AIN Blog: Uber of Aviation? Not (yet)

 - July 31, 2015, 2:20 PM
Would Uber-ization of aviation allow any operator to fly passengers outside of FAA regulations? Photo: Matt Thurber

It seems like every week, another charter broker announces that it has launched the “Uber of Aviation.” This is just so much marketing hype. There is no aviation equivalent of Uber, and the chances of one appearing are not even slim but nearly impossible. 

Uber is a mobile app. That’s it. All it does is facilitate arrangements between car owners and operators and people who want to pay to get somewhere on the ground. Whether or not it is legal for a private car owner to offer transportation services for a fee is for more knowledgeable experts to figure out, and certainly Uber has run into many problems trying to get the services that its users provide accepted not only by various government agencies but also the regulated taxi industries with which Uber competes. This has resulted in some incidents of violence and many unhappy taxi drivers, because they don’t feel that unregulated drivers ought to be able to offer commercial services.

While people keep talking about “Uber-izing” aviation, it’s not going to happen unless some enterprising and possibly foolish individual decides to–like his ground-bound Uber (and other competing transportation app providers)–forget about any applicable regulations. In other words, simply fly people illegally, without holding a charter certificate.

We already know that this happens in the so-called illegal or grey charter market. And legitimate charter operators fight this all the time because it undermines their businesses and the huge amounts of money they spend on certification, training and safety.

But just suppose, for pure speculation, that a pilot-owner of a Learjet 35 decides to create an Uber-like aviation app and suddenly begins flying people hither and yon for far less than the cost of a legal charter. What could stop this pilot from flying?

First of all, the FAA would have to know about this operation. That shouldn’t take long, especially if there is a publicly available mobile app advertising this service. (And I am well aware of attempts to offer ride-sharing services in light aircraft, which the FAA has decided are not legal.)

Second, after finding out about this operation, the FAA would have to decide how to ground this pilot. Here’s where it gets tricky. The FAA’s powers of enforcement, as I understand it, are easier to apply to certificated entities, such as charter certificate holders, pilots, etc. But the FAA can and does conduct enforcement actions against non-certificated business owners all the time, for example, civil penalties assessed against a company that ships acetone without the proper documentation. 

In this pilot’s case, the FAA would certainly embark on an emergency certificate revocation against the pilot, which should permanently ground the pilot. 

But…this is a brave new app-driven world, and there is little doubt that someone will try. How could the FAA truly stop this pilot from flying? It can take away his pilot certificates, but can the FAA stop him from taking off in his Learjet with a load of paying passengers? If so, how exactly would the FAA do this? Block the runway? Disable the Learjet? Stop the passengers from boarding?

This whole Uber situation raises important questions about government oversight and the ability of regulators to prevent behavior that their rules are designed to stop but that technology companies seem to be circumventing. Aviation is the most highly regulated self-regulated industry in the world. By this I mean that we in the industry generally agree to abide by the regulations. But what if some upstart decides not to. What will happen when the Uber cat is let out of the aviation bag?