(CN) – Private-plane pilots who do not have a commercial license cannot offer their services to passengers willing to share the pilots’ expenses, the D.C. Circuit ruled.
Like Uber and Airbnb before it, Flytenow developed a web-based service to connect recreational pilots with passengers, or “enthusiasts” as the company’s website names them. The platform lets pilots share their planned itineraries with passengers looking to “experience the thrill of light planes.”
Most pilots on Flytenow operate single-engine, propeller-driven, four-seater planes, according to the company’s website. A flight from Boston to Martha’s Vineyard in a Cessna 172 costs approximately $120 per person.
Federal Aviation Administration rules prohibit a pilot from accepting payment from passengers, however, unless they possess a commercial license. Thus in exchange for the ride, Flytenow passengers pay a portion of the flight expenses.
Flytenow believed that its service ducks the FAA restriction. “Your adventure does not communicate to the public that transportation services are indiscriminately available but rather, only available to an enthusiast who has a demonstrated common interest in the specific date, points of operation, and adventure,” the company tells enthusiasts on its website.
But the FAA dealt a serious blow to Flytenow’s business plans last year, ruling that expense-sharing qualifies as compensation.
Finding that pilots offering flight-sharing services through Flytenow operate as “common carriers,” the agency said they would need possess a commercial pilot license.
The D.C. Circuit upheld the agency’s decision Friday.
“The FAA concluded that the exception from the general ban on receipt of compensation – allowing private pilots to engage in expense sharing in certain circumstances – did not redefine expense sharing as something other than compensation,” Judge Nina Pillard wrote for a three-judge panel.
Flytenow’s services are limited to members – but membership is available to anyone who signs up, the court noted. Effectively, therefore, Flytenow’s pilots offer their services to the general public.
“Any prospective passenger searching for flights on the Internet could readily arrange for travel via Flytenow.com,” Pillard wrote. “Flytenow’s statement to its members that its pilots may on a case-by-case basis decide not to accept particular passengers is not to the contrary.”
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