA allows pilots to share expenses as an exception to the otherwise simple rule that a private pilot can’t be in it for the money. This exception is feasible only because it’s expected to apply to a relatively small number of flights. Flight-sharing companies inherently work directly against keeping this exceptional case limited.
Not every industry needs to be disrupted
After the FAA’s ruling, many in tech were concerned. Flytenow quickly replied to the FAA with what I felt was a disappointing analysis of the FAA’s position, and vowed to continue their service with the cost sharing aspect removed. AirPooler reportedly may attempt to reverse the ruling.
I have no doubt everyone involved in both of these companies share a strong love of aviation, and are genuinely trying to make things better for pilots and passengers. I also know how hard it is to build a company from nothing, especially one that skirts the edge of existing laws. And I know that the founder mindset is specifically geared towards conquering obstacles, of which this may just appear as the biggest yet.
With all that in mind, I have a request for the founders of Flytenow and Airpooler: please don’t continue to pursue the current flight-sharing model.
The idea is admirable, and there was no wrong done in testing it out. But the division between a private and commercial license has stood fairly clearly for a long time, and in general it has worked out. Blurring the lines between flying with friends and flying with paying customers will inevitably cause issues.
General aviation currently faces opposition on many fronts. Even aside from what will happen in the case of an accident, there are bound to be cases where the expectations of paying passengers don’t match up with the experience a low-time private pilot like myself can provide. The fallout from these events will be trying for our entire community.
We still need the help of tech companies
The last thing I’m suggesting is that Flytenow or Airpooler close up shop, go home, and call it a day. Now more than ever general aviation needs the help of those of us who have the skills and desire to bring technology to our industry. Everyone among us who can start companies, launch products, and solve problems is extremely valuable.
I couldn’t even begin to list all the ways to improve aviation right now. Just look at the advances in mobile hardware, batteries, sensors of all kinds, and machine learning that are revolutionizing entire industries. And in aviation we have plenty of innovators to inspire us:
- The Foreflight team has arguably made an iPad required equipment and made flight planning easier than ever
- OpenAirplane is making renting planes across the country as easy as renting at your local airport
- PilotEdge has created an amazing network of flight simulator enthusiasts and is helping real pilots practice their skills safely from their own computers
- Even individuals are contributing: developers like Jacob Eiting are making awesome aviation apps, and video series like those from FlightChops are helping more people learn about aviation, and aviation safety, than ever before
Again, I’m not suggesting we halt progress on technology in aviation. In fact I know we’re going to continue going forward. But disruption isn’t the only way to improve. We’ve got some great organizations here in general aviation: we can all make flying more fun, more popular, and safer with cooperation.
- When you mean to ensure your passengers that despite the somewhat ragged appearance a 1970’s Cessna may have, the engine and components are maintained to the same high level of quality as a new plane, one thing you should never say is: “Yeah, they don’t really take care of these old planes”. ⏎
- The FAA has ruled definitively on all sorts of schemes: you can’t use your private pilots license to aid your business, even simply flying employees to meetings. You can’t act on a hint from your boss that a ride in your plane will convince him to give you a promotion. You can’t offer your mechanic a free flight to get a reduced rates on your next annual inspection. You can’t even fly your drama teacher in exchange for a more prominent part in the school play. ⏎
- Perhaps my favorite story is that of United Airlines Flight 232. One of the plane’s engines failed catastrophically requiring an emergency landing. Investigators recovered the critical piece of the engine they needed to analyze the failure, even though they had to search hundreds of square miles of Iowa farmland around where the accident occurred to do it. It was analyzed and despite being damaged from falling several miles, the analysis detected a crack caused by fatigue that lead to the accident. The team then investigated the maintenance and production logs for the airplane going back 18 years, and determined the part was manufactured with the defect, the defect was detected, but the part was not rejected as it should have been. This is the lengths we have to go to if we want to ensure flying is safe. ⏎