Atlanta Airport Shutdown a Call to Make Christmas a Season for (Flight) Sharing

One week before Christmas—leading into the four worst days of holiday travel—the busiest airport in the world shut down in Atlanta. More than a thousand flights were canceled, passengers were left stranded, and the ripple effect will be felt by travelers worldwide.

As airlines struggle to rebook passengers, it’s difficult to imagine a worse travel situation. It’s one thing to watch John Candy in those holiday travel scenes from “Home Alone” and “Planes Trains and Automobiles.” None of us wants to live in them. For many of those left in Atlanta, however, the best hope at this point might be an extra seat in the back of a rental truck with Gus Polinski and the Kenosha Kickers.

But what if there was a better way? There is one option that a few can take advantage of, and could hold bigger potential for the future. But the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) doesn’t want that to happen.

We already have the ability to make sleeping in an airport terminal for days a thing of the past. For decades, private pilots have been able to take passengers on flights as part of an expense-sharing practice that has been recognized in federal law. Flight-sharing arrangements could be easier, safer, and more enjoyable than anything John Candy faced in those holiday classics.

The biggest problem is actually finding these pilots. Historically, these flights were arranged by pilots posting the time and destination of their pre-planned flights on airport bulletin boards. However, this makes it difficult to efficiently connect pilots with passengers. Companies like Flytenow saw an opportunity to make connections much easier by enabling pilots to post their flights on the internet.

Unfortunately, the FAA has made it nearly impossible for you to find these pilots. Nearly three years ago, it ruled that pilots using the company’s digital corkboard were in fact “common carriers” now operating in violation of federal law. It seems that instead of getting to spend the holidays with family, the FAA would rather you get Del Griffith.

Flytenow took its case all the way to the Supreme Court, but was ultimately grounded when the justices decided not to hear it. As a result, those holiday travelers left stranded in Atlanta have one less option to get home.

There is a simple fix for this. As Eli Dourado and I have explained, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao could simply tell the FAA to issue new guidance and change its position on flight-sharing platforms.

If the FAA refuses to reverse course, Congress could enact reform. The FAA has been able to get away with shutting down these platforms because Congress never defined the term “common carrier” in the Federal Aviation Act. By writing a definition into law, Congress could ensure that these innovative platforms will continue to provide options to passengers without the threat of interference by the FAA.

Holiday travel can be stressful enough. When things go wrong, policymakers should never make things worse. And yet, it seems a viable option for travelers has been taken off the table because the FAA has decided that it should not be made available. 

While Home Alone's Kate McCalister was willing to sell her soul to the devil (and maybe she did) to get home, we shouldn’t be forced to do so. In fact, facilitating more options in times like this doesn’t require supernatural powers — just better public policies.