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Doing scenic air tours the right way

Does your flight school give “introductory flights,” or does it give “scenic rides”? There is a difference in the eyes of the FAA.

Most flight training providers skirt this rule by giving introductory flights to customers who may—and I stress, MAY—be interested in becoming pilots. Certainly we all hope that many of the people we give a first flight experience become pilots, but some just want a cool ride in an aircraft.

Many flight training providers are in scenic locations, and some are in places with high tourist traffic. Taking advantage of a potential customer base that wants rides can open up new revenue streams, and in some cases it does result in customers becoming interested in learning to fly.

There are a couple of key things that a provider must do to successfully provide air tours. These steps do require some work on the part of the aircraft provider and pilot.

The FAA stipulates the regulations under which an air tour operation is conducted. FAR 91.147 sets forth regulations that state an operator may provide “nonstop passenger-carrying flights in an airplane or helicopter for compensation or hire”...“that begin and end at the same airport and are conducted within a 25-statute-mile radius of that airport.” But it also requires that the operator follow the regulations set forth in FAR 136 and receive a Letter of Authorization from a managing FAA flight standards district office (FSDO). If you do not have the letter of authorization, you cannot provide scenic flights—only introductory flights.

To qualify for a letter of authorization, the operator must provide some required information about who is in charge of the operation, who does the maintenance, what aircraft will be used, and a part that requires a little more work: a drug and alcohol testing program.

Don’t run away just yet. Securing a drug and alcohol testing program that will meet FAA requirements isn’t as hard as it seems, even if you have a small staff.

Setting up a drug testing program doesn’t mean you need to be a big company. Small businesses can subscribe to national companies that have local drug testing services. When this is done, the business and its employees are put into a larger pool of multiple businesses, and random drug testing is conducted on the overall pool. It becomes a random test based on a national level service. A call to your local Small Business Association or Chamber of Commerce will help you develop a list of service providers that can serve your drug testing needs in a way that complies with FAA requirements.

Providers of air tours and the pilots who conduct them really do operate more like a commercial operation than just a training flight. They need to provide passenger briefs, may need to provide (and have passengers wear) life preservers when the flight is conducted beyond gliding distance from land, and will typically only be allowed to operate in VFR conditions.

So why do this instead of just giving introductory flights? Technically an introductory flight is intended for people who will be pursuing flight training toward a rating or certificate. If your operation is selling intro flights to customers who are legitimately not interested in training, your operation may not really be complying with regulations. It gets even more fuzzy if you are giving introductory flights on which there are multiple passengers—not just the “student” in the left seat.

Setting all this up does take a little bit of work. The provider will need to develop passenger briefing information and track maintenance and operational details, but much of this is already being done to some degree. A little tweaking, a little expansion, and a drug testing program, and you may find your operation in business and more clearly in compliance with providing “rides” than skirting the regulations by providing “discovery flights.”

Some flight training providers don’t want to use their flight instructors to provide scenic rides, because it takes them away from more profitable flight training activities. You don’t have to. Highly successful scenic air tour providers that also provide flight training can use customers with commercial certificates to perform scenic rides. This is also a great opportunity to test out potential future CFIs and how well they work with customers.

You don’t have to be by the Statue of Liberty or the Grand Canyon to do this. You can offer scenic rides if your flight training business happens to be by a beach, near a scenic river byway, near a major city that is scenic, or near anything that customers might want to see from the air. Submit the required information, set up the programs, and get a letter of authorization from your local FSDO. Your business can up its revenue stream, maximize the use of your aircraft, and generate potential future CFIs who gain some valuable flight and customer service experience as scenic tour pilots for your operation.

Jason Blair

Jason Blair is an active single- and multiengine instructor and an FAA designated pilot examiner with more than 6,000 hours total time, 3,000 hours of instruction given, and 3,000 hours in aircraft as a DPE. As examiner, he has issued more than 2,000 pilot certificates. He has worked for and continues to work with multiple aviation associations focusing on pilot training and testing. His experience as a pilot and instructor spans nearly 20 years and includes more than 100 makes and models of aircraft flown. Jason Blair has published works in many aviation publications with a focus on training and safety.

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