Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Flight-Sharing is the Latest Market on the Wrong End of Government Regulation

Flight-sharing is one of the latest services to emerge within the new “sharing economy.” Flytenow, a flight-sharing company, connects passengers with pilots who have empty seats on private flights for a fraction of the flights’ costs. Like Airbnb and Uber, which connect travelers with shelters and passengers with drivers, respectively, Flytenow can provide valuable services at the touch of a smartphone.
Sharing services, like these, provide additional consumer choice by disrupting traditional business models, and the emergence and popularity of such services has signaled to entrepreneurs that additional innovations are in demand. The new sharing economy services lead to increases in productivity for the overall economy and cost savings for consumers. For example, according to an Airbnb report on its impact in NYC, the company’s low prices have led to guests staying longer than they would have in a hotel. The average NYC Airbnb guest stays 6.4 nights, while the average NYC hotel guest stays 3.9 nights. These longer stays within the five boroughs have led to an additional $632 million in economic activity in one year in NYC alone.
Airbnb and Uber have come under regulatory scrutiny from many state and local governments (see here). Now, Flytenow is currently being regulated at the Federal level. According the Wall Street Journal, Flytenow is challenging the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in Federal court over the agency’s effective ban on its flight-sharing services.
Flytenow argues that it is not breaking any Federal laws or regulations because the FAA has always allowed private pilots to advertise flights and attract passengers as a means to cut down on expenses. But instead of using bulletin boards or newspapers, which apparently was legal in the past, users of Flytenow are advertising through the Internet. The FAA says that flight-sharing companies, such as Flytenow and Airpoolers, are subject to the regulatory standards that apply to commercial flights.
But Flytenow specifically sets forth the FAA regulation on its website: “Federal Aviation Administration regulations prohibit a pilot from accepting compensation from passengers. We help you split the costs, but you are not allowed to compensate the pilot further than that.” Flytenow argues that this cost-splitting operation makes flight-sharing services completely legal under Federal law.
It is understandable for regulators and government agencies to be cautious with regard to emerging technologies in order to protect consumers from certain identifiable risks.  But preemptive regulations often end up harming consumers by eliminating valuable services. As discussed in a Perspectives from FSF Scholars entitled “The Sharing Economy: A Positive Shared Vision for the Future:”
If purveyors of sharing applications engage in harmful, unhealthy, or unsafe activities, competition is probably the most important regulatory mechanism to address any real problems. In competitive markets, poor consumer satisfaction generally means that a company will lose market share, or even fall out of the market. If a company is not operating safely or if it is putting its users in unhealthy conditions, a competitive market allows for unsatisfied consumers to choose alternatives.
It should not be unreasonable to think that flight-sharing services could operate in a similar manner to ride-sharing and shelter-sharing services. Hosts, drivers, and pilots should be able to price their services based on supply and demand. In the “The Sharing Economy: A Positive Shared Vision for the Future,” Free State Foundation President Randolph May and I suggested the following:
If the laws or regulations applicable to the existing incumbent businesses no longer make sense today, they should be changed. It always harms consumers when public policymakers attempt to “level the playing field” by subjecting entities to regulatory restrictions that are not needed. The proper way to respond to “level the playing field” claims is to remove unnecessary regulations wherever they apply, not to expand them to new entities.
It is important for regulators to consider the costs and benefits of sharing services before restricting or outright prohibiting them. Preemptive regulations often lead to less consumer welfare than light-touch regulatory regimes that promote market-driven solutions that satisfy consumer demand while still providing redress for identifiable consumer hams.