When it comes to air travel, Americans today have just two options available to them: commercial aviation, which comes with the frustrations most of us are familiar with, and charter flights, which are simply out of reach for many. But the government is keeping us from accessing another option that’s already common elsewhere in the world.
Flight-sharing — when private, licensed pilots communicate with passengers to share flight expenses — has the potential to transform air travel in the United States by providing more travel options at lower prices to airports throughout the country. Yet even in the face of a federal law requiring the Federal Aviation Administration to issue guidance to the public on how flight-sharing can be safely and effectively conducted in the United States, the FAA has refused to act.
One of us (Jon Riches) represented a start-up company attempting to bring flight-sharing into the 21st century, but in fact, it has been a common practice since the earliest days of general aviation. Pilots and passengers have often been able to communicate via telephone, word-of-mouth or airport bulletin boards to share the costs of flights. With the advent of the digital age, the Internet revolutionized the ability to put them in contact with one another, replacing airport bulletin boards with a website. Pilots could post their flight plans on a site, where passengers could more easily find them. Passengers could fill the pilot’s empty seats, thereby helping to cover a pilot’s trip costs while also finding a cost-effective option to reach their destination. And the cost savings are real: A one-way chartered flight from Boston to Cape Cod, for example, can cost passengers $1,000 or more; the same trip on a flight-sharing service would run only about $60.
Flight-sharing could have made these trips an exciting and affordable option for millions of Americans, until the federal government shut it down. In 2014, the FAA abruptly halted efforts to modernize flight-sharing and allow communication through the Internet through regulatory action.
Some in the FAA contended that Internet-based flight-sharing raised safety concerns. But this is nonsensical. Internet expense-sharing is operated by the same FAA-licensed pilots, flying the same plane on the same routes with the same certifications. The only thing the Internet changed is the way pilots and passengers communicate. And, in fact, Internet-based flight-sharing is arguably safer than its antiquated airport-bulletin-board predecessor, as both pilots and passengers have more information available to them than they otherwise would. This is, in fact, precisely what we have seen in Europe: safe, efficient, Internet-based flight-sharing options.
For the FAA, however, the use of the Internet meant that private pilots would be considered “common carriers” subject to the same regulations as large airlines. The agency’s actions essentially killed 21st century flight-sharing, eliminating travel options for pilots and passengers throughout the country. Despite the enormous consequences of the FAA’s action, it was done without study, input from the public or formal rulemaking.
The FAA took this unilateral action around the same time that Europe’s aviation service expressly approved Internet-based flight-sharing on the continent. The result is that Europe, where Internet-based flight-sharing has been a safe and inexpensive option for years, is now leaps and bounds ahead of the United States, providing unique travel and flight experiences to thousands of people every day.
Last October, Congress passed and President Trump signed into law the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018. That bill contained a provision that required the FAA to issue — for the first time — clear guidance to the public on the rules surrounding flight-sharing, which the agency had previously refused to do. The law then required the comptroller general to review the FAA’s guidance and issue a comprehensive report on flight-sharing in the United States, including its benefits for pilots and passengers.
Although the FAA should have issued flight-sharing guidance years ago, Congress gave the agency 90 days from the law’s enactment to provide the public this information. This means that the agency should have issued its public guidance more than six months ago. But there is still no sign of it. This is an opportunity for the FAA to issue guidance that not only outlines its regulations but also champions innovation by permitting Internet-based flight-sharing. Americans should not be held back from full transportation options that should otherwise be available to them.
Congress has directed the FAA to act. And the agency has ignored Congress. It is time for the FAA to do a job that it should have done years ago so that the traveling public can enjoy the most efficient and cost-effective travel options available, including Internet-based flight-sharing.
Op-ed originally published by the Washinginton Post