Have We Achieved “Uberization” in the Air?

No – not yet. But let’s define terms a little bit. If “uberization” means a service that provides cars and drivers who are not licensed as taxi cabs, and uses technology to quickly connect that driver and car to a customer at a lower-cost basis than a taxi cab company can provide, then no, we have not achieved that in the air transportation industry.

But let’s dig into the comparison a little deeper. Taxi cabs (and private car services) are regulated on a local basis. Airplanes are regulated nationally by the Federal Aviation Administration. Why the difference? Keep in mind – flying an airplane is not the same as driving a car, and in addition to being just a little trickier to operate, those airplanes have a pesky habit of easily and quickly crossing state lines when they fly.

And one of the fundamental rules that the FAA generally imposes is that the operator of an airplane who wants to move people from point A to point B and receive reimbursement for that flight, even if it is only the partial sharing of cost, must have commercial certification from the FAA – they have to be a licensed taxi cab company – in order to legally conduct that flight.

Why this rule? We arguably have the safest air transportation system in history, and that didn’t just happen by accident. When you pay to get on board an airplane in the United States, you can be reasonably confident you will either make it to your designation, of if you don’t, then the carrier will have the economic strength to either reimburse you for the canceled flight or provide compensation in the event of an accident. That is the result of a long line of safety and economic policies and regulations that impose higher standards on people who are willing to take your money to help you travel by air from point A to B.

But does that mean that the regulators are keeping up with the incredible speed of change in applicable technologies and the safety and efficiency opportunities they may afford to the flying public? No. This is a classic case of the increasing rate of technological advancements far outpacing the government’s ability to keep up with them.

So, what is one to do when faced with the opportunity to simply share in costs (or pay that “too-good-to-be-true charter rate”) to fly on a small airplane from one point to another (which, admittedly, can be amazingly convenient when compared with having to fly on a scheduled air carrier according to its own schedule)? First, check with that person or company to see if they really have the legal authority to provide the service they are offering, keeping mind the old saw that if the cost sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. If they have the right certification, then great! If they don’t, then quickly move along to a different alternative.

Why should this matter to you if it’s the company that is offering what amounts to an illegal charter flight that will most likely be the one in trouble with the FAA? Because, if nothing else, you probably do not want to be involved with a company that you cannot be reasonably sure can get you safely to your destination, or to reimburse you if they don’t, and if they are breaking this fundamental FAA rule, then what else are they not doing that they should be?

Perhaps in the long term we will figure out a way to increase the government’s ability to respond in a more efficient and timely manner to increases in technology, but that doesn’t mean that in the short term you want to simply ignore the existing rules for the sake of a lower charter rate.

So in short, have we reached uberization of air transportation yet? Not yet.

But we are definitely heading in that direction, and we need the policymakers to facilitate that change to make it happen as quickly, but also as safely, as possible.


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