For example, several states have adopted or are actively working to adopt laws that act to criminalize or create a civil cause of action against any person aiding or abetting in the performance or inducement of an abortion, perhaps even for activities that occur out of state. Given the rapidly shifting legal landscape, it is unclear what, if any, state law implications exist for pilots considering volunteering their time in such an operation, but the point remains valid—you must consider federal, state, and local laws as well as any particular FAA requirements before conducting a volunteer flight.
In addition to the exposure directly related to the violation of any laws and regulations, if you fail to consider state law implications, you could be jeopardizing your aircraft insurance coverage.
Now, let’s review what the FAA has to say on volunteer flying.
The FAA regulates nearly every aspect of flying and strictly applies its rules and regulations, even for flights conducted by volunteer pilots flying their own aircraft.
Section 1.1 of the federal aviation regulations defines a “commercial operator” as “a person who, for compensation or hire, engages in the carriage by aircraft in air commerce of persons or property.” The FAA construes “compensation or hire” in very broad terms. Compensation or hire does not require a profit, a profit motive, or the actual exchange of funds. Rather, the receipt of anything of value is considered compensation, including the ability to log flight time for free or at a reduced cost, the reimbursement of fuel or any other operating expense, or expense-sharing with any passenger.
Unless a specific exception is met, a commercial operation generally cannot be conducted under FAR Part 91 and instead requires an air carrier certificate or operating certificate issued under Part 119. Therefore, for a volunteer flight involving the transportation of persons or property to be conducted under Part 91, the pilot must pay for every dollar of the operation, without any financial assistance whatsoever from a volunteer pilot organization, crowdfunding platform, or any other source.
This is true regardless of the pilot certificates held. Recall that the FAA differentiates between an airman’s piloting privileges and the operational authority to conduct a flight. Even if you can legally receive compensation for the carriage of persons or property under the privileges associated with your pilot certificate, any flight involving the carriage of persons or property for compensation or hire must also meet the FAA’s operational requirements. Again, for most volunteer flights, which routinely involve the carriage of persons or property, this generally means the flight cannot be operated under Part 91 when compensation is involved.
However, there are two instances in which the FAA may allow the receipt of compensation for volunteer flying involving transportation of persons or property under Part 91. First, volunteer pilots are allowed to take a tax deduction for the direct cost of the volunteer flight so long as the pilot pays for all flight expenses and no other compensation or reimbursement is involved. While the FAA still considers a tax deduction to be a form compensation and, therefore, the flight to be a commercial operation, the FAA issued a nonenforcement policy in 1993 stating that the FAA will not treat the deduction of certain costs associated with charitable acts, standing alone, as compensation or hire.
Additionally, some volunteer pilot organizations have received exemptions from the FARs to allow reimbursement of fuel expenses. However, in the case of a fuel exemption, the individual pilot and flight condition requirements imposed by the FAA are often very onerous and must be carefully reviewed before each flight to ensure compliance with the conditions and limitations of the exemption.
For volunteer organizations owning their own aircraft and transporting persons or property, the organization must hold an air carrier or operator certificate and the pilot must be listed on the certificate or the FAA will consider the operation to be an illegal charter flight.
Regardless of the type of operation, it is important for all volunteer pilots to carefully consider the varying issues associated with donating their time.