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Let's say I'm visiting a friend who happens to own an airplane, and I happen to be a private pilot holding a valid FAA PPL, as well as being familiar with the make and model my friend owns. Suppose my friend says "I'll show you around the avionics, and if you want to take her for a ride around the area, feel free. She's topped up on fuel, so you don't have to worry about it". Would it be legal for me to take them up on the offer if:

  1. I were to fly alone, and not get compensated in any way, but also not bear any expenses related to the flight?
    1. As above, but the friend also says "oh and by the way, I have a fuel card stashed in the cockpit, you can use it to refuel if you need to"
  2. I were to take my wife and two friends, who are also visiting, as passengers?
    1. As above, but again with fuel card
  3. I were to act as PIC for a volunteer flight transporting sick patients, given that I receive no compensation for the flying, but my friend is furnishing the plane and the fuel onboard. They'd fly it themselves, but their IFR rating is not current and mine is
    1. As above, but I also refuel the plane using their fuel card
    2. As above, but the plane is provided by the organisation coordinating the flights, rather than my friend

I understand the basic limitations of the private pilot certificate, and that there's a broad prohibition on receiving any compensation for the carriage of passengers of cargo, including non-monetary compensation such as "building flying time". I am not, however, sufficiently versed in all the relevant interpretations to establish whether the above examples fall under the exemptions carved out for bona-fide common interest or volunteer flights.

Edit to clarify a point alluded to, but not explicitly addressed in one of the answers: my friend is not a business partner of mine, nor do I expect ever to do business with them. The intent of this (hypothetical) situation is that they are letting me fly their plane for fun, just as they could let me take their 700HP Dodge Charger Hellcat for a ride.

Edit 2: to make the unstated assumption explicit, I'm assuming that hours will be logged for those flights. The FAA has made it reasonably clear in the past that if hours are not logged, their compensatory aspect vanishes and thus renders many otherwise prohibited flights legal.

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    $\begingroup$ how is one allowed to fly a plane at all if they're not allowed to fly a plane in exchange for having recorded time spent flying a plane? $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    Feb 13, 2023 at 14:02
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    $\begingroup$ @757toga so how can one possibly be allowed to fly a plane with a PPL? $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    Feb 13, 2023 at 15:15
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    $\begingroup$ @KennSebesta: OK, yes, I guess you got me there. It was an unstated assumption in my question that I want to log hours for those flights. It is implicitly there, in that I asked about the compensatory value of building time, but I didn't make it explicit. Will edit to reflect that. $\endgroup$
    – mathrick
    Oct 3, 2023 at 19:58
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    $\begingroup$ Also FAA: "We note that whether a private pilot is receiving something of value in exchange for acting as pilot in command is determined on a case-by-case basis and depends greatly on the purpose and objective of the flight" $\endgroup$ Oct 3, 2023 at 21:30
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelHall You have a good point. This is a question that is difficult to clearly answer without accepting that there are various legitimate points of view that can't really be resolved in a fashion that everyone agrees with. I'm going to delete my answer as well. $\endgroup$
    – user22445
    Oct 3, 2023 at 23:02

3 Answers 3

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For something to be "compensation," both sides must receive something of value. It's a "if you do X, I'll give you Y" kind of affair. "I'll give you Y unconditionally" is a "gift," not compensation. You are clearly receiving something of value in every case, so the question is if the owner is receiving something in return.

Cases 1 and 2 are essentially a short-term aircraft lease (albeit at sweetheart rates), and are definitely legal as long as the gift is truly unconditional. That said, you can expect the FAA and NTSB to be very skeptical of large unconditional gifts. Particular in case 2, if the two friends are also friends of the owner, it's easy to paint this as "the owner paid you to take their friends up for a flight."

Case 3 is definitely illegal. "If you act as PIC of this charity flight, I'll give you free flight time" is exactly the sort of quid pro quo that makes this illegal compensation instead of a gift.

All that said, this is all kind of a moot point. If the FAA decides to take action, you've basically already lost. While you might win the eventual NTSB appeal, you'll still have sunk tons of time and money into defending yourself.

If a bona fide friend is giving you a bona fide gift of flying their airplane, there's no reason the FAA should ever hear about it.

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Let's go back to basics and read the actual law.

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.

In legal terms "compensation" means that a person is doing something for someone else ("work" or "service" in legal terms), and in return receiving something of value - a payment. See this legal definition. It doesn't mean gifts. Real gifts are just gifts, and are not compensation, because there is no work or service involved.

When talking about compensation people love to quote this FAA opinion: Screenshot of FAA opinion

The specific quote is:

compensation is the receipt of anything of value. Reimbursement of expenses [...] accumulation of flight time and goodwill in the form of expected future economic benefit could be considered compensation.

This has led some people to suggest that any time as pilot is given something, such as free flight time or the loan of an aircraft, that automatically and always is considered compensation.

However the opinion doesn't say that. It says these things could be considered compensation - not they are or must be compensation.

One of the things deciding if flight time will be considered compensation is whether it satisfies the legal definition of compensation given above. A gift doesn't satisfy it. It's safe to say the FAA knows that and that's one of the reasons they write "could be" in their opinion. The questions was about what forms of payment could be considered compensation, and they are answering with examples of things that could be compensation if they satisfy the legal definition.

As people have seen, the FAA takes a very wide view of what constitutes "a service", and what constitutes "compensation". Taking a passenger for a pleasure flight is a "service", and as we have seen receiving flying hours free or at a reduced rate can be a form of payment. But there have to be both the service and the payment for it to be considered "compensation". If that were not the case then gifting a pilot with an hour of flying time for his birthday would be illegal.

The FAA also takes a wide view of what a "service" is. Carrying passengers, even for a pleasure flight, is a service, and you cannot be compensated for it, even with reduced rate flights. This is what leads to the strict rules on expense sharing. It should also be said that attempts to hide the service and recompense are illegal. If the friend "gifted" you flying time and you also "happened" to use it to take something of his somewhere, the courts would see through that as a pretence and rule it illegal.

Based on this, the friend allowing you to use his aircraft is a gift and not "compensation". You are not performing any service for him. The first situation is completely legal, as long as the gift is not conditional on you doing anything for him as a pilot. The second is also legal as long under the same conditions, provided that the people you take as passenger don't have a connection with the aircraft owner that makes this a transaction. Making a service "under the table" also doesn't change the legality, and you can't disguise a trade by saying "He gifted me the use of his plane and I then gifted him my services to fly him somewhere.". That's not going to believed by courts or the FAA.

The third situation is more complex. You are performing a service, but not for the aircraft owner. Fortunately this is a fairly common scenario and the FAA certainly has guidance on it.

It's worth noting that if the gifting of flight time without a service in return were illegal then that would make many things illegal that happen all the time. For example, most of my flight training was paid for by someone else - they gifted me that flight time. That commonly and openly occurs. But if all gifts are considered compensation then that would be illegal. It isn't illegal because I have performed no service that makes it "compensation".

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  • $\begingroup$ Note that JimInTexas has the right answer also. I am writing this additional one because of the huge levels of misunderstanding around the law here. $\endgroup$ Sep 30, 2023 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ Worth reading: aviation.stackexchange.com/a/96247/20394. The FAA specifically allows flying, so long as it's not logged. Ergo, flying for free is not de facto compensation. $\endgroup$ Oct 3, 2023 at 13:58
  • $\begingroup$ Highlighting the different opinions on "compensation," @KennSebesta in a comment below the OP's question indicates that he periodically flies a friend's airplane so it doesn't sit for extended periods. If his friend pays for the fuel then Kenn is presumably providing a "service" and accumulating flight time (certainly with the friend's knowledge or because the friend has requested that it be flown periodically) would this not constitute "compensation" under your definition? I don't have an opinion one way or the other, but some circumstances can be viewed differently by different people. $\endgroup$
    – user22445
    Oct 3, 2023 at 17:45
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    $\begingroup$ @KennSebesta That's a (insanely) strict philosophical approach, and it's not true legally. The law recognizes that gifts do exist. It's also worth saying that all these interpretations are not binding. They are just the opinions of the FAA. Even if the FAA says "this is illegal" it's possible to go to court and argue that the FAA is wrong. $\endgroup$ Oct 3, 2023 at 20:17
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    $\begingroup$ @DJClayworth I think we are in 100% agreement. I'm just pointing out that there is precedence for having this kind of insanely strict standard, and so that makes it harder to dismiss out of hand that "no one would ever enforce such a strict interpretation." So the FAA could theoretically go down that route, even though it has had the good sense not to. $\endgroup$ Oct 3, 2023 at 20:49
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All of your scenarios are legal under Part 91, except 3)3, which the FSDO might not like.

If own an airplane I can let my friends fly it.

Period.

Specifically:

  1. Your friend lets you use his fuel card. So what? Unless there is an exchange of something of value between you and him nobody cares who pays for the gas.

  2. Nobody cares if you take a friend, assuming you are current and are not flying in exchange for something of value from the owner, and you and your pax have a common purpose.

  3. As far as sub points 1 and 2, that's clearly within part 91. For insurance and FAA purposes I'd recommend conducting this flight through a Public Benefit non-profit, such as Angel Flight.

Subpoint #3: If a FSDO guy is having a bad day he or she might want to quibble with this flight. For sure if the 'organization' providing the airplane is a for profit entity you'd be out of line, because now your free flying would be considered compensation in exchange for helping the organization make a buck.

If the 'organization' providing is a non-profit, such a flying missionaries organization, then IMHO I don't think it'd be a problem, but you better coordination this flight with your FSDO and insurance company.

Note, when I say exchange I mean the pilot who lent you his plane gains some kind of economic value as a result of your flight.

What the FAA defiantly does not want to see is aircraft commercial operators 'hiring' private pilots to fly persons or cargo for free as part of a business operation. That's the big NO-NO.

For example, about 30 years I knew a kid who had recently earned is private ticket at a little dirt strip in central Texas. The local mechanic had deal with some Canadians to buy and refurb light planes, and to ferry these airplanes to airports near the Canada-US border.

The mechanic asked my friend if he could do any of these delivery flights. Of course my friend jumped at this chance to fly big cross countries for free.

The mechanic paid all the expenses for these flights, but didn't pay the pilots anything.

Under current FAA policy these flights would be 'go directly to jail, we are throwing away the key'!

Note to Mayor Pete and Captain Nolen: This was over 30 years ago and the mechanic died years ago, as did my friend.

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    $\begingroup$ Regarding #1 & 2, that "something of value" is flight time. Reference the FAA interpretations quoted in 757toga's answer. "nobody cares who pays for the gas" um, the FAA does. 61.113(c) is pretty clear: "A private pilot may not pay less than the pro rata share of the operating expenses of a flight with passengers, provided the expenses involve only fuel, oil, airport expenditures, or rental fees." $\endgroup$ Feb 13, 2023 at 18:48
  • $\begingroup$ This is the correct answer. The flight time is not "compensation" because the pilot is not performing a service to be compensated for. There cannot be 'compensation" without a service provided. $\endgroup$ Sep 29, 2023 at 3:11
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelHall 61.113(c) is talking about sharing expenses with passengers. But the aircraft owner is not a passenger. $\endgroup$ Sep 29, 2023 at 3:12
  • $\begingroup$ @DJClayworth, if the owner is not a certificated pilot, and they are on board the aircraft, they are a passenger. $\endgroup$ Sep 29, 2023 at 4:37
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    $\begingroup$ @DJClayworth, ok, forget (c) then. Read (a). It says nothing about the pilot providing a service. $\endgroup$ Sep 29, 2023 at 14:44

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