Friday, January 9, 2015

U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy helping AirPooler in Federal Aviation Administration plane-sharing fight

U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts is trying to help Cambridge-based startup AirPooler in a battle against the Federal Aviation Administration regarding the startup's plane-sharing business model.

In a Dec. 15 letter co-written by Kennedy and U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana, the lawmakers have requested that the FAA initiate a proper rule-making process to regulate AirPooler and other plane-sharing startups for the sake of innovation in aviation.

The letter was sent to the FAA just weeks before Northeastern University-born startup Flytenow filed a lawsuit against the FAA earlier this week.

Neither member of Congress has received a response from the FAA yet, said AirPooler CEO Steve Lewis.

"The rule-making process is very long, and we don't even know if (the FAA) is going to do that," Lewis said. "In the meantime, our business can't go forward, nor can anyone trying to do similar things in this space."

AirPooler, a 2014 startup finalist in the Boston-based MassChallenge startup accelerator program, offers a website in which pilots of small planes can share expenses of flights with aviation enthusiast-passengers. The business model is similar to that of Flytenow.

AirPooler has nearly 10,000 members that have signed up to receive information about the business since early 2014, many of whom are pilots and aviation enthusiasts, Lewis said.

Last August, AirPooler received a letter from the FAA that effectively banned plane-sharing. The letter was sent to AirPooler after the startup had requested the FAA confirm the legality of its plane-sharing business model.

At issue is whether private pilots can use the Internet as a medium to find passengers and inform them of upcoming flights; and also whether ride-sharing money collected by private pilots is considered "compensation," which would require the pilots to obtain a commercial operator certificate.

The FAA has declined to comment on the matter, instead pointing to the legal interpretation document sent to AirPooler.

Because of the high cost of flying and the highly-regulated nature of the aviation industry, about 6,000 private pilots quit flying each year, the lawmakers said in their letter, citing the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

"Appropriate regulation of general aviation can maintain safety while creating new jobs, attracting new pilots, strengthening our national economy, and providing more options to travelers while growing a truly American industry," the Congressmen wrote in the letter.

Kennedy, a Democrat, is a member of the House General Aviation Caucus, and Rokita, a Republican, is a pilot and aviation supporter who has introduced federal aviation legislation.

Here's the full text of the letter sent by Congressmen Kennedy and Rokita to the Roderick Hall, assistant administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration:

Dear Administrator Hall,

We are writing regarding an August 2014 letter of legal interpretation from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Office of the Chief Counsel. Specifically, the letter addressed the definition of an air carrier as a private pilot or commercial operator, discussing the meaning of "compensation" and whether an expense-sharing website constitutes common carriage under the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). We appreciate the FAA's interpretation, but respectfully request the FAA initiate a formal rulemaking process to allow for adequate input and consideration of the impact of the decision to consider expense-sharing websites as common carriers.

As you know, provisions under Title 14 of the CFR regulate activities in aeronautics and space, and § 61.113 places limitations on the privileges of private pilots and pilots in command for receiving compensation. This section contains detailed exemptions for private pilots receiving compensation, including when a pilot may accept a pro rata share of operating expenses of a flight with passengers (14 C.F.R. § 61.113(c)). These listed exemptions for receiving compensation differentiate the requirements of private pilots and commercial operators needing additional certifications.

According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, general aviation supports over 1.2 million jobs and generates more than $150 billion in annual economic activity. However, due to the cost of flying and the highly regulated nature of the industry, an estimated 6,000 private pilots quit flying each year. Appropriate regulation of general aviation can maintain safety while creating new jobs, attracting new pilots, strengthening our national economy, and providing more options to travelers while growing a truly American industry.

The FAA is responsible for ensuring the safety of our skies, and its role is critical to ensure the safety of private pilots and commercial operators alike. Proper promulgation of an FAA regulation regarding expense-sharing operations would provide sufficient clarity for private pilots and potential passengers, without compromising the safety of air travel. We respectfully request that the FAA initiate a formal rulemaking process as quickly as practicable to provide certainty to existing expense-sharing services.

Thank you for your time and consideration of our request. We look forward to working with you.

Original article can be found at:   http://www.bizjournals.com

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