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Ride Sharing in the Air: Down but Not Out

The FAA recently determined that the two pioneering share-the-plane-ride websites were not operating legally. As a result, the two outfits, AirPooler and Flytenow, are in some sort of limbo. Although the FAA has had nothing additional to say, my take is that over the next few months, the government and the operators will come to some sort of accommodation.

The Basic Idea

Both websites are based on the same model: A small plane owner who is planning a trip somewhere in a plane that isn’t full can post the flight online and ask for anyone willing to share the costs of going along on the trip.

  • As a pilot, you post your trip and offer to take one or more folks along with you to share your costs, typically fuel, oil, and airport fees. If someone decides to go along with you, he or she splits the cost with you. Because federal regulations prohibit ordinary private pilots from carrying anyone for a fee, you can charge only a prorated share of actual costs; you can’t, as with Uber, actually make money out of the deal. You are free to reject any passenger you don’t want to carry, and you’re not obligated to complete the trip if something disrupts your original plan.
  • As a passenger, if you see a flight posted that interests you and you’re willing to share costs and accept the schedule, you accept the deal. The website provides an estimate of cost based on plane type, origin/destination, and distance. Costs are based on a strict proration of airplane seats. That means, for example, that in a four-passenger plane, each passenger pays one quarter of the cost, regardless of how many other seats are occupied. The site calculates probable costs prior to departure and adjusts them, if necessary, after completion. The website also vets possible pilots for adequate experience.

For passengers, flight sharing is for a spur-or-the-moment trip you might not otherwise take, not a substitute for driving or buying an airline ticket. Most trips will be regional: Given that small planes typically have a maximum nonstop range of 500 miles or less and travel at around 140 miles per hour, they won’t be competing with the big airlines for long-haul trips. And trips are for fun, not ultra-cheap travel: One website estimated $250 for a round-trip from San Francisco to Tahoe.

The Problem

In its decision, the FAA claimed that the cost-sharing system is equivalent to a commercial charter and therefore subject to charter regulations and requirements. Not so, say the operators: Charters are in business to make money, not just share costs. Moreover, the principle that private plane pilots can ask people who ride with them to share costs is well established. I remember that as an undergraduate, I paid prorated costs to fly from Boston to New York several times with pilots I knew.

The Current Situation

For now, both AirPooler and Flytenow are operating but without the cost-sharing element. Flytenow’s blog currently posts: “We are keeping the platform up and running, but removing all forms of expense sharing. This means that a pilot will no longer be able to use Flytenow to share expenses, but may still find others to fly with.” AirPooler is taking the same approach. Initial operations center around Boston and California, but the model is easily scalable to nationwide service.

The Likely Outcome

My take is that the FAA is off base on this one. Cost sharing is clearly not the same as chartering. To me, the tests of any proposed regulation is (1) whether anyone is currently getting hurt and needs relief or (2) whether anyone is likely to be hurt if regulation is not imposed. FAA rulings prohibiting flight sharing clearly fail both tests. To the contrary, a regulation prohibiting flight sharing would hurt both pilots and consumers and benefit nobody. One way or another, either through litigation or persuasion, flight sharing, with cost sharing, is likely to proceed.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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