Sen. Mike Lee’s (R-Utah) push to remove barriers to flight sharing and create a new “personal operator” category that does not need to meet air carrier requirements is continuing to draw fire from the National Air Transportation Association (NATA), which has been concerned about the safety implications. Lee has introduced two bills that would facilitate Internet-based flight-sharing programs, similar to the one that had been proposed by FlyteNow, and would create a personal operator category enabling a pilot to transport up to eight passengers for compensation without meeting air carrier requirements.
Long-term prospects of the bill look doubtful with seemingly tepid support at best on Capitol Hill. Lee’s past attempts were rebuffed and instead resulted in a compromise measure for the FAA to release guidance on flight sharing. That guidance delineates between two parties agreeing to go on a joint trip versus an organization that advertises and holds out air transportation service.
But the fact that Lee reintroduced the measures and called for a personal operator signals that he plans to continue to pursue this issue and that the think-tank Goldwater Institute is still highly interested in making progress on the flight-sharing concept that it likens to Airbnb or Uber.
However, the push comes at a time when the FAA has been trying to clamp down on illegal charters for holding out as an air carrier without complying with the requirements of Part 135. Under Lee’s bill, the Aviation Empowerment Act, a personal operator would not be subject to the Part 135 requirements.
Such a concept, said Jonathon Freye, NATA v-p of government and public affairs, “is strange and out of line with the FAA’s regulatory structure,” particularly the use of the term “operator” for a person or entity that would not have an operating certificate.
Freye questioned how, without an operating certificate, the traveling public would have the ability to objectively evaluate the person’s fitness to perform the duties proposed. In addition, he said, “It would be nearly impossible for the FAA from a resources standpoint to conduct oversight on the new class of pilots.”
He pointed to arguments of flight-sharing proponents that the FAA stance has prevented innovation through the use of the Internet to connect would-be ride-sharing options and that it is akin to the use of a bulletin board at an airport of a pilot offering a ride to others.
However, Freye said the opposition has never been about the use of the internet as the medium, but rather it has been the attempt to hold out as air service. He further questioned the prevalence of the use of airport bulletin boards, noting he has never seen such offers at airports.
The Government Accountability Office recently conducted a study of the issue and the FAA guidance, finding most stakeholders saw benefits of expense-sharing, including that it could encourage pilots to fly more and help potentially expand the pool of future pilots. But the response to the FAA guidance was more mixed, with eight stakeholders, including six of seven professional organizations, expressing safety concerns about the implementation of internet-based programs. Meanwhile, another seven organizations, four of which were representatives from companies with expense-sharing programs, disagreed with the FAA’s approach in the guidance, saying the FAA should permit the internet-based programs.
Freye added that NATA supports the expansion of the industry and innovative competition. But the association stresses there must be a level of safety built in at the same time.