The burgeoning air-taxi industry

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Having a private plane is one of the key perks of the rich. Donald Trump makes much of his personal 757, while Leonardo DiCaprio received well-deserved criticism for calling on people to reduce their carbon footprints even as he flew everywhere in his private plane. Nearly every traveler stuck in a long security line or waiting for a delayed flight envies those who can fly wherever they want whenever they want.

Until quite recently, the idea of extending the perks of personal air travel to the masses was a non-starter. It long had been too expensive, until the introduction of smaller, lighter-weight, more fuel-efficient planes created a burgeoning air-taxi market in recent years. It’s now the case that, for certain trips, groups of two to four can travel by private air taxi at prices that are competitive with the total cost of last-minute commercial airline travel.

But such cases remain exceptions, in part, because existing regulations ensure that personal air travel is confined to the rich.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) shut down the small startups Flytenow and AirPooler, which allowed private pilots to post their destinations and make open seats available to passengers willing to cover a portion of the flight’s costs. This flight-sharing model has a near-perfect safety record and already exists in a similar form in the European Union. But regulators have told plane-sharing companies plainly that what they want to do is illegal and, so far, courts have sided with the bureaucrats. Arizona’s Goldwater Institute is leading an effort to bring a case challenging the FAA’s judgment to the U.S. Supreme Court, but like nearly all cert petitions that come before the court, the deck is stacked against it.

As helpful as it would be to allow people to share expenses on small, private planes, this type of air travel would still probably be unavailable to the masses even if it were allowed. There are only so many pilots who want to share. If we ever really want to open up private and semi-private air travel to more people, we almost certainly will need to change how pilots are certified. Specifically, policymakers should consider creating a new pilot certificate specifically for air taxis.

Current FAA rules require that any commercial pilot offering scheduled flight service must fly for 1,500 hours (the equivalent of 250 New York-to-Los Angeles trips), pass rigorous medical exams and, in practice, learn to handle the largest and most complicated aircraft. If they want to work scheduled routes, such pilots also generally must work for airlines, which face a host of regulatory requirements of their own. This might be a good standard for big jetliners but not for the types of trips—short hops with a few passengers—for which air taxis are best-suited.

An air-taxi certificate would allow experienced individuals with an instrument-rated private pilot’s license (necessary for flying above the clouds and in bad weather) and some extra safety training to offer commercial service, either on-demand or on a schedule, in any plane they were otherwise certified to fly. For safety reasons, such pilots would also be subject to the same medical standards as pilots and co-pilots who work for airlines. They would also be limited to flying small, single-engine aircraft with a handful of seats and, if operating on a schedule, could only serve “non-primary” airports that have little or no commercial service.

Rather than going through the complicated business of creating and certifying “airlines” to employ air-taxi pilots on a scheduled service basis, air-taxi owners would operate as individual entrepreneurs who own the planes they fly. They could also create small partnerships in which each pilot would have a meaningful management and ownership role. Since pilots would be putting their own planes, businesses and lives on the line with every takeoff, this would serve as a highly effective system of regulatory incentives to assure safety.

On-demand flight makes a lot of sense for America. Allowing expense sharing would be a good first step. And an air-taxi pilot’s certificate category deserves serious consideration.


Image by SFIO CRACHO

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