Washingon Times Article Misleads Public On Flight Sharing

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Washingon Times Misleads Public On Flight Sharing

Opinion Editorial written by Jason J. Baker — In an “opinion and analysis” piece published by the Washington Times, reporters Michael Sargent and John-Michael Seibler mourn Flytenow’s shut down in 2016, citing arbitrary decisions within the FAA may have hindered the further progressing of general aviation in the United States. In the article, the authors call the action to prohibit further operation of the flight-sharing platform equally heavy-handed and antiquated as they appear to perceive the FAA’s take on commercial airlines.

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“Such a service would be a boon for vacationers heading to distant beach, lake, or mountain destinations. But the service was grounded courtesy of arbitrary government action.” the authors wrote.

Let’s look at the situation from a more factual perspective and try to apply some common sense to the flawed logic, before crying foul on behalf of people who have every option to fly and enjoy the beauty of general aviation.

Vacationers desiring to travel to destinations can already do this, much like they do in their own road based motor vehicles. Almost everyone can become a private pilot and fly themselves, their family and friends around all they want. This is what private aviation is for! Not what is covered by commercial aviation, which offers the public who pays a fee an added,often superficial layer of security, which is important for keeping commercial air transport safe in the United States.

The FAA differentiates between three forms of passenger transport.

Private pilots may take passengers along on flights, and without having to get into the very detailed minutia of the rules, their passenger are usually not paying to be on the flight. They are coming on board as a guest of the owner or pilot and their presence on the plane is incidental in nature to the operation of the flight. A pilot like this is NOT allowed to advertise the empty seats in his airplane.

Contrary to what’s stated in the article, that isn’t an arbitrary re-interpretation of a decades old agency memo – it is underlined by a regulation in 14 CFR 91 and a connected interpretation by the FAA’s legal counsel. This is considered private carriage. A finer distinction gets made when a private pilot takes people along and receives a certain part of his expense as a reimbursement for his direct costs.

Then we have commercial pilots, who – in contrast – are trained and certified to different standards to provide paid flights (within limits) to the paying public. Airplanes used in commercial operations are generally subject to more stringent inspections and certification rules, pilots have to train and retrain, often have refresher training and are subject to different (and higher) medical standards.

Finally we have airlines, another form of commercial carriage, who – through FAR Part 121 certification – obtain the privilege to transport people on scheduled flights all over the planet and hang billboards all over the place to advertise these flights. One- up the regulations and certification, medical and training requirements once more, to get an idea of what that entails.

In both of these commercial venues, the focus is on greater regulation that supposedly enhances safety, ensures pilot qualifications, and makes sure the aircraft being used are as safe as possible for the unsuspecting flying public. The rules for private carriage are much more lenient and do not offer the same level of “safety guarantees”. This is an important fact when anyone tries to argue that we should allow “ride sharing” in any pilot’s 50 year old aircraft, just as an example. Note: I am not saying that Joe Pilot is elementary more unsafe – but he is held to different standards than any commercial pilot.

The article further states that FAA bureaucrats decided that “while cork-board postings are fine, pixel postings are beyond the pale”. Here there is a mild need to correct the writers from misleading their readers again. The FAA enforces regulations which have been proposed and written into regulations by legislators and congress, oh, and those have gone through official publication and public comment processes. The rules on cork-board postings are nearly identical with the rules on pixel posting, except they vary in their impact.

Generally, people do not run into small airports to see when Joe Pilot may fly to the Caribbeans again, but they do certainly search for flights online. The defining factor is often price – and price alone. Finding a “cheap” flight may then be the reason to sign up, expecting similar standards or levels of safety/ training. Blame our litigious society for the crux in that…. not those of us who look at current system and the long term implications of general aviation’s already damaged public image, critically.

The statement that European regulators disagree is misleading. Not only are we operating in a completely different culture, we are also operating in a fundamentally different legal environment in Europe vs. the attorney controlled United States. EASA regulators did allow the operation based on a memorandum of understanding (aka. a Charter) which spells out very clear rules and sets minimum standards, provide a well thought out – but yet to be proven – concept of oversight and frequent re-considerations by all stakeholders. Some questions, particularly in regards to legal liability limitations and protections for those who engage in the activity, remain largely unclear. Neither rules nor operational environment are remotely close to identical and EASA could, without honking the horn or using a blinker, pull that plug and drain the water out of the tub.

The FAA’s “aberrant” decision hasn’t denied benefits for the entire aviation industry, it just hasn’t accomplished to learn what EASA has learned the hard way. Eventually, large regulatory machines regulate their stakeholders out of the market. There is always a way to make things more complicated and confusing.

While it is true that General Aviation has had a steady and painful decline in numbers, we ought to look just a tiny bit closer at what really caused these issues, rather than blindly pointing fingers without much substantiated information to back it up.

The idea that introducing flight-sharing would help pilots mitigate the cost of obtaining and maintaining their certifications is only partly correct. Wingly may present itself as the savior of General Aviation and I am sure that their motives are positive, but the actual impact of savings or increasing the pilot population over here in Europe is dismal, not measurable and very likely overestimated, at best.

Not only would it be misleading to state that Wingly offers “choices to consumers”, it would be damaging to the business aviation industry, which has fought hard to overcome regulatory burdens and is trying desperately to limit its legal liabilities in terms of providing its services in a legally sound and safe fashion. Make no mistake about it, flight sharing apps enjoy very mixed emotions from within their own industry and the last thing this industry needs are fly by night pocket airlines, going to exotic and often tricky destinations, just to catch passengers and reduce the cost of flying.

Where things become seriously offset from reality is when we read that the safety of general aviation operations would be anywhere close to that of commercial operations. While it is true that our accident numbers in aviation are down, we ought to really look closer at why they are down and what caused them to go down.

First, less people fly fewer hours per year than ever before, second, less airplanes are sold than ever before, which means upkeep and maintenance becomes more difficult and expensive. Third; fuel is getting prohibitively expensive and taxes, fees and local zealot regulations have succeeded in taking the last bit of fun in private flying out of the game. Closing airports means hangaring your airplane up to 100 miles away from home, adding cost and frustration to keeping ones own airplane in the family. Many fold up just for those reasons.

I have had the privilege to be part of the U.S. General Aviation world for some 19 years and not once have I seen or heard of a pilot folding it up due to lack of flight sharing and money saving opportunities. We barely get young people interested in flying and the average age in GA is rising rapidly. The FAA has allowed pro rated sharing all along, except it did so within the envelope of the current legal landscape. It considers holding out online beyond the scope of the very limited public traffic we see in most general aviation airports, today.

While the glorious Aviation Empowerment Act (S.2650), introduced by Sen. Mike Lee is noble and nice, Mr. Lee doesn’t speak for a large majority of pilots, flight instructors, examiners or industry stakeholders, at least this writer never saw such a memo. I personally do think, though, that in order to see flight sharing services established within the United States would require a complete reconfiguration of our policy framework and we will in fact need to spend time on discussing our greatest threat to general aviation in particular: Legal liability and its tremendous effects.

Spurring innovation requires more than politicians to frequently and desperately secure aviation related voters by running around and declaring “Aviation Appreciation Months” upon their states. They actually need to put their money where their big mouth is and send very clear signals in terms of assuring companies who struggle severely, that hanging up the pilot shirt would be the wrong move. Why can’t politicians go visit all the various flight schools within their areas and get a better idea about what the boots on the ground experience in day to day operations? Whats being done is providing lip service and hot- air promises to people who’ve been tired of having their leg pulled for 6 decades.

Are you a politician and reading this? Lets talk about restricting aircraft manufacturers direct and implied liability for products they have produced some 40 or 50 years ago, or yesterday. Lets prohibit attorneys from bringing suit until the reason of an accident has been properly identified. Once its determined that “pilot error” caused it; and nothing on the airplane was found as causative to injury or loss of human life, the silly lawsuits stop. I am not sure just how fun it is to produce and sell aircraft these days and as a aviation news editor I get to speak with some pretty tough people. Liability is a huge reason new aircraft prices have climbed and that many manufacturers have ceased production or desperately try to find ways to avoid liability.

Within the U.S. and the European aviation industry, flight sharing apps do not enjoy majority industry support, quite yet. I personally know flight instructors who refuse to instruct students due to hair-raising liability concerns and I know more than one designated examiner who got tired of not being able to sleep at night – for the fear of having one of their former test subjects crashing.

Imagine your daughter or son signed up to fly with a private pilot who is legally permitted and certified to carry people – and something happened. Who would you blame? Your 19 year old daughter who thought pilots are special people with supernatural skills and abilities? Your son, who wanted to save 19 dollars and shave 5 hours off his trip to the Bahamas? What would you choose? Assets you have spent your whole life to secure, or the fancy romantic feeling of watching your student take off solo for the first time? The same people who bury their child after it wraps a 500 HP Mustang around a tree, would never ever imagine to sue Ford…

Attorneys will always be the “consumer advocate” encouraging the victims to go after the pilot or their relatives, the aircraft manufacturer and every single person or institution that has touched or ever thought about touching that airplane. Huge settlements spell a windfall. All to reimburse people for a decision they made and brought upon themselves.

Flight Schools and airports are struggling with citizen groups, lawsuits, time restrictions, and out of their mind environmentalist which think none of us should be allowed to fly. It’s quite normal for the part of the populace that doesn’t have the slightest clue about what General and Business Aviation means to our economy, to run around and regurgitate -half-truths and rampant bullshit . There sometimes seems to be a race to be first in line when it comes to destroying GA and restricting it further.

Gray charter operations are already in the sights of business aviation operations and associations around the globe. By further illustrating just how easy things could be, if the mean regulator just had an open ear for those they regulate, we are selling half a cookie at full price and we are misinforming and misleading an audience that has a RIGHT to see both sides of the story, before making up their mind! By the way, the same holds true on the FAA’s supposed harsh stance on Drones.

Congress would be well advised to take the recent up-flare of public opinion about the topic as a guide that something is seriously going sideways for and within the aviation industry. We now have a grab for airspace with continued and repeated attacks against private and business aviation in a concerted and well choreographed move by various airlines. Heavens know if and when our President may succeed in privatizing one of the best run airspace systems by giving it into the hands of profit hungry airlines.

We in General Aviation have a mandate to equip tens of thousands of airplanes with expensive “upgraded ADS-B technology” that supposedly allows more efficient airspace management, because we have people who wish to monetize and capitalize on drones and VTOL urban and mass transportation. There is a full-on war for airspace in the United States – mirroring the fight we have seen for nearly three decades in Europe. General aviation and business in Europe lost that war and it took nearly 15 years to recover the market to halfway decent development.

General Aviation is on the brink of collapse in the United States and even though the business aviation world is seeing some moderate growth and expansion, that’s not caused by people who have $3,000-6,000 per hour to rent a private jet. Its caused by the lack of performance and versatility of our airline industry which has put money before people for decades and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. An increasing number of people are pulling their credit cards and flying with business aviation outfits, because the service and on- time performance of the airlines is catastrophic – with terrible customer service to boot.

The shortfall of one industry, feeds the other. Cheap pilots, cheap service, no baggage, long waits, rarely on-time with an out of its mind draconian DHS seeking to provide “a sense or perception of security” that is little more than a farce. When fingers get pointed, the airlines will be extremely quick to propose taxing the little guys for using up “their” airspace and causing delays.

More flight schools will close, more instructors will retire, more examiners will choose assets over liability. More businesses will go under, more lawyers will sue, more newspapers will write hit-job articles about how much greener the grass is on the other side… But it isn’t folks! Presenting it as such with a straight face and asking the reader to buy it, borders on criminal silliness.

Let’s have a discussion about the facts and truth before reinventing rules and regulations that are (in many cases) written in blood or brought on by tremendous award judgments. Lets enable aviation to grow and prosper. How? Start by visiting your local airfield and ask about taking lessons. It’s more affordable than you think – we are basically sitting here waiting for you to come through the door and discover just how much freedom and opportunity (also in terms of careers) lurks just in our small general aviation fraternity. Once you earn your certificate, you’ll be able to fly your friends around and enjoy the sights, the feelings and emotional freedom which only general aviation pilots get to experience!

Look for the green “Learn To Fly Here!” sign, walk right in, bring an hour or two and an open mind.

Jason Baker works as a freelance writer and marketing & advertising consultant. He holds a commercial pilot certificate (SEL/SES/MEL), instrument rating as well as advanced & instrument ground instructor certificates. Jason is the owner & managing editor of Seaplanemagazine.com and also serves as Editor Europe for AVweb.com. For more information about consulting services offered, visit Baker Aviation Consulting & Services via: jasonjamesbaker.com

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