Uber-style flight sharing deemed illegal

WASHINGTON — The trend in sharing services popularized by Uber Technologies Inc. and Airbnb Inc. will take longer to gain a foothold in the world of aviation, if at all.

The Federal Aviation Administration reviewed its rules and determined that AirPooler Inc., which connects pilots with passengers willing to split fuel costs and other expenses for travel, isn’t operating legally.

The decision this week erects a barrier to extending the so-called sharing economy into air travel. Car-hailing service Uber and room-rental company Airbnb have faced similar legal hurdles as traditional industry competitors – and the legacy rules that apply to them – confront technological changes in the way customers seek to use and pay for day-to-day services.

“There’s a really deep underlying economic basis” for the shared-services model, AirPooler Chief Executive Officer Steve Lewis said Friday in a telephone interview. “It’s much more than a fad for the shared economy because you have all these assets around that are being underutilized.”

Investors including Goldman Sachs and Google Ventures are pouring cash into the burgeoning market for sharing apps, including those that let users order taxis and cars or share rides. San Francisco-based Uber, which is active in more than 40 countries, raised $1.2 billion in funding in June, giving it a value of $17 billion.

Airbnb, a short-term room rental service for travelers, was valued at about $10 billion after its last round of fundraising.

In the AirPooler case, the FAA’s legal interpretation rejects the idea that the air-travel service simply amounts to cost-sharing rather than a commercial aviation operation. The service is equivalent to charter flights and would require additional licenses and regulatory oversight, the FAA said in an Aug. 13 letter to a lawyer for AirPooler.

The pilots or the company may face FAA enforcement action should they continue. The letter was in response to a May 19 letter in which AirPooler asked the FAA whether its pilots needed commercial licenses.

AirPooler plans to ask the FAA to reconsider the decision and will study ways of adjusting the service to make it legal within existing regulations. A challenge to the ruling in court may be considered as an “extreme resort,” Lewis said.

AirPooler has had “massive support” from pilots and several thousand travelers signed up mostly in the San Diego and San Francisco areas, Lewis said. The service has had “hundreds” of operations since the plane sharing began April 1, he said. Most of the planes are single-engine propeller aircraft and don’t include jets and larger turboprop planes.

The FAA declined to comment on AirPooler beyond the ruling, said Laura Brown, an agency spokeswoman. The legal opinion is consistent with prior rulings the FAA has made, according to the letter.

The letter was sent by Mark Bury, the FAA’s assistant chief counsel for international law, to Rebecca MacPherson, a lawyer at Jones Day representing AirPooler.

The service provided by AirPooler is different from other Uber-like companies in that the pilots receive only partial reimbursement for fuel and other costs and can’t make a profit, MacPherson said in an interview.

As a result, the company believes it’s no different from a private pilot accepting partial payment for fuel from a friend on a flight that the pilot intended to take anyway, MacPherson said. That type of financial transaction is permitted under a 1964 rule imposed by the FAA, she said.

“You’re not going to make any money doing this,” she said. “All you’re going to do is defray some of your costs, which the FAA has said is OK in the past. The only thing that is different is you’re using social media.”

Throughout its history, the FAA has treated flights carrying passengers for hire differently than private aviation.

Pilots on charter or airline flights must have a commercial license that subjects them to additional training and requires greater experience. Commercial flight operations also receive additional FAA inspections and must document such items as employee drug tests and maintenance work.

While private pilots must adhere to FAA safety regulations, they receive significantly less scrutiny.

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