Attracting new entrants to the business and general aviation market has long been a challenge for the industry. The cost of buying, hiring or even flying in a private aircraft is beyond the reach of most people, and consequently access to this elite sector has largely been restricted to corporations or high-net-worth individuals.

A handful of innovative, little-known companies have begun to change this perception, however, through the introduction of ride-sharing technology.

By offering spare seats on privately owned and piloted aircraft to individuals who are seeking to reach the same destination, these websites have helped to make private-aircraft travel accessible to a far wider audience.

“We have simply designed a forum for private pilots with an empty plane to share the cost of his travel expenses with someone heading in the same direction,” says Steve Lewis, co-founder and chief executive of US-based AirPooler.

Pilots post when and where they are going and the number of seats available, he explains. The passenger agrees to pay the pro-rated costs of fuel, taxes and fees.

The Boston-based company, founded 18 months ago, has joined forces with two of the region’s largest training schools to build up its pool of pilots.

“There is a huge number of under utilised aircraft in the US,” Lewis continues. “Many pilots have cut back drastically on their flight time as the cost of owning and operating an aircraft has sky-rocketed.”


He believes the concept of ride-sharing websites enable pilots to fly more frequently, as their costs – fuel, insurance and other related expenses – are cut in half.

“For the traveller, too, the cost of flying is not only affordable but now it is easily accessible,” Lewis says. “These ride-sharing portals have helped to open up the benefits of private aviation to a whole new community of people who never considered travelling this way before,” Lewis continues.

His views are echoed by Alan Guichard, co-founder and developer of fellow US ride-sharing website, Flytenow.

“Pilots have always relied on ride-sharing as a way of reducing their expenses, bringing down the cost of flying to a more affordable level,” he says. “The use of shared-economy technology just makes that a whole lot easier.”

Types of aircraft typically posted in ride-sharing sites are single and twin-engined, propeller-driven models such as the Cessna TTx and Beechcraft Bonanza respectively. The cost of sharing a ride on these aircraft is significantly cheaper than commercial charter, as Guichard explains: “An air-taxi flight from Boston to Nantucket, for example, will cost around $1,500 on a small, traditional private jet. The same journey will cost around $100 on a piston-engined type if you are sharing the expenses with the pilot. Even less if there is more than one passenger,” he says

It is affordable because, unlike the commercial operator, the pilot is not making any money from the service. It is, purely and simply, a cost-sharing exercise and a win-win for both parties,” Guichard continues.


Flytenow was launched in January to fill what Guichard describes as a gaping void in the private air travel market. “There are 25 million non-commercial flight hours conducted every year in the US, and thousands of private pilots are flying with empty seats,” he says. “Added to that there are up to 5,000 airports open to business and general aircraft compared with only 500 for the typical commercial airliner.”

As with AirPooler, Flytenow’s inspiration for the venture was the advances in contemporary technology and the widespread utilisation of computers and mobile devices.

“The internet has allowed us to develop a simple and user friendly vehicle for pilots to find passengers to fly with them,” Guichard says.

He dismisses any comparison with the car ride-sharing service UberPool. “These drivers work for a profit. Our pilots don’t make any money from the service. There is a clear difference between the two types of operations.”

Guichard says the pilots who list the flights have different levels of experience varying from recently qualified private pilots to those with many hours of commercial and military flying experience. “The customers aren’t going blind into the transaction. The details of the pilots qualifications, experience and training, along with the aircraft type and age, are listed on the website. It works very well.”

Both Flytenow and AirPooler have courted phenomenal success since their launches. However despite their huge popularity, the survival of these portals is now under threat.

Beechcraft Bonanza

Typical types for ride-sharing offers are propeller models such as Beechcraft's Bonanza, promising flights at a fraction of the cost of a jet charter


Their rapid growth has attracted the scrutiny of the US Federal Aviation Administration, and their apparent opprobrium to these portals is threatening to send the web-based ride-sharing market into freefall.

“It’s partly our fault that this has happened,” Lewis continues. “While AirPooler has attracted a huge pilot base, there were still a number who were holding back.”

Some had been harassed by FAA officers, who were leaving messages on their voicemails saying they had seen a listing from the pilot on a ride-sharing website and they could be flouting the regulations.

“They aren’t violating the law,” says Lewis. “Before we launched AirPooler, we made sure that our operation was consistent with regulation and best practice. Our attorney ran the FAA legal office for regulations until a year ago, so she is arguably in the best position to understand the law on this,” he continues.

However, in order to get these concerned pilots on board, AirPooler decided to ask the FAA to “clear the air” and clarify the rules on ride-sharing. “We assumed it would be a straightforward process, but instead we stepped on a hornets' nest,” Lewis says.

The letter from the FAA declared that shared expenses are a from of compensation and therefore pilots must acquire Part 119 certification reserved for common carriers, such as airlines.

“This is an onerous process that no private pilot would be able to undertake,” says Lewis.


Flytenow’s Guichard, a qualified lawyer, says the argument is totally baseless. He has accused the authority of attempting to hammer a square peg into a round hole, by applying an “incongruent regulatory framework” – notably “common carriage” – to the activities of expense-sharing pilots.

“If the FAA’s interpretation of Flytenow pilots as common carriers is correct, then Flytenow pilots would be the only common carriers in history to not seek commercial profit from their operations,” he says. “The term 'common carriage' is well-known and understood by the courts, and refers to a commercial transportation enterprise that is willing to take all-comers who are willing to pay a fare, without refusal.”

Lewis agrees. He says that, traditionally, the FAA has considered expenses – contributions to fuel costs, for example – not to be compensation. “The only thing that has changed is the internet and modern sharing economy technology, which makes it much, much easier for all concerned to ride-share,” he says.

Lewis argues that in order to establish its position on ride-sharing, the FAA consulted a draft 1963 law to find the citation that would determine that expense sharing is compensation.

“They didn’t mention in their letter that the following year, it reversed this ruling and ever since they have been telling folks that expense sharing is not compensation,” says Lewis.

Based on the historical records, statutes and “the best legal representation we could find,” AirPooler was confident that if nothing had changed apart from the technology, they were fully compliant with the regulation.

The FAA’s ruling has, however, hit the ride-sharing community hard.

“We went from having hundreds of flights listed to only a trickle,” says Guichard. “Even though the ride-sharing industry is perfectly legitimate and these websites are on the right side of the law, pilots don’t want to get on the wrong side of the FAA.”

Both companies have appealed the FAA’s ruling the US courts and are hoping to get a verdict early next year.

In the meantime, Flytenow has voluntarily restricted the ability of pilots to post their flights pending the court ruling. “We think this is the most prudent decision,” Guichard says. “Because while some pilots and enthusiasts would continue to use the site, we don’t want to enable anything the FAA deems inappropriate – even though we disagree.”

Under the FAA’s new regulatory regime, a pilot’s mere communication with potential passengers would be considered advertising indiscriminate air-transportation services – also known as “holding out”, Guichard explains.

“We are optimistic the court will rule in our favour though, so we expect to re-launch the website next year.”

Lewis says the ride-sharing industry has the backing of the GA caucus in the US Congress, and the industry trade bodies such as the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and the National Business Aviation Association.

These bodies have welcomed these new initiatives, he says. “By bringing new people into the industry and getting the pilot population flying again, ride-sharing is providing a much-needed lifeline to an industry in a critical condition,” Lewis adds.

Source: Flight International