We all know that private pilots can’t fly for compensation or hire. There are a few exceptions – some charity flights, search and rescue, and sharing flight costs with passengers while paying at least a pro rata share. The caveat with the last is that according to the rulings of the administrative law judges of the NTSB, you have to be flying on common purpose. That part isn’t in the FARs, it’s a legal test used to determine if the pilot is running an under-the-radar charter op or is sharing costs fairly under FAR 61. Similarly, a private pilot can’t advertise for passengers – that would also make them a charter/commercial flight.
A couple of years ago, Flytenow decided to set up a ridesharing web service designed to connect pilots planning flights with people who wanted to go places and were willing to share costs. On the surface, it might make sense. There aren’t set ticket prices – an equal share of flight costs is the maximum a private pilot could charge. You have to sign up to access the service, so it’s not public advertising. Unlike a typical charter, passengers aren’t telling pilots where to go – the pilots were going anyway.
But did ridesharing constitute private pilots advertising for compensation? The FAA said yes and shut them down. Flytenow took it to court and lost, appealing it all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case, upholding the unanimous decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Court. While there is certainly room for legal interpretation in ‘common cause’ and what exactly constitutes as advertising, it’s not really a surprise that posting requests for people willing to pay for a space in a plane got the FAA’s attention. At the same time, proponents argue that such ridesharing is no different than if it were done via the local FBO’s bulletin board, except for the medium used to spread the word.
Flytenow’s only chance of getting the flight ridesharing idea back up in the air would be an amendment to the existing legislation. They say they’re going to try that next.