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Is it legal for a private pilot to advertise that (s)he offers free passenger flights?

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"Holding out" is relevant only in determining whether a flight is private carriage or common carriage, as described in AC 12-120. The definition of common carriage used by the FAA is:

  1. a holding out of a willingness to
  2. transport persons or property
  3. from place to place
  4. for compensation

If you receive any compensation for these flights, you would fall under the definition of common carriage and this would be illegal. The FAA interprets "compensation" very broadly, including:

  • Reimbursement of expenses (e.g. fuel, oil, transportation, airport expenditures, aircraft rental fees, lodging, costs of ownership etc.)
  • A free meal
  • Logging of flight time when the pilot does not have to pay for the costs of operating the aircraft
  • Salary or wages
  • Goodwill in the form of expected future economic benefit

So you would need to be sure that you are not receiving any compensation. The passenger can't give you a tip or buy you dinner. They can't pay pro rata share of the expenses. If you have any business relations with your passengers in the future, you can expect them to fall under a great deal of scrutiny.

As long as you can avoid being compensated in any sense, this should be legal. Although I would be wary of doing so anyway, since the thought of having to fight the FAA in court over this should certainly give you pause. If this is something you are actually planning on doing, as opposed to just a thought experiment, it may be wise to consult with a lawyer before starting.

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  • $\begingroup$ The passengers also can't dictate where to go and the pilot must have a reason to make the flight to that airport. There are very interesting NTSB case decisions on the subject. ntsb.gov/legal/alj/Pages/ONOQuery.aspx $\endgroup$
    – wbeard52
    Apr 3, 2023 at 12:28
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    $\begingroup$ @wbeard52 "Goodwill is a form of prohibited compensation" is a shortened form of "Goodwill in the form of expected future economic benefit" above. If you continue on to the next paragraph, it is made clear that it is referring to the expectation of future concrete benefits that can reasonably be construed to come from goodwill. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Apr 3, 2023 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ @wbeard52 Do you have a source on your other claim? The passengers not be long allowed to dictate where you go is the case when the pilot and passengers are cost sharing, in order to take advantage of an explicit exception to the prohibition against a private pilot receiving compensation. If the pilot is not receiving compensation at all I don't see how it should apply. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Apr 3, 2023 at 14:48
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    $\begingroup$ @wbeard52 It's quite clear, in my opinion. Everything that is not forbidden is permitted. Compensation is forbidden, subject to a whole mess of exceptions and exceptions to exceptions. Flying people where they want to go is not forbidden anywhere. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Apr 4, 2023 at 4:05
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    $\begingroup$ @wbeard52, the FAA is concerned with unregulated de-facto charter operators flying "under the radar". I don't think they really care if Bill suggests to pilot Steve that they fly somewhere for a burger on a sunny Saturday. However, if you want to request permission to go somewhere your friend recommends that wasn't your idea, please ask your local FSDO and report back here. I'd be curious to know what they say... $\endgroup$ Apr 4, 2023 at 17:04

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