Considerations for Flying Political Candidates in Accordance with FEC and FAA Guidelines

So, you have an aircraft (or are renting one) and want to help a political candidate fly to some meetings, rallies, parades, or any other type of event in furtherance of their election efforts. There are some rules here that few pilots ever think about, but should if they are going to do this type of flying.

Now, before you think this is going to be some sort of political piece, it isn’t. I don’t care what party or for whom you may want to provide some help. As a pilot who used to work with political campaigns many years ago, I got introduced to the concepts of campaign contributions, whether direct financial ones, or in other forms of help. When an individual (or any committee, corporate interest, etc.) helps a candidate, there are some restrictions that must be adhered to for compliance to be maintained. These are set forth at the federal level by the Federal Election Commission.

But I am getting ahead of myself slightly. Let’s talk about some FAA regulations first.

14 CFR §91.321 is a specific regulation that allows an aircraft operator to “receive payment for carrying a candidate, agent or a candidate, or person traveling on behalf of a candidate, running for Federal, State, or local election, without having to comply with the rules of parts 121, 125 or 135”. There are some conditions though. It can’t be “your primary business” as an air carrier or commercial operator, you must carry the passenger “under the rules of part 91”, and, most importantly, you are “required to receive payment” for carrying the passenger in accordance with the appropriate Federal, State, or local guidelines and are not able to exceed the amount required under the applicable federal, state or local law.

There are some key points here that I want to dig into for a pilot wanting to use their aircraft to fly a passenger in furtherance of election efforts.

The first is that this regulation is specifically written an exception that allows an operator of an aircraft to use their aircraft in a type of flight operation that “requires” compensation be designated or given when they are not a commercial operator. They need not even be a commercial pilot. Normally this would not be allowed and would constitute “commercial carriage”.

So, when might this be applicable?

Assume a friend is running for a U.S. Senate position who wants to travel around a large state to attend multiple 4th of July parades on the same day. Of course, an aircraft will make this easier! Let’s dig into some of the nuances of the regulations and laws relating to this type of activity.

An aircraft owner might be willing to “volunteer” their time and/or “donate” the use of the aircraft for this purpose without expecting any compensation. Ah, but there is a hiccup here.

Using services, even donated ones, is considered an “in-kind” contribution to an election effort. “Gifts of goods or services to candidates and their committees” are considered “in-kind” contributions even when actual monetary donations are not given. Going further, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) REQUIRES that “the dollar value of an in-kind contribution is subject to limits and must be reported.” And the FEC places limits on how much can be donated to a particular entity (candidate, political party, committee, etc) in specific time periods.[1]

The fact that a “value” is required to be set for the services being offered, in this case, flying, makes what the pilot is doing a “commercial activity” since they are “receiving compensation” for it. Because a value is designated for the services, the aircraft and the pilot could be said to be “generating revenue” as a commercial activity. Without that 14 CFR §91.321 we mentioned above, operators without a commercial certificate would not be able to engage in this activity. But, that particular regulation allows variance from commercial certificate requirements for the pilot and the operation to be able to do this type of flying. It’s there because the FEC requires that any services rendered to our example candidate be valued so they can be limited to FEC contribution limits.

Ok, I know this is getting confusing. But stay with me.

Many pilots over the years have asked the simple question, “can’t I just do it for free and not bother with all this confusion?”

Nope.

By law, the FEC requires that any services that are given, even donated ones, have a value placed on them. They are even specific about how that value is set. When we are thinking about services, and certainly providing an aircraft and pilot services falls into this category, the FEC indicates that they must be valued at “the prevailing commercial rate at the time the services are rendered.”

So, that also means you can’t just say that you flew your Senate candidate friend around for $1.00 each day to make it easier.

Let’s put all this together now.

Here we are, a pilot-owner who wants to donate their Cessna 414 and their pilot skills to fly that friend running for U.S. Senate around the state for those parades. What the above compilation of FAA and FEC regulations and law imply, is that the pilot would need to establish a fair market value for the operation of that aircraft and pilot services and apply that to the operation that is actually flown.

An owner might do this by using an industry recognized source for hourly operation costs of their aircraft (you may find these through organizations such as the AOPA, the NBAA, the NATA, etc.), finding out what a local 14 CFR §135 aircraft charter operator charges for their comparable Cessna 414 and a pilot, or other similar methods of establishing a realistic cost of operation for the aircraft. The pilot would then apply that rate to the hours of actual service flown.

For example, if a local charter company charged $600 per hour for a pilot and a Cessna 414 and the owner who is flying their friend around expects to fly 5 hours of flight as they travel to multiple airports in a day for those parades, they could justify an “in-kind” contribution equivalent value of $3,000.00 that the candidate would be required to report on their quarterly FEC reports.

But we already have a potential problem here.

The FEC establishes campaign contribution limits for individuals, campaign committees, parties, and political action committees for federally elected offices.[2] If you are going to do this for state or local races, states establish their own rates that typically different than the federal election contribution limits and they may even differ depending on each individual office being sought.

If we think about our Senate candidate, and refer to the FEC limits for contributions to an individual, we find that the limit for a contribution is $2,700.00 currently. So, that $3,000.00 flight value actually breaks the FEC campaign contribution limit. Is there a way around this? Well, we could fly an aircraft that is cheaper, we could not fly as long of a flight (limiting how much time you can donate), or, and this gets complex, the potential exists to donate different parts of the flights to different entities. Many candidates will take individual donations and have “candidate committees” that also support the work of the candidate. This gets more complex, but in a case like this, the first 3 hours could hypothetically be conducted as an “in-kind donation” to the individual candidate for a value of $1,800.00 and the last 2 hours might be donated to a “candidate committee” at a value of $1,200.00. Each of these entities has their own, additive, limits. If the individual candidate has a limit of $2,700.00, the $1,800.00 remains under that. A “candidate committee” currently has a limit of $2,000.00 for contributions and the $1,200.00 worth of flying would remain under that limit. We still end up at a total value of $3,000.00 of flight time, but since it is split between two entities it may be able to remain in compliance with FEC contribution limits. In this scenario, you might even be able to donate an extra hour of flight time to each entity and still stay within limits.

Now, I should probably add, if a candidate is truly chartering an aircraft at market value from an FAA certificated commercial carrier, none of this applies. That is the candidate or their representative simply paying for a service. What we have been talking about here is an owner who is using their aircraft to do this type of flying. On the other hand, if a charter operator “discounts” their services to help the candidate, any difference in price from the normal billed rates to a discounted rate would also count as an “in-kind contribution” and must be tracked, reported, and fall within FEC limitations.

There are many complexities to using your aircraft to fly passengers in the furtherance of election efforts. They could range from whether the contribution was for a Primary-, or a General-election, a time period, if a contribution is made directly to a Candidate committee or a Political Action Committee, or even whether the candidate is running opposed or unopposed. I am not an attorney, I am not an accountant, and I am not a FEC official, so if you are going to use your aircraft to fly a candidate or their representative around, I strongly encourage you to take the information in this article as a starting point and get some really good advice before you do it. Make sure before start, you plan so you will act within the restrictions. It can be done, it can be fun, but it can also be easy to run afoul of some of the restrictions. Do your homework first. It isn’t as simple as just giving your aircraft or pilot time away for free.

[1] To learn a little more about FEC in-kind contributions, visit https://www.fec.gov/help-candidates-and-committees/making-disbursements-pac/making-kind-contributions-candidates/.

[2] More information about this at https://www.fec.gov/help-candidates-and-committees/candidate-taking-receipts/contribution-limits/

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About Jason Blair

Jason Blair is an active single- and multi-engine instructor and a FAA Designated Pilot Examiner with over 5,000 hours total time and over 3,000 hours instruction given, and he has flown over 100 different makes and models of general aviation aircraft. In his role as Examiner, over 1000 pilot certificates have been issued. He works and has worked for multiple aviation associations that promote training and general aviation. He also consults on aviation training and regulatory efforts for the general aviation industry.Jason Blair is an active single- and multi-engine instructor and a FAA Designated Pilot Examiner with over 5,000 hours total time and over 3,000 hours instruction given, and he has flown nearly 100 different makes and models of general aviation aircraft. In his role as Examiner, over 1000 pilot certificates have been issued. He works and has worked for multiple aviation associations that promote training and general aviation. He also consults on aviation training and regulatory efforts for the general aviation industry.

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