Flytenow, a company that connects pilots of private planes (primarily single-engine, four-seat aircraft) with potential passengers, said it has sued the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). 

The company said the FAA overstepped its bounds when declaring that Flytenow is unauthorized to use its website to arrange flights between plane owners and passengers seeking to make the same trip. 

Flytenow, which compares its service to accommodations-listings service Airbnb and ride-hailing company Uber, said it doesn’t violate FAA regulations because, unlike commercial service, pilots aren’t directly compensated. 

Instead, passengers pay for a share of fuel costs and airport fees. (Flytenow estimates on its website that a roundtrip flight on a Cessna 172 between Boston and Martha’s Vineyard costs passengers about $120 a person.)

At issue is whether such a service qualifies as a commercial operation. In a similar case last year, the FAA ruled against a company offering a similar service, saying that it qualifies as a commercial aviation operation even if pilots aren’t directly compensated, because the service is being advertised to the general public.

Flytenow said there’s a legal precedent because such arrangements between pilots and passengers have been made for decades via bulletin boards, phone conversations, word of mouth and e-mail.

“This is a classic case of government overreaction to new technologies and innovative ideas. Instead of updating regulations to reflect the way Americans communicate today, the FAA is stifling innovation,” said Jon Riches, an attorney at the Goldwater Institute, which is representing Flytenow. “The FAA has essentially said that sharing flight expenses by posting a flyer on an airport bulletin board is okay, but sharing expenses by posting travel plans on the Internet is not.” 

FAA spokesman Les Dorr declined to comment on Flytenow, citing pending litigation.

Flytenow’s situation echoes one faced by AirPooler, a company providing a similar service. The FAA told AirPooler last August to suspend service because it was not compliant with federal aviation regulations.

A letter from FAA Assistant Chief Counsel Mark Bury to AirPooler’s attorney stated that AirPooler’s shared-expenses model qualifies as pilot compensation because the services are being advertised to the general public, and therefore pilots participating in such flight-sharing programs are considered commercial pilots.

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