The FAA recently ruled flight-sharing unsafe and illegal for public transportation, shutting down fledgling plane-sharing ventures Airpooler and Flytenow. But is that enough?
As the CEO of our Air Taxi marketplace, I'm relieved that -- when asked -- the FAA took seriously its charter to protect the safety of the traveling public by ruling flight-sharing websites unsafe and illegal. But at the same time I'm left wanting more. With its ruling on Airpooler, the FAA formally denounced public promotion of expense-sharing schemes by non-commercial pilots and aircraft as a violation of the safety standards inherent in the regulations the FAA is tasked to enforce. Yet, these sorts of flights take place every day "below the radar."
Just this week I witnessed a number of suspicious operations between my home airport, outside Boston, and one of the most popular destinations at this time of year, Nantucket island off the Massachusetts coast. Its quite common to see a non-commercially approved pilot (let's call him "Fast Freddy") make multiple trips back and forth to Nantucket dropping off and picking up different groups of passengers in what certainly seems like commercial activity. FAA folks will tell you, as they have me, that they know these sorts of flights are taking place and wish they weren't but they simply don't have the mandate or the resources to proactively monitor Fast Freddy and take action against him. Sadly, as one FAA employee told me, "We work backwards from the accident." Which is precisely why there should be more emphasis on proactive surveillance, monitoring, and enforcement of these illegal and unsafe flight operations. We shouldn't have to wait for someone to die, and if you think I am being inflammatory, I'd refer you to my original blog post (below) about the differences between "Fast Freddy" and approved commercial pilots and aircraft. The good news is that technology can provide a solution to better address this important safety issue within the FAA's resource constraints.
The FAA needs to step up their game if they are truly the stewards of aviation safety. Technology can help:
- Where is the rigor around auditing pilots? We cannot afford to have pilots running illegal charter and the FAA not cracking down on it. Clearly the rules are not well understood and, more critically, not well-enforced.
- Additional oversight is desperately needed. FAA-funded programs, like the National Air Transportation Association's 'drop-a-dime' hotline, are a great start, but this depends on pilots snitching on their fellows. An unreliable system at best.
- With today's technology, a data-driven program to identify potential bad apples should be established. Air Traffic Control maintains a record of every airplane on radar, including the registration (or N-number) of each aircraft. This data can be analyzed, in real-time, to determine suspicious activity like Fast Freddy running back-and-forth to Nantucket all day long. The N-numbers can be matched against the FAA's registration database to let the owners of the aircraft – who may not even know what the pilots are doing with their aircraft – know that they run the risk of canceled insurance and even loss of coverage in the event of an accident. Not to mention the potential for criminal charges in the event of knowing violation of FAA regulations.
I was recently quoted in Scott Kirsner's article on Airpooler. There are additional points I feel are critical to elaborate on with regard to this business and others like it. Most importantly, I want to use this forum to let our customers, and future customers, know how Linear Air is very different from what these start-ups are attempting to offer.
Flytenow and Airpooler are promoting plane-sharing as a new travel option. Their companies will ostensibly connect private pilots, who rent or own private aircraft, with passengers who'd like to hitch a ride. You may have heard of Lyft, the car ride-sharing business, and thought it an interesting concept which could be comparable to these airplane ride-sharing companies. But - to state the obvious - flying an airplane and driving a car are two very different endeavors, and while this may sound great for pilots who'd like to afford their hobby more often and for passengers who would get to enjoy the benefits of personal travel, there are valid concerns:
Aircraft concerns . . .
- Plane-sharing places passengers in private aircraft which are not subject to the rigorous standards of commercial aircraft.
Private aircraft are only required to undergo maintenance once a year.
Private aircraft insurance coverage is usually very limited and would not extend to any liability that the passenger might incur as a result of providing compensation for the flight.
Linear Air offers Air Taxi flights on commercial aircraft which are subject to close, ongoing FAA inspection and oversight.
Commercial aircraft must be inspected every 50 flight hours, and returned to like-new operating condition every time.
Commercial aircraft provide better safety margins due to the more capable and redundant systems and equipment required versus private aircraft.
Commercial aviation insurance coverage provides multi-million dollar liability coverage and extends to everyone on-board.
Pilot concerns . . .
- Plane-sharing flights are flown by private pilots who are not subject to the professional standards of commercial pilots.
Private pilots require less than 50 hours of flight time to be licensed and are only required to perform recurrent training and checking every two years.
Private pilots are not required and may not have the experience or licensing to fly in clouds, or other typical weather conditions. They may also lack experience flying in and around crowded airspace and airports.
Medical certification for private pilots is required only once every 2 - 5 years.
All Linear Air flights are flown by commercially-rated pilots under more stringent FAA rules than private pilots.
These pilots have all completed the rigorous training, in all flight conditions and airspace, necessary to attain their commercial ratings. Flying is their profession, not just their hobby.
Commercial pilots must have at least 1,200 hours of flight time before they can act as pilot for a commercial Air Taxi company.
Recurrent training and checking is required every 6 months.
Medical re-certification is required at least every 12 months.
Most importantly, Air Taxi flights adhere to stringent operating rules, developed and refined over decades, with the goal and effect of greatly improving air travel safety. Every flight must be officially released and tracked by management responsible to the FAA. All flight, maintenance, and pilot information is tracked and reported on a continual basis. Best practices are identified, shared and implemented. The same regulations and oversight do not exist for private flights, which is why I do not believe they are suitable as a public travel option.
In the past the FAA has determined similar plane-sharing flights to be commercial operations which should have been performed in accordance with the more stringent commercial regulations. Passengers can be liable, as well as pilots, and insurance could be void as private aviation insurance policies specifically exclude commercial operations.
The FAA and the Department of Transportation will ultimately determine whether or not plane-sharing will be allowed. With 10 years of experience as an Air Taxi service, Linear Air cautions travelers who are considering plane-sharing & will continue to be an active voice in the debate.
~ Bill Herp, Airline Transport Pilot
Can Boston get plane-sharing off the ground? Scott Kirsner, Boston Globe
Airpooler wants to let you hitch a ride on private planes Scott Kirsner, Beta Boston