FAA Legal Interpretation Presents Problems for Ride Sharing Websites and the Pilots Who Use Them

In an August 13, 2014 legal interpretation letter, the FAA challenges the legality of general aviation “ride sharing” websites such as Airpooler.com, and it raises important issues for pilots relating to potential FAA enforcement actions and problems with insurance coverage.

Airpooler.com is a website designed to facilitate “ride sharing” between private pilots and passengers, essentially pairing pilots and passengers who share a common destination.  The idea is that the pilot and the passenger will split the costs of the flight, resulting in savings for both parties.  Airpooler requested that the FAA provide a legal interpretation stating that private pilots who participate in the website are not violating FAA regulations by carrying passengers or property for compensation or hire.

The FAA interpretation stated that the term “compensation” includes pilots and passengers sharing expenses.  But the FAA also recognized that 14 C.F.R. § 61.113 provides an exception for expense sharing.  (Indeed, this exception is the foundation upon which ride-sharing websites are built.)  The FAA stated that it is not enough for a private pilot to rely on the exception to avoid being deemed to have operated for compensation or hire.  The FAA stated that a “bona fide” “common purpose” with the passengers is required, and the pilot must have his own reason for travelling to the destination.  Thus, the FAA concluded that pilots using ride-sharing websites are acting as common carriers for compensation or hire.

The FAA’s legal interpretation is certainly not beyond question. For example, it is not clear that pilots and passengers using ride-sharing websites lack a bona fide common purpose to travel to the specific, common destination.  (However, courts give significant deference to such agency interpretations.)  Regardless, the FAA’s interpretation presents a clear indication that pilots who utilize ride-sharing websites could face enforcement action for violating the regulations.  Furthermore, the interpretation raises potential insurance issues.  General aviation insurance policies often exclude coverage for flights made for compensation or hire.  Thus, a pilot could face a denial of coverage.  All such issues should be considered by a pilot who chooses to utilize ride-sharing websites in the future.

For a copy of the FAA’s legal interpretation letter, click here.