The FAA Must Catch Up to the Digital Age

The FAA Must Catch Up to the Digital Age

If you want to fly from Boston to New York City today, you effectively have only two options: commercial airliner or charter service. The former is fraught with the inconvenience and expense we have come to expect from commercial air travel, and the latter is cost-prohibitive for most Americans. But what if there was a third option — one where you could take a small, private aircraft at a general aviation airport for a fraction of cost of other travel options?

Up until a few years ago, an innovative company called Flytenow was making this a reality. Then the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) shut them down.

Expense-sharing among general aviation pilots and passengers has been common since the earliest days of aviation. It has also been expressly approved by the FAA for over 60 years. Pilots and passengers have been able to connect with each other to share flight plans using whatever communication devices were available to them, including e-mail, telephone, word of mouth, or posting flyers on local airport bulletin boards. A start-up company called Flytenow simply applied this framework to the digital age by allowing pilots to post flight information on the internet.  

Using the internet to coordinate plans, however, was too much for the FAA. The FAA deemed private pilots of small four- to six-seat aircraft who used the internet to communicate “common carriers,” subject to the same regulations that apply to Delta and American Airlines pilots. The FAA then issued an order that shut down Flytenow and its website.

While the FAA was taking this action,theEuropean Aviation Safety Agency — the FAA’s European equivalent — was allowingthe very same internet flight operations in Europe. Europe has now permitted internet-based flight-sharing for years, without incident.  

Even under a new administration, the FAA persists in its old ways — preventing pilots from using the internet to communicate and banning an affordable travel option for passengers across the United States.

A bill recently introduced by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) would change that. It codifies the definition of “common carrier” that has existed in common law for decades. It also clarifies that private pilots who share expenses are not the equivalent of commercial airline pilots and should not be treated as such by regulators.

Internet-based flight-sharing complies with all existing general aviation safety standards. Moreover, because pilots and passengers have more information about one another than they otherwise would, it is safer than flight-sharing as it exists today offline. Yet, rather than adopt new rules in response to new technology, the FAA has refused to engage in reasoned rulemaking about flight-sharing, prohibiting internet communications outright.

From Uber to Airbnb, “sharing-economy” technologies are upending nearly every industry in the United States and across the globe — to the benefit of consumers everywhere. But while the internet is changing the way people live, work, and travel, government agencies, including the FAA, have been slow to embrace technological change.

The predictable result for general aviation has been less innovation, higher costs, and fewer choices for consumers. It’s time for the FAA to catch up to the digital age — or at least to recognize that in 2018, Americans use the internet rather than bulletin boards to communicate. By recognizing this simple fact, Europe has provided enormous opportunities for general aviation pilots and passengers abroad. It’s time that Americans enjoyed those same communication and travel options here at home. 

Jonathan Riches is the director of national litigation at the Goldwater Institute.

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