Steve Lewis, an MIT graduate and one of the founders of aircraft ride-sharing site AirPooler, says the startup will press the FAA for further clarification of a letter the agency sent that effectively pulled the plug on services that are designed to link private pilots with passengers headed for the same destination.
The problem with the FAA's position, Lewis says, is the agency's use of a draft policy written in 1963 to contend that cost-sharing through sites like AirPooler constitutes compensation and "holding out" as a commercial air carrier. But in 1964 the FAA reversed that policy to allow private pilots to share the pro-rata expenses of personal flights with passengers. The agency further clarified the rules in the 1990s to amend the "common purpose" portion of the rule to allow a pilot and passenger to travel to the same location but not necessarily for the same reason. In other words, the pilot could be traveling to Cape Cod for a wedding and the passenger to visit relatives, and each could share the costs of the trip.
What the FAA seems to have a bigger problem with is that the Internet is now being used to arrange such trips, as opposed to conversations among friends or airport bulletin boards used in the past. When a website is involved, the agency appears to be arguing, that constitutes illegal compensation.
"The FAA wants to have it both ways," Lewis said. "They want to allow pro-rata cost sharing among private pilots and passengers when the flight is arranged face to face, but prohibit that same flight from occurring when a website is involved. From a general legal perspective, you can't have it both ways."
Lewis should know. AirPooler's lawyer is the former lead FAA attorney who helped rewrite the cost-sharing rules in the 1990s. The site founders met with FAA officials before formally asking for clarification, but in their dealings with the agency "none of what they said made very much sense to us," Lewis said.
He told Flying he understands the FAA's mission is protecting the safety of the traveling public, but he argues that because ride-sharing rules were written long before the Internet, the subject needs to be revisited to allow for growth and innovation.
"They are choking off innovation to the detriment of general aviation," he said. "There is a bulwark of innovation building up all around aviation, and the FAA is saying no to all of it. The industry can't thrive without innovation. I don't think the FAA has thought that through."
Lewis said he wants clarification from the FAA about whether ride sharing is legal and what specifically constitutes a commercial operation. He points out that his site includes built-in protections to prevent pilots from abusing the system by turning AirPooler into a site to facilitate quasi-commercial operations.
AirPooler has also been in touch with staffers of Congressional representatives who are members of the GA caucuses, many of whom are "deeply concerned about the FAA's position, either because they are pilots or come from states with lots of small airports that depend on general aviation." Next Lewis plans to ask AOPA for help in its quest clarify the FAA's position on ride-sharing.
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