Uber is not only fast and convenient it spreads the capital cost of an automobile over a large group of people, thereby increasing efficiency. A typical general aviation aircraft costs ten times or more the price of an automobile so the case for an Uber of the sky is strong. Indeed, shortly after the Wright Brothers flew, informal ride-sharing bulletin boards and word of mouth connected pilots with passengers who wanted to hitch a ride and were willing to share the cost.
Flytenow created an app to more easily connect pilots to “passengers” who would pay a share of the “cost” (the reason for the quotes will become clear) but was shut down by the FAA. Flytenow argued that they were simply modernizing the bulletin board system but the FAA worried that they were doing an end run around regulation. The Federal Aviation Act of 1958 requires pilots who are being compensated for their services to have a commercial license. Flytenow was shut down.
Jared Meyer interviewed the founders:
Jared Meyer: …from what I understand, it is still completely legal to find people to share flights (and their costs) by using old-fashioned tools such as bulletin boards or telephone calls. Why does the FAA not allow people to use peer-to-peer online interaction to make the process much more efficient and inclusive?
Alan Guichard: You’re exactly right. Pilots have always been allowed to share flights as long as the pilot and the passenger share a common purpose, which they clearly have on an online bulletin board such as Flytenow. The FAA’s concern is that online interaction will lead to sharing beyond what they refer to as “friends and acquaintances.”
For example, the FAA explained that advertising a shared flight on Facebook would be permissible if a person only had a few friends, but that the same flight would transform the pilot into Delta or American Airlines if he or she had “thousands” of friends.
An Uber of the sky would increase the number of private flights and put pressure on the airlines. It would also create some safety issues. Right now only the rich regularly risk their life in a small airplane. Do we want more people to have access? It’s debatable but there is certainly some level of safety where we would want more passenger-carrying small-aircraft. But which is chicken and which is egg? Safety doesn’t just happen–safety is in part an endogenous consequence of investment and demand. How will we get flying cars if we restrict investment?