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S. 2650 (115th): Aviation Empowerment Act

A few years ago, a company tried to bring an Uber-style service for private aircraft and airplanes. They were shut down by the government. Now a new bill in Congress is trying to resuscitate the idea.

Context

Some nations have embraced “flight sharing,” an analogue to “ride sharing” services such as Uber and Lyft. This has become especially popular in Europe, where the app Wingly lets people hitch a ride on more than 10,000 small private airplanes registered with the service.

It generally costs much less than an airline flight, the same way an Uber costs less than a taxi. And it also allows people who don’t live that nearby to an airport to find a flight much closer to home.

A similar service in the U.S. called Flytenow (pronounced “flight now”) launched in 2014. But just when it seemed poise to really take off in popularity, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) took the company to court in an attempt to shut them down.

In December 2015, the D.C. Circuit Court ruled in favor of the FAA. Flytenow shut down.

What the bill does

The Aviation Empowerment Act would essentially reverse the court’s decision and once again allow “flight sharing” apps and websites to operate in the U.S.

To be technical about it, the bill would broaden the government’s legal definitions of “common carrier.” That’s because the court’s decision striking down Flytenow relied primarily on a narrow definition of that term.

Essentially, most of Flytenow’s pilots held private pilot licenses, not commercial pilot licenses like the pilots on American, United, Delta, and similar companies do. The FAA felt that Flytenow pilots should be considered as common carriers under the law, which would require them to have commercial pilot licenses. Flytenow disagreed, but the court ruled against them.

The bill was introduced in April by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), and numbered S. 2650 in the Senate.

What supporters say

Supporters argue the bill will bring to another sector of transportation innovations similar what services such as Uber and Lyft have brought to cars — plus that it works in other countries where it’s been tried.

“Innovation is key to competition and accessibility,” Lee said in a press release. “This bill adds definition and clarity to existing rules that will help unleash that innovation in the aviation community. Studies and experience with cost-sharing services have proven to be safe and effective in other countries, and it is past time we enact them in our country.”

What opponents say

Opponents counter that the existing guidelines and classifications for different types of pilots make sense as a safe approach for governing the nation’s airspace.

“If past is precedent, we expect that Flytenow attorneys will pursue their ‘smoke and mirrors’ strategy up on Capitol Hill,” National Air Transportation Association President Martin H. Hiller said in a statement after the court decision, “in an attempt to carve out a loophole exempting flight services advertised to the general public on their website from the robust safety oversight system that Congress and the public demand from commercial air transportation providers.”

“It is simply not acceptable to allow the general public to ‘ride-share’ with private pilots who have potentially little flight time or training for challenging weather conditions.”

Odds of passage

The bill has not yet attracted any cosponsors. It awaits a possible vote in the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

In the meantime, the FAA does allow seven narrow exemptions in which private pilots can transport passengers or property for money, none of which applied to Flytenow or similar services. Those exemptions include charity events or search and location operations.

Last updated May 9, 2018. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Apr 11, 2018.


Aviation Empowerment Act

This bill adds to transportation law the definitions of "common carrier" and "personal operator."

The Department of of Transportation shall issue or revise regulations to ensure that: (1) a person who holds a pilot certificate may communicate with the public, in any manner the person determines appropriate, to facilitate an aircraft flight for which the pilot and passengers share aircraft operating expenses and that such flight-sharing operations shall not be deemed a common carrier or a commercial operation requiring a commercial certificate; and (2) a personal operator shall not be subject to certain regulations relating to aeronautics and space.