There are countless routes one can take to fly anywhere in the country. One can fly a commercial jet from New York to Los Angeles, a Gulfstream business jet from Spokane to Chicago, a hot air balloon from Cleveland to Pittsburg, a single-engine propeller plane from Tampa to Kitty Hawk, or a military jet from Washington to Houston (let me know where you got those tickets!). Legally, however, travelers have only three options when flying above the United States: commercial aviation, military flights, or general aviation. Current efforts are striving to make the third option, general aviation, yet more “general,” and many could not be happier.
In the convoluted world of 14 CFR — the overarching lawyer-speak-encrusted regulatory document that governs all things pertaining to aeronautics and space in the US — one phrase actually means exactly what it sounds like; “general aviation” is truly, in all aspects of the word, a very “general” part of the aviation industry. This sub-sect of the aviation sector includes everything from air shows to business jets to crop-dusting aircraft.
A problem arises, however, when any one individual needs to travel to a business meeting or conference. Most of us load up the car and drive to where we need to go, get back, and submit reimbursement paperwork or total up the mileage for our taxes the following year. Pilots across the country, however, have rarely been allowed to do this with an aircraft. Why? A regulatory hurdle called the “Commercial Pilot Certificate.”
To the public, it seems fairly cut-and-dry; one must get the certificate before flying a commercial plane, right? Technically, yes. However, a commercial aircraft operator is defined by the Federal Aviation Administration as, “a person who, for compensation or hire, engages in the carriage by aircraft in air commerce of persons or property.” The key line in the sentence is, “for compensation or hire,” an eternal headache for pilots across the United States.
Even when taking friends for a sight-seeing flight, a non-commercial-certified pilot must share an equal part of the costs incurred by renting or flying the aircraft. If the fuel bill is $200 to fly four people, the pilot must pay at least $50 to comply with this federal requirement. Compensation could even mean that the free dinner purchased by one of those friends for flying them puts you past the edge of staying legal. Now do we see where the problem comes in?
In order to fly one’s self to a business conference in a private aircraft, an individual must either procure a commercial certificate or fly without compensation or hire. This means that costs cannot be reimbursed by the company if the flight is to take care of company business. Some pilots are known to skirt this rule by paying 50% out-of-pocket and requesting a business pay-out for the other 50%. Since businesses in the US are essentially on-par with “human” entities, the 50/50 split lands in a legal gray area.
This being explained, it must be noted that many corporations and business entities prohibit the use of personal aircraft by employees for liability reasons. There’s not much gray area to find in this regard — if a company says you need to drive or buy a plane ticket, then you need to drive or buy a plane ticket. With connection times shortening, flights becoming more and more restrictive, and prices beginning to shuffle upward, however, businesses may soon reconsider their rulings on this matter.
Of course, if it can be afforded and is allowed by their company, one can load up the Cessna and fly to their next conference. Compensation for doing such would clearly land it in the “commercial” category of flying, but there is definitely room for regulatory improvement. Should we be required to get Commercial Drivers’ Licenses to drive and request reimbursements, much as we would to claim a pay-back for a fuel bill in an aircraft? We think not.
What do you think? How should this issue be navigated going forward?