Aviation Technology

Have Cell Phone Will Travel… On Private Jet Charter, Naturally.

The Digital Age for Air Travel Has Arrived. Buying a Ticket (even an e-ticket) is So Old School.

Today you can simply go to an app on your cell phone and book a seat on a private jet or charter the entire jet for a flight, if you like. It’s all part of the digital explosion that links service providers with frequent fliers any time of day, any day of the year.

Before you go downloading the apps – these services are not for everyone, many require hefty membership fees and the price of flying on a private jet is usually much more than a first class airline ticket. The advantages, of course, are speed, privacy and convenience. Flying privately eliminates long security lines, airport traffic delays – even the possibility of lost or stolen luggage.

Private jets give you door-to-door service with access to thousands more airports across the world than commercial airlines fly to. All you have to do is find out which service offers the best deal for you and your needs.

So Who Are You Gonna Call?

The number of air  has ballooned in the past several years.  No two have the same pricing structure or membership costs.  Most do not own or operate aircraft, but provide access to those who do. Here are some of the most notable charter booking services, their websites and a comparison of their offerings:

JetSuite is a California-based private jet charter company, which does not require private membership, though you can request SuiteKey membership if you like with a pre-paid account. Their fleet consists of Embraer Phenom 100s and Cessna Citations. Unlike many Jet charter companies, they offer guaranteed online pricing to more than 2,000 airports. They also offer WiFi-enabled flights throughout North America. Jet Suite offers customized itineraries for those in their membership program as well as empty leg flights with special “next-day” deals. What’s an empty leg? It’s the transport leg the aircraft needs to fly to begin or end a charter flight. Rather than fly the jet empty, you  can hitch a ride, often for a fraction of the operating cost of the charter flight. Empty-leg deals are the most economical because you’re basically flying to a destination the jet charter has to bring the jet to anyway. JetSuite advertises seats starting at $99.

JetMe is the Priceline of charter jet online services. Their non-member app allows you to name your own price. Of course, they will provide suggested prices, too. Once you pick your price range, JetMe puts you in contact with the charter broker or operator to work out the final pricing with them. How likely are you to get the flight you want for the price you bid? That depends on how low the bid. The lower the big, the lower your chances of snagging a jet.

Fly anywhere, anytime, All is takes is an app, a membership fee and a healthy bank account.

Fly anywhere, anytime,
All it takes is an app, a membership fee and a
healthy bank account.

JetSmarter is a membership traveler service that allows users to book a private jet from a mobile app. JetSmarter claims to have access to the largest private jet marketplace in the world – 3,000 aircraft according to founder Sergey Petrossov. Your choice of aircraft ranges from King Air turboprops to Boeing 767s.

Membership is roughly $3,000 to join and around $9,000 per year. You can book a whole jet to take you just about anywhere. You can also select a service they call JetShuttle, which allows you to search for a flight that is already scheduled and may have spare seats available. The app becomes most economical when you book a seat on an empty leg.

Beacon was centered in the Northeast with a one-time $1,000 initiation fee and a $2,000 a month usage fee. Despite its white glove services, Beacon fell prey to regulatory and overhead costs it could not overcome. Beacon closed shop in April 2016. We mention it only to remind you that not all of these services succeed.  They are subject to regulations and to costs, which could cripple their chances of success.

BlackJet is a Florida-based service that is actually backed by original backers of Uber. The service requires a $5000 annual membership fee but it does allow you to purchase a seat rather than the entire plane. Of course, that seat could run you $6000 but that’s still cheaper than a whole plane. In the past several months, BlackJet has been grounded and restarted again. Much of this is due to financing problems. Whether it survives or goes the way of Beacon remains to be seen.

Blue Star Jets is a booking service that claims access to over 5,000 planes worldwide and operates in an Uber-fashion. They offer one-click reservations and a 24/7 customer service organization – they say they can book you anywhere across the globe in just 15 minutes.

imgresPrivateFly lets users see competitive quotes and aircraft, so they can comparison shop and the ability to choose both aircraft, as well as airports. PrivateFly claims to be a global booking service and the fastest growing private aviation company in Europe. The company claims they can get you in the air within one hour.

SkyJet is a New York based charter service that charges by the hour. About $3000 for a light jet, $4000 to $4500 for a mid-size jet and about $7000 for a large cabin jet. SkyJet does not offer long-term commitments and has been known to provide empty-leg seats.

Surf Air is a California based service that owns its own fleet of aircraft. You can purchase unlimited flights from $1950 a month – fly as much as you want but must make two reservations at a time.  Surf Air also provides Group Memberships for companies. Some days they launch as many 90 flights. Surf Air operates single-engine Pilatus PC-12 turboprops and is mostly a West Coast based operator.

Victor is booking service that is Uber-like, but worldwide. Use its one-touch mobile booking app, and as many as 7,000 jets are at your disposal. They claim they can get you airborne in a couple of hours. You also get real-time pricing and price comparisons to help you make an informed decision. Victor is based in London and allows you to book any size aircraft from a turboprop to a full-size Boeing or Airbus.

Wheels Up is a private aviation start-up that sells memberships and on-demand flights. It has two kinds of membership programs: Individual/Family and Corporate. Individual Family members pay an initiation fee of about $17,500 and fly at an hourly rate of about $4000 an hour.  Corporate membership starts at around $30,000. Wheels Up guarantees pricing and flies King Air 350 and Cessna Citation Excel aircraft.

Note: You should be aware that with some booking services, there may be addition fees that are not included in the price, such as airport fees or landing fees, which are separate from your negotiated price. Best to read the fine print before boarding.

The Last Word: Choose Your Options Wisely.

You can still choose to go direct to tried and true jet charter companies like NetJets and Avjet for your private aircraft needs. They tend to have programs that essentially make you a fractional owner in their fleet.  They, too, offer online and phone booking, but you are flying them exclusively. Their prices are usually fixed and you will be booking their aircraft, not just a seat.

In the end, it comes down to need, budget and availability. Choosing a mobile booking service may be right for you, becoming part of a jet charter service may serve your needs better. The truth is there are lots of options out there – more than we have covered here.  Some of them are global, some are regional. Do your homework and crunch your numbers and you can turn your cell phone into your own personal airline. Otherwise, do what the remaining 99% of us do, book a flight, drive to the airport and grit your teeth.

Should I stay or should I go? There’s a weather app for that!

The single most important go- no-go factor for any pilot is weather. Weather determines if a pilot should leave the ground at all, and when in the air, if he or she should get back on the ground in a hurry. Every pilot is taught that they should call Flight Services and talk to a briefer before launching in questionable weather conditions; and in the case of long, cross-country flying, file a flight plan with Flight Services.

Today, there are a plethora of weather service sources a pilot can refer to when planning a flight. The internet is a treasure trove of weather information from the FAA (Federal Aviation Adminsitration), NOAA/NWS (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/ National Weather Service), AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) and more. All are fine while on the ground in the comfort and safety of one’s den. But almost all have disclaimers stating that using online weather information is not a replacement for that call to a briefer at Flight Services.

Weather, of course, can be unpredictable. Many a pilot has done his or her due diligence and launched into a perfectly blue sky with calm winds at the surface, manageable winds aloft and 20 nautical miles of visibility only to find a surprise thunderstorm.

Apps, Apps everywhere.

In the past several years a revolutionGarmin Pilot App has taken place in aviation cockpits around the globe. They have gone digital, both inside the panel with glass instruments or outside the panel with hand held devices that provide everything from approach plates to night vision. Of course, part of that revolution includes weather apps of different varieties that give pilots en route weather information – not from Flight Watch, not through VOR stations – but from satellites and almost in real time. Here are just some the many weather apps available for mobile devices, their similarities and their differences:

  1. WSI Pilotbrief Optima (Free in iTunesThis iPad app allows users access to weather and NOTAMs (notices to airmen) information when planning a flight. Features include high-definition weather layers, radar, satellite infrared, Vertically Integrated Liquid (VIL), and EchoTop mosaics; graphic METARs and 10-day planning forecasts.
  2. Aviation weather by GADsoftware ($4.99 in Google Play) – This smartphone app shows maps with all reporting stations listed, and coded by VFR/IFR conditions. The default map in the 30-day free trial is of the Northeast centered on Boston, but you can add other locations.
  3. AccuWeather (Basic version free on iTunes and Google Play) Members rave about this smartphone and tablet app for its push notifications for severe weather alerts, precise weather maps, forecasts for 2.7 million locations around the world, and the ability to save forecasts for an unlimited number of locations.
  4. MyRadar Weather Radar (Basic version free in iTunes and Google Play) This smartphone and tablet app displays animated weather radar at a current location. For $1.99, the pro version removes all ads. For $2.99, the app will include hurricane coverage. It also offers weather warnings and alerts.
  5. AeroWeather (Lite version, free; Pro version, $3.99 in iTunes) The lite version of this iPhone/iPad app provides raw and decoded METAR/TAF data, and allows users to search stations from a built-in database or find them based on location. The weather comes from the National Weather Service database. The Pro version does all of the above plus provides NOTAMs, runway data, moon data and information from AWOS (Automated Weather Observing System), plus it filters airport identifiers and information.
  6. RadarScope ($9.99) This app can display 155 radar sites in the U.S.and allows you to choose between base and composite reflectivity. This app is more for weather geeks than the average aviation user and depends less on graphics and more data.
  7. SkewTLogPro ($6.99)  The app offers temperature/dew point, wind direction and wind speed at different altitudes and can reveal information about cloud bases, tops, icing, turbulence and more. It also allows you to quick scan Skew T diagrams (meteorological graphics that take some training to read) at any location in the U.S.

The Big Three

Aviation Weather on iPadThe three dominant GPS Navigation apps for pilots have been ForeFlight, Garmin Pilot and WingX. All three provide more than weather, but their weather apps are quite robust and allow you to overlay your flight plan so you can see what weather issues are in your path. This gives all three a level of situation awareness that can really be useful at altitude and while en route to your destination. These apps include graphic versions of METAR s and icing forecasts. What sets them apart is that all three allow you to get formal DUAT/DUATS weather briefings right in the app – no need to call Flight Services and talk to a briefer. These apps are official. They also include weather data link, either through XM or ADS-B. All three provide a free trial.

The Improvements keep on coming.

The "Aviation Weather at a GlanceTM" app provides a easy to understand graphical presentation of weather at departure, enroute and at the destination - at the present and in the future. (PRNewsFoto/wx24 Pilot)

The “Aviation Weather at a GlanceTM” app provides a easy to understand graphical presentation of weather at departure, enroute and at the destination – at the present and in the future. (PRNewsFoto/wx24 Pilot)

One of the issues with most aviation weather apps is that they present report data (METARS, TAFs, Pilot Reports (or PIREPS) in raw form or decoded and not all in one place. A new app created by 1 Echo Charlie, LLC is changing all that. It is called wx24 Pilot. Unlike other aviation apps, which display text versions of weather data, wx24 Pilot interprets the same data and presents it graphically.

The illustrated weather data is presented on screen so you don’t have to go scrolling and scrambling around to put together a composite idea of what the weather around you looks like . You can quickly see the current and the forecast weather situation that lies ahead of you along your route and at your destination. The graphic weather depictions allow you to “see” the weather rather than decipher it. Sizing up the weather situation takes seconds instead of minutes and in aviation that could mean the difference between flying into danger and having enough time to recognize it and avoid it.

Another unique safety feature of wx24 Pilot is you can input your personal minimums and the app will quickly allow you to see if you are approaching them or about to exceed them. The app presents your en route weather situation from point of departure to destination point with weather information at key points along the way.

You can purchase wx24 Pilot by the month for $1.99, for six months for $7.99 or for 1 year for $11.99.

Conclusion

The digital revolution in aviation is making flying safer by putting more and more critical information at our fingertips in our cockpits and it is doing it at lower and lower cost to the pilot. While all this is valuable for sure, eyeballs out the window are just as critical to safe flying. A happy medium between our heads in the clouds and are eyes on our handheld screens could be the best prescription for keeping us all safe.

UberChopper and the coming age of helicopter ride sharing.

We live in a gee-whiz time when catching a ride is as easy as opening a cell phone app. Uber may not be as futuristic as “Beam me up, Scotty,” but it certainly has caused turbulence with the taxi industry. Now, Uber wants to transform how we get around in the air. Enter UberChopper, an exciting new way to request a helicopter taxi that is creating great interest and great concern at the same time.

Compared to air travel by jet, riding in a helicopter to get from point A to point B is not something the average American is used to doing. Truthfully, it probably won’t be commonplace for some time to come because vertical flight is far more expensive per hour than fixed-winged flight. Still, in certain American cities like Los Angeles and New York your chances of hopping a chopper to get to a weekend hideaway or to beat the traffic to the airport are much higher than elsewhere.

Uber has been experimenting with providing shared helicopter rides for a few years now. In 2013, it offered exclusive helicopter rides to New Yorkers wishing to get to their Hampton, Long Island retreats without having to battle the mind-numbing traffic on the Long Island Expressway. Uber again offered helicopter service during the United States Formula 1 Grand Prix in Austin, Texas. They also partnered with helicopter flying services to ferry people at the Cannes Film Festival, the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, and most recently at the Sundance Film Festival. Uber’s efforts have been met with both resistance, as well as with success.

Not the first, but potentially the biggest.

The idea of using a helicopter as a taxi is not a new one. In the early 1950s, New York Airways was created to ferry people to various New York Airports. It operated through the late 70s, picking up passengers from the top of what was then called the Pan Am Building and flying them to various New York airports. The service was suspended in New York after a serious fatal accident in 1979.

More recently, the helicopter has become a jet setter’s taxi. In Los Angeles, many studio executives use helicopters to transport themselves from Malibu to studios in L.A. In Texas the helicopter is the Oil Executive’s mode of transportation for getting to drilling platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

New York of late has given rise to a new helicopter phenomenon: the helicopter ride share. In the past two years, three companies have come into existence specializing in helicoptering groups of people from downtown New York to the Hamptons or to New York Area airports. They are Blade, Gotham Air and Uber. All of these services are set up for ride-shares for four to six passengers. Just like a shared taxi ride in Manhattan, the cost of the ride is divided by the passengers, thus bringing a flight that could cost upwards of $2000 down to mere hundreds per passenger.

Please Note: Unlike on-demand flights for fixed wing aircraft owners, the FAA has not ordered on-demand helicopter companies to cease and desist. The reason is that booking agents, like Uber, connect customers with helicopter charter companies that employ commercial-rated pilots. The problem with the fixed wing services was that they were connecting passengers with non-commercial-rated private pilots, which the FAA deems a safety problem.

Why Uber Could Become The Biggest Player.

UberChopper may never become as ubiquitous as street Uber, but for those living in the fast lane it might become as convenient.

Uber not only has a national presence but is gaining international recognition as well. Recently it partnered with aviation giant Airbus, to further expand on-demand helicopter services. That partner also known as the European Aerospace Consortium happens to make, among other things, helicopters.

The partnership between software app and aviation hardware was recently tested at the Sundance Film Festival. Airbus provided its H125 and H139 helicopters and Uber provided the helicopter pilots together with an affluent consumer base wishing to cut time and complication out of travelling to and from the Sundance festival.

Why would Airbus consider such an arrangement? Current economics. With oil prices plunging, oil and gas companies, which have been the mainstay helicopter client, have cut back on new helicopter orders. Hence, Airbus is looking to grow their market by looking for new ways their helicopters are used, and by whom.

How did the Airbus/Uber partnership fair at Sundance?

For the cost of $200 per person during the day, and $300 a person at night, a Sundance attendee could take a fifteen minute flight to the Festival beating the crowds and the traffic. For many it was worth the money to share a helicopter ride with several other Festival goers.

There was, however, a snag. People in the quiet countryside around the Festival began to complain about the noise. The Sheriff of Summit County ordered a halt to the flights claiming that the landing zone was illegal and that both Uber (and competing helicopter service Blade) needed permits.

A District Judge ruled those who sued the helicopter services did not have enough evidence that county zoning rules were being violated, or that permits were required. The solution was an alternate landing site agreeable to both UberChopper and local residents, and as they say, the show went on.

One last note about the viability of on-demand helicopter services.

Despite the compromises that were struck at Sundance, helicopter on-demand chopper services still face some challenges from localities, like Summit County. You may recall last year the townspeople of East Hampton and South Hampton on Long Island, sought to put a curfew on helicopter landings due to noise pollution issues. Residents along the West Side of Manhattan have been seeking to curb helicopter flights up and down the Hudson corridor for years now, claiming that noise is so constant, there is little peace 24/7.

Festivals like Sundance encourage on-demand helicopter service for a limited time. Operations like Blade and Gotham Air and now Uber in Manhattan represent a more permanent service. The battle lines between folks on the ground and folks who want ride share in the air, have not and will not, go away. Not soon at any rate. As long as Uber has an app and someone has an available helicopter /pilot, it looks like on-demand chopper service is here to stay.

Plug and Fly: Greener, Cleaner Skies Ahead

They say history has a habit of repeating itself. We can only hope that when it does, we learn something new from it that propels us forward and not backward. 2015 has been a year of remarkable feats for solar powered and electric powered aircraft.  Some of these feats seem quaint and evoke a simpler time in aviation’s infancy, others seem remarkable breakthroughs. In either case, they point to a future in aviation that could usher in a greener, quieter and cleaner way to travel aloft.

Trying to harness electricity for flight is nothing new.  You can trace it back to two nineteenth century French army officers named Renard and Krebs. They had the audacity to power a hydrogen-filled dirigible with several large and heavy 8-horsepower batteries.  The result was something stunning for its time – a take off, a short flight and then a return to the point of departure!

Everything Old Is New Again.

Newscasts in the summer of 2015 were filled with a tale of a global circumnavigation by a long-winged, very slow aircraft called Solar Impulse. Using a wing impregnated with photovoltaic solar cells, Solar Impulse set forth on a journey around the globe, something earlier aviators already accomplished. The difference this time, of course, is the energy source. Solar Impulse propels itself without a carbon trace, without adding a single pollutant to the atmosphere.

Similarly, two aerial crossings of the English Channel made news in July, Hugues Duval’s Cr-Cri twin-engine craft and Airbus’ E-Fan prototype. Since this sort of thing hasn’t been news since Louis Bleriot did it in 1909 in a piston-powered monoplane, the only thing that makes it newsworthy today is the power source that propelled these aircrafts across the storied water boundary between England and France –lithium battery powered electric engines.

In terms of records, a technicality knocked the Cri-Cri flight out of the record books for being first, and another proposed English Channel crossing by the Pipistrel Light Sport Aircraft Company was foiled by its own engine manufacturer, Siemens, who refused to permit it. That put the Airbus E-Fan into the record books as the first electric powered aircraft to officially cross the Channel and allowed Airbus to collect the $1500 prize from The Daily Mail – a paltry sum compared to the millions Airbus sunk into creating the  E-Fan.

Also in 2015, a single-seat solar powered aircraft flew from Germany to Austria and back. The flight took about three hours. On July 4th, the University of Stuttgart launched an electric flight across the Alps in an electric powered aircraft. The craft landed, the pilots recharged the batteries, and flew back.

So What And Who Cares?

The practical among us are likely to dismiss these feats as mere novelties. The futurists among us, however, are hopeful these small victories point to a new golden age in aviation.

In case you were wondering what benefits electric flight holds, here are a few:

  • Little to no carbon footprint
  • Lower operating costs
  • Less noise pollution
  • Quiet in-cabin, in-flight noise
  • Smoother engine operation with less vibration
  • Engine rotation speeds at 2500 RPM requiring no reduction gears

In a 2009 article written by Peter Garrison for Air & Space, the author points out that experimentation in electric flight has been going on in earnest since the 1970’s. In those days the pioneers came from the ranks of radio controlled model aircraft enthusiasts such as Robert Boucher and Paul MacCready. Working together, they created an aircraft called Solar Challenger, a battery-less solar aircraft that captured enough sunlight to take off and fly.

Today’s electric powered flight enthusiasts tend to have more household names such as Elon Musk. Mr. Musk sees an electric air age well beyond the unmanned solar powered aircraft of the seventies or even today’s LSA-style electrics that carry only two people.  Mr. Musk’s vision stretches out to a horizon that puts hybrid electric power to work on the next generation of supersonic transports.

Is Elon Musk’s vision even possible?

Boeing and Airbus certainly think so.

Boeing is working in conjunction with the University of Cambridge to develop a hybrid propulsion system that works much like an electric car. The fossil-fuel side of the engine gets you into the air; the electric side keeps you cruising along until you have to come down to earth again.

Similarly, Airbus didn’t just cross the English Channel this year to prove it could be done; they crossed it because they’re working towards an electric driven airliner by 2050.

Until fairly recently, the problem with solar or electric driven engines has been insufficient power, weight and limited range. The solar and electric powered flights of 2015 have proven these barriers have been broken. How significantly have the barriers been breached? It is certainly now possible to develop a two-seat training aircraft like the Airbus E-Fan that can stay aloft long enough to get a student through an hour or so of basic maneuvers and landings. The reason there are not fleets of electric trainers at flying schools already has more to do with FAA regulations than it does with the science of electric flight (more on that in a moment).

One of the big problems has been weight. In 2014, Dr. Paul Robertson of the Cambridge Department of engineering said, “what’s been holding back the development of hybrid or fully-electric aircraft until now is battery technology… they have been too heavy and didn’t have enough energy capacity… but with the advent of improved lithium-polymer batteries {they} are now starting to become viable.”

The problem beyond battery weight has also been building an electric engine with enough gusto to get past the LSA weight-class of aircraft that crossed the English Channel this year?  If you thought developing a more powerful electric aircraft engine was still several years away, think again. In the late spring of 2015, Siemens announced a significant breakthrough in electric aircraft technology. They’ve developed a new electric engine which weighs just over 100 pounds but delivers the power output of a 350 horsepower gasoline-fueled piston aircraft engine.

The implications? The next flight across the English Channel could take place in a much heavier aircraft, one as heavy as 4,000 pounds. Suddenly 100LL begins to look a silly way to power ourselves across the sky in small planes and even on some commuter airlines.

To that point, Cape Cod regional airline, Cape Air, is working with NASA to develop an electric Cessna 402 to transport 9 passengers to nearby Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Of course, if you won’t be satisfied until you cross the country or the Atlantic in a hybrid electric plane, be patient. NASA, Boeing and Airbus are quickly working on the next generation of electric engines and electric power sources.  Why? Because airlines, governments and the traveling public need a cheaper, greener way to get from point A to point B in an atmosphere of increased environmental concerns.

Why Aren’t More Electric Planes Flying Now?

The Airbus E-Fan has proven what many aviation experts think is possible – a light weight, cheaper and greener trainer that could lower the cost of learning as well as the operational costs of running a flight school. So what’s stopping more LSA manufacturers from putting those electric engines into their latest models and shipping them out to flight schools across the U.S.?  The answer is the FAA.

When the rule was being written for Light Sport aircraft in 2004, there were no such electric motor possibilities available. Therefore, the FAA limited light sport aircraft to a “single, reciprocating engine, if powered.” These five little words stand in the way of a plethora of lightweight electric trainers which could reduce the cost of learning to fly by thousands of dollars.

Fortunately, the FAA is already at work changing the rules for electric power plants in bigger certified GA aircraft. The LSA industry is naturally hoping that those changes will lead to changes for them as well.

One industry heavyweight, Greg Bowles of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association is one of those betting on electric flight’s future. He says, “While pure battery-electric flight may be a ways off for bigger airplanes, there’s a lot of interest in developing hybrid systems once the new rules are in place.“

The Final Word: Necessity

They say there are no problems, only opportunities. Aviation is one arena were barriers are always being broken. Twentieth Century aviation proved it time and time again. From the time the Wright Flyer first flew, to the first DC-3 was a span of less than three decades, and from the DC-3 to a man on the moon less than four. Just as the piston engine gave way to jet propulsion, the polluting fossil-fuel hungry engines of today will be replaced by the greener, cleaner and more efficient electric engines of tomorrow. Why? Because we absolutely need to make it happen.

Do Uber Like Flight Sharing Services Compromise Flying Safety?

Aviation Marketing Consulting Blog

Will Uber like services for aviation open the skies to more travelers?

Welcome to the age of sharing. Looking for a ride to town? Call Uber. Want to vacation in Rome and do as the Romans do?  Book with Airbnb. Need to be in Hartford, Connecticut by 9 A.M. tomorrow morning?  Go online and see what flights are available on AirPooler or Flytenow.

Wait a second! You never heard of AirPooler or Flytenow?  Are they an online travel service?  Booking agent? Airline?

They’re none of the above. They’re online flight sharing boards. They’re designed to hook you up with a private pilot who just so happens to be flying to Hartford tomorrow and plans to arrive just about an hour before your meeting with the marketing manager of a huge insurance company in downtown Hartford.

Wow! No waiting on the security line at the airport. No baggage check. No boarding passes. Just you, your cash and maybe a form of ID to prove you are who you say you are. Hop in the Cessna and off you go. You don’t even have to land at Bradley International. You can touch down at Hartford-Brainard instead and be ten minutes closer to your downtown meeting.

Sounds great, right?

Hold it!  According to the FAA: NO CAN DO!

Anyone who has been issued a private pilot’s certificate in the United States is certainly familiar with a regulation called FAR 61.113(c).  It allows passengers to pay half the cost of a flight which includes gas and some other small expenses, but not much else.

According to now-grounded flight share organizations, AirPooler and Flytenow. all they ever intended to do was allow passengers to pay a fair share of a private pilot’s flight expenses to a specific destination.

The FAA, on the other hand, sees this service differently. They view flight-sharing services as commercial aviation, plain and simple. Commercial aviation by FAA standards means the service provider and pilots must have a commercial certification — therefore, those pilots must hold no less than an air transport license.

But wait! The private pilot isn’t making a profit on this arrangement; he or she is just splitting the cost of their flight. The parties involved do not think they are booking a flight on an air charter or an airline. As far as AirPooler and Flytenow are concerned, all they’re really offering is a private pilot, a private plane and a private agreement between the passenger and the pilot to pay half the flight operating costs. This is clearly defined in the FAA Part 61.113(c) regulations and has been around since the 1960s. So what’s the fuss about?

The fuss, according to the FAA is about safety and how these online sharing services “advertise” their flights. Because the flights are listed online, the FAA considers them to be “holding out” the services or advertising them.  By so doing, the online services are acting as commercial carriers and are thus subject to Part 119 regulations. The FAA asserts the private pilots listed online do not meet the commercial standards and so are operating illegally.

When in doubt, sue!

The order to ground AirPooler and Flytenow flight sharing services was issued by the FAA back in August of 2014. Since then, Flytenow has decided to take the case to Federal Court. Flytenow contends that share flights do not make the pilot a profit and therefore he or she is simply deferring cost and not acting as a commercially licensed airman.

They further contend that share flights are listed on Flying Club bulletin boards all the time and that the Part 61.113(c) regulations does allow folks to pay pilots for half the ride, so in essence, this sort of thing goes on all the time.

The FAA , on the other hand, claims that when friends or acquaintances, familiar with a private pilot, fly with him or her, they know what they’re getting into because they have some knowledge of the pilot’s skill set. Get into a plane with a perfect stranger who is a private pilot, says the FAA, and you’re taking a risk. Why? Because the private pilot’s skill has not been tested and endorsed to the levels needed for a commercial license.

If you’re keeping score of the arguments being volleyed back and forth, you don’t have to twist your neck any longer because the Flytenow vs. FAA case was heard by a three-judge panel in Federal court on September 25, 2015. You can read and hear the transcript  on Flytenow’s blog. Basically, the FAA is not backing down and in some ways doubling down. Here’s the current score:

  1. The FAA has admitted the order to stop practicing flight sharing at Flytenow was and still is a final order. That makes it official, legal and hard to maneuver around.
  2. The FAA is standing by its assertion that by advertising and broadly disseminating its services on the internet an online flight-sharing service is acting as a commercial or common carrier and subject to commercial regulations.
  3. The FAA points out that even ATP rated pilots are prohibited from transporting passengers for compensation when they are operating outside a charter or airline service. And this is despite their extensive pilot training and the certification they receive to carry passengers.

Meanwhile… at the Charter Airlines…

Online bulletin boards are helping to fill seats at charter jet services. Since they are charter carriers, they are commercial businesses and must hire ATP certified pilots, in which case the FAA has no problem with these air charter companies posting ride shares.

Why would a charter operator consider a ride share when they get ticketed customers through brokers? One reason is they have many empty-leg flights  – these are flights the charter operator needs to make to reposition their aircraft. Instead of flying them empty, some charter operators are setting up mobile apps, which allow customers to book direct without having to go through a broker. The brokers may not like it, but the charter operators do and the FAA has no objection because they’re commercial carriers.

The drawback to empty-leg flights is they revolve around the need of the charter company, not the paying customer. In truth, it’s the same idea as AirPooler or Flytenow. You’re hopping on someone else’s flight because it just so happens to coincide with your travel requirements.

The advantage of flight sharing for the charter operators is that it’s found money! The aircraft has to fly to the destination – empty or not. Having someone willing to pay to be a passenger on the flight means additional profit for the charter operator.

The bottom line

Why is sharing in vogue? The real answer isn’t because it’s sexy (although hoping a private jet during an empty-leg flight could make you feel like Donald Trump). No, the real reason is the high cost of everything – especially aviation– in a relatively flat economy.

For private piston jockeys, sharing could be a way to defer the ever -increasing cost of flying. For their passengers, it could be convenience at a highly reduced rate. Unfortunately, there are safety and regulatory concerns involved. The flight share businesses were betting the courts would rule in their favor, as they have with Uber.

The bottom line is the paradigm is shifting. We now live in an age of sharing created by a digital marketplace – and we share not because we want to, but because we have to. There is no doubt aviation has changed in these digital times. You can see it in our glass cockpits, our tablet- filed flight plans, our portable avionics, and now in the way some passengers are hitching rides with us.

As the saying goes, change or get out of the way. It’ll be interesting to seeing who ends up on the wayside.       Like so many other things in our lives, technology creates both opportunity and disruption. Either way, we all eventually have to adapt to it.  Perhaps, even the FAA!