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How might a private pilot run into regulatory trouble by flying a passenger if they don't receive any compensation at all? I'm interested in some specific scenarios. In all of these cases, let's assume the pilot receives no compensation of any kind, and pays all costs himself. The passenger makes no contribution whatsoever. There are no exchanges of services, no favours, no under-the-table deals. Also assume that none of the activities mentioned are in any way concerned with the employment or other business activities of either pilot or passenger.

  1. The pilot flies the passenger somewhere the passenger wasn't planning on going, but nonetheless enjoys. I'm assuming this is not a problem, and happens most days
  2. The pilot flies the passenger to visit a family member, one they wouldn't have visited otherwise.
  3. The pilot flies the passenger to a recreational event, which they are attending.
  4. The pilot flies the passenger to a recreational event, which only the passenger is attending.

Again, no money changes hands, no compensation of any kind, pilot pays all the costs.

US regulations. And please, specific citations of cases or regulations.

EDIT: Since this appears to be a source of confusion, let me repeat for the third time in the question: there is no compensation or expense sharing and nothing of value changes hands. The pilot pays all costs, at exactly the same rate as he would if he was flying alone. There is no 'goodwill' expected, no future business deals, nothing.

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    $\begingroup$ When you say no compensation of any kind, are you familiar with, and referring to, the FAA's broad definition of compensation, or specifically monetary compensation? $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger Aug 24 '16 at 3:51
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know the details of it, but I mean no compensation at all. The passenger pays no part of the costs, no expenses, no contributions in kind and no under-the-table deals. If you have a specific form of compensation in mind that I might not have thought of, please feel free to mention it. $\endgroup$ – DJClayworth Aug 24 '16 at 4:00
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    $\begingroup$ The FAA also considers other broad reaching things compensation, like possible good will that the flight may encourage in the passenger (I.e. you do them a favor, so they may do one for you in the future.) It's probably worthy of a question of its' own, if it hasn't already been asked, but is why I wanted to know if you were intending to exclude other "non-traditional" forms of compensation that some people may not be aware of. $\endgroup$ – Lnafziger Aug 24 '16 at 4:11
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah what @Lnafziger said! Many of these ambiguous regulations are there so the FAA can decide when they think you're doing something they don't like. Lay low and don't do anything obtuse. Don't draw attention to yourself and normal human-being things like having someone buy you a meal for flying with them will never be noticed. Strictly one guy's opinion. $\endgroup$ – Ryan Mortensen Aug 24 '16 at 10:49
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    $\begingroup$ @DJClayworth I think you're looking for a black and white answer here, but in fact the FAA is operating on the principle that "I know it when I see it" and the vague definition of compensation gives them enough leeway to do that. They have to balance a pilot's right to get utility from his own vehicle with the need to protect the public from unqualified pilots; their assumption is that most people have no way to assess whether a pilot is competent and an aircraft is safe. If they defined compensation precisely, then people would work around that definition. People are clever that way :-) $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Aug 24 '16 at 13:45
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Yes. Without compensation, a private pilot can violate 'commercial' rules.

For starters, the FAA considers the ability to log flight time as compensation. A legal interpretation to John Harrington issued October 1997 clarifies that point. The regulation that you are asking about is quoted below.


§ 61.113   Private pilot privileges and limitations: Pilot in command.

(a) Except as provided in paragraphs (b) through (h) of this section, no person who holds a private pilot certificate may act as pilot in command of an aircraft that is carrying passengers or property for compensation or hire; nor may that person, for compensation or hire, act as pilot in command of an aircraft.


An interpretation to Mike Sommer in part says

The FAA construes the terms “compensation for hire” very broadly. It does not require a profit, profit motive, or the actual payment of funds. Instead, the FAA views compensation as the receipt of anything of value. In an interpretation letter to John W. Harrington, from Donald Byrne, Assistant Chief Counsel, October 23, 1997, it is stated that, “any reimbursement of expenses (fuel, oil, transportation, lodging, meals, etc.), if conditioned upon the pilot operating the aircraft,’ would constitute compensation.”

In 1985 the FAA chief counsel determined that there had to be a bona-fide common purpose in conducting the flight. See the Chero Interpretation from December 1985.

Section 61.118(b) allows a private pilot to share the operating expenses of a flight with his or her passengers. Additionally, the FAA has interpreted 61.118(b) so that the only allowable share-the-costs operations are those which are bona fide, that is, joint ventures for a common purpose with the expenses being defrayed by all passengers and the pilot. Nor does Section 61.118 permit pilots who want to build up time toward their commercial pilot certificates to carry expense sharing passengers to a destination at which they have no particular business. (emphasis added)


To answer your question.

  1. The pilot flies the passenger somewhere they weren't planning on going, but nonetheless enjoy. I'm assuming this is not a problem, and happens most days.

    There is no problem here. The pilot would pay for the expenses of the flight anyway so taking a passenger is OK.

  2. The pilot flies the passenger to visit a family member, one they wouldn't have visited otherwise.

    This is only legal if the pilot pays for all expenses. Since the FAA has determined compensation quite broadly I would expect they would also consider food and lodging as compensation as stated previously in a legal interpretation. The pilot would, for all practical purposes, pretend the passenger was not there and make their own arrangements.

  3. The pilot flies the passenger to a specific recreational event, which they are attending.

    This is legal and the pilot can share the costs with the passenger.

  4. The pilot flies the passenger to a specific recreational event, which only the passenger is attending.

    This goes back to #2 above. The pilot does not have a bona-fide common purpose for making the flight. They cannot accept any compensation in any form for the flight to be legal.

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    $\begingroup$ All of the four cases, you say, are legal if there is no compensation. So really your answer ought to be "No" $\endgroup$ – DJClayworth Aug 24 '16 at 4:25
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    $\begingroup$ @DJClayworth "FAA considers the ability to log flight time as compensation," unless common purpose is shared and number of passengers does not require multiple trips to haul everybody. This applies if you're going A to B and B is >25 nm from A. Going A to A for fun is not covered. It makes sense because the system can be abused and commercial operators would lose customers, not to mention the safety risks. Like an unlicensed contractor doing construction work. $\endgroup$ – ymb1 Aug 24 '16 at 10:46
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    $\begingroup$ I have never seen a case where 'flight time as compensation' has been applied to a flight without there being sharing of expenses. Feel free to point me at one if you know of one. $\endgroup$ – DJClayworth Aug 24 '16 at 15:05
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    $\begingroup$ @ymb1 This only applies if you're splitting costs, right? If the pilot is paying the full costs of the flight (as specified in the question,) then it seems that the answer is always no. After all, the pilot is not getting any extra hours any more cheaply than they would had the passengers not been present. The passengers get free transportation, but the pilot gets nothing he couldn't have gotten by simply flying himself around for the same duration. So, I agree with DJ that the answer should actually be 'No' if the pilot is indeed paying all expenses associated with the flight. $\endgroup$ – reirab Aug 24 '16 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ Yeah "Flight time you pay for yourself, and happen to take a passenger" is not compensation. The "Flight time as compensation" only applies where the cost is being reduced for the pilot: eg the passenger is paying the rental, fees, or gas etc. Otherwise the pilot is simply flying somewhere and gaining nothing they wouldn't have anyway. $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Aug 25 '16 at 15:20
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Logging hours "could be considered compensation."

The FAA has consistently construed compensation broadly. Compensation "does not require a profit, a profit motive, or the actual payment of funds." Legal Interpretation to Joseph Kirwan (May 27, 2005). Rather, compensation is the receipt of anything of value. The FAA has previously found that reimbursement of expenses (fuel, oil, transportation, lodging, meals, etc.), accumulation of flight time, and goodwill in the form of expected future economic benefit could be considered compensation. Legal Interpretation to John W. Harrington (Oct. 23, 1997); Blakey v. Murray, NTSB Order No. EA-5061 (Oct. 28, 2003).

Hancock, 2013 (emphasis and links mine).

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    $\begingroup$ The Hancock letter is specifically about the case where someone is loaning a plane to somebody - i.e. providing them with something of value (use of an aircraft). I've still seen nothing that applies to the case where nothing of value changes hands. Let's continue this in chat if necessary: chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/44430 $\endgroup$ – DJClayworth Aug 24 '16 at 17:01
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    $\begingroup$ The FAA does not require a private pilot to log hours. It seems silly that the question of regulation violation in two otherwise equivalent hypothetical situations would hang on whether hours get logged or not. $\endgroup$ – Steve H Aug 24 '16 at 23:54
  • $\begingroup$ Compensation is not what makes 1, 2, and 4 illegal. $\endgroup$ – acpilot Aug 25 '16 at 13:55
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    $\begingroup$ Logging hours in itself is not a compensation, I believe people are misinterpreting these cases: in these specific cases the pilot does not own the aircraft, and is therefore getting flight hours in return for flying the aircraft for someone else, with that someone covering some of the costs: either running costs or simply the provision of the aircraft. In your own aircraft, with you paying all costs, these cases are not relevant. Logging hours is compensation only if you are somehow paying less to do so than you would in other circumstances $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Aug 25 '16 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ Rental rates take into account costs of ownership and add profit margin. How is that different than paying an "owned" rate? Serious question. $\endgroup$ – acpilot Aug 26 '16 at 1:05

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