Sen. Lee Moves To Open Door for Flight Sharing

 - April 20, 2021, 10:21 AM
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) has pushed to eliminate barriers for Internet-based flight-sharing programs. (Photo: Heather Trautvetter)

U.S. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) is continuing his push to facilitate flight-sharing, introducing two new bills that, among other things, would create a “personal operator” category to enable pilots to fly eight or fewer passengers for compensation without operating as part of a common carrier.

The bills, the Aviation Empowerment Act and the Flight Sharing Freedom Act, are designed to foster innovation and correct oversights surrounding limits on a private pilot's ability to coordinate flights via the Internet and receive compensation for the transport of persons or property, said Lee, who has pushed to open the door for flight-sharing for several years. Further, since the FAA has not defined common carrier, it has broad authority on its regulatory implementation, he said.

Thus, the Aviation Empowerment Act act would define common carrier as a “service provided by a person that meets the following elements: holding out of a willingness to transport persons or property from place to place for compensation, and without refusal unless authorized by law.” However, the bill also specifies that the term compensation “does not include flights in which the pilot and passengers share aircraft operating expenses or the pilot receives any benefit.”

It further defines “personal operator” as a “person providing air transportation of persons or property for compensation or hire in aircraft that have eight or fewer seats, provided that the person holds a private pilot certificate…A personal operator or a flight operated by a personal operator does not constitute a common carrier.”

The bill directs the FAA to revise regulations to enable pilots to “communicate with the public, in any manner the person determines appropriate, to facilitate an aircraft flight for which the pilot and passengers share aircraft operating expenses.” In addition, the bill further calls for the creation of the personal operator category and that person “shall not be subject to the requirements set forth in part 121, 125, or 135.”

As a companion to the Aviation Empowerment Act, the Flight Sharing Freedom Act contains the same stipulations surrounding definitions of common carrier and the ability of pilots to communicate about flights and share expenses but stops short of creating the personal operator.

Lee previously introduced an “Aviation Empowerment Act” in 2018, calling for the FAA to ensure pilots can communicate with the public in any way they deem appropriate to facilitate a flight in which the pilots and passengers share operating expenses. The bill had added that “such flight-sharing operations…shall not be deemed a common carrier.”

A year later he had co-authored an opinion piece in the Washington Post expressing the belief that flight-sharing could make private flying an affordable option for millions. This push was met with staunch opposition from groups such as the National Air Transportation Association, which feared it would open the door for illegal charter and compromise safety.

Lee’s earlier push culminated in a compromise congressional directive for the FAA to release guidance on what was and was not permissible as part of flight-sharing. The agency released that guidance last year.

That guidance, AC 61-142, provides that “pilots may share operating expenses with passengers on a pro-rata basis when those expenses involve only fuel, oil, airport expenditures, or rental fees.” But it specifies that private pilots who wish to share expenses may not “hold out” to the public as willing to offer transportation services. 

Think tank Goldwater Institute, a major backer of flight-sharing, strongly endorsed the Lee bills. Jon Riches, director of national litigation at the Goldwater Institute who co-authored the Washington Post opinion piece with Lee and who has represented flight-sharing startup FlyteNow, said, “Internet-based flight-sharing complies with all existing general aviation safety standards,” and contended, “Moreover, because pilots and passengers have more information about one another than they otherwise would, it is safer than flight-sharing as it exists today offline.”

Riches further noted that sharing-economy technologies from Uber to Airbnb are “upending every industry” but that the FAA has been slow to embrace technological change. “The predictable result for general aviation has been less innovation, higher costs, and fewer choices for consumers. It’s time for the FAA to catch up to the digital age,” he said.