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Uber, but for planes

Budget Battle AirportA website that connects passengers with small-plane pilots wants a federal court to let it return to the skies.

While Uber fights the taxi industry on the ground, a website that aims to bring ride-sharing to the skies is in a legal dogfight with federal regulators who want to clip its wings.

The site, Flytenow, is designed to allow passengers to hitch rides with private pilots while divvying up the costs — enabling travelers to avoid sitting in traffic or enduring airlines’ luggage fees and cramped seats. But the Federal Aviation Administration effectively shut down the service and a second flight-sharing site last summer, accusing them of dodging the extra requirements that apply to pilots who ferry passengers for pay.

Now the company is hoping a federal appeals court will prompt FAA to change course, in much the same way that Uber has battled taxi regulators around the world and Airbnb has fought against restrictions on short-term lodging. The case, set for a hearing Sept. 25, is just an example of the clashes that have emerged as Uber-like services invade more and more lines of business — including laundry, cooking, massage therapy, valet parking and at least two companies that function as Uber for helicopters.

Flytenow’s business model is similar to Uber’s in that it addresses “a two-sided market that hasn’t traditionally been connected very well,” Flytenow co-founder Alan Guichard told POLITICO — in this case, hooking up travelers with the myriad pilots flying around with empty seats.

The pilots don’t charge for the service, aside from the passengers’ share of the fuel costs and other expenses. But Guichard said FAA is essentially arguing that a private pilot transforms into “American Airlines and Delta” when he or she lists a flight plan online so that passengers can tag along. “We’re saying that proposition is completely absurd,” he said.

In court papers, Justice Department attorneys portray the regulations as a matter of public safety. The rules “reflect in part the fact that it is difficult for members of the public to evaluate the safety qualifications of pilots they do not know, making it critical for the government to regulate stringently the qualifications of pilots providing transportation to the general public,” they wrote.

Flytenow and its sympathizers say the services offer an important lifeline for pilots dealing with the ballooning costs of flying, while letting passengers take short trips for relatively little. (A round-trip flight in a four-seat Cessna from the Boston suburbs to Martha’s Vineyard may cost $120 a person, the company says.)

Statistics from the General Aviation Manufacturers Association show that purchases of small planes cratered after the recession and never fully recovered, while fewer people are getting licensed to fly privately. “The absolute No. 1 reason is the cost,” said Steve Lewis, co-founder of a similar service called AirPooler.

Flight-sharing supporters also argue that the services are no different from the age-old practice of private pilots listing their planned trips on community bulletin boards, hoping to attract riders who can defray the costs — a practice the agency has previously endorsed.


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