Common Carriage
Private Carriage

As a pilot in training to obtain a commercial pilot certificate, common carriage versus a private carriage always raises concerns. Remember that it is the responsibility of the aircraft’s operator to determine which type of certificate is required for the operation being conducted. It is critical for a commercial pilot to fully understand the difference between acting as pilot in command of an aircraft and acting as a commercial operator of an aircraft. In this blog, we will explain the differences that exist between them, and the process to follow to stay on the legal side of commercial operations.


First, let’s undertand some important definitions

  • Aircraft operator: A person who uses, causes to be used or authorizes to be used an aircraft, with or without the right of legal control (as owner, lessee, or otherwise), for the purpose of air navigation including the piloting of aircraft, or on any part of the surface of an airport.
  • Commercial Operator: Commercial operator means a person who, for compensation or hire, engages in the carriage by aircraft in air commerce of persons or property, other than as an air carrier or foreign air carrier or under the authority of Part 375 of this title. Where it is doubtful that an operation is for compensation or hire, the test applied is whether the carriage by air is merely incidental to the person’s other business or is, in itself, a major enterprise for profit.
  • Air Transportation: Means interstate, overseas, or foreign air transportation or the transportation of mail by aircraft.
  • Air Carrier: Means a person who undertakes directly by lease, or other arrangement, to engage in air transportation.
  • Operational Control: With respect to a flight, means the exercise of authority over initiating, conducting or terminating a flight.

Commercial Pilot Privilages

According to §61.133, a commercial pilot may act as pilot in command of an aircraft carrying passengers or property for compensation provided the person is qualified for the operation. You are free to offer your “pilot services” to anyone and get compensated for them as long as you are not the airplane’s operator.  Consider that the FAA even considers free-flight time as a form of compensation.

Remember, if someone hires you to fly an aircraft, the operator is the one that needs to determine what certification will be required for the operation and what rules will govern the flight. It is the airplane’s operator responsibility to decide if the operation (carrying passengers or property for compensation or hire) falls under common carriage, non-common, or private carriage. Keep in mind that even though we might only be employed to fly the airplane, we must determine if a commercial operation is complying with its legal requirements. 

Now, let’s see the difference between common carriage and private carriage!

Common Carriage Versus Private Carriage

A COMMON CARRIER is a person or organization that “hold out” its willingness to transport persons or property from place to place, for compensation (profit, financial gain, or some future economic advantage). A common carrier requires either an air carrier certificate or a commercial operating certificate. Depending on the operations being conducted, the certificate will be issued in accordance with part 119, and the airplane will operate under 121 or 135 regulations. As a commercial pilot, if you want to offer a friend a trip (for compensation) from point A to point B, and you are exercising operational control of the airplane, you are acting as a common carrier and therefore require an operating certificate.

There are two basic types of air operator certificates (AOC) issued to U.S. applicants who will conduct operations in common carriage.

  • An Air Carrier Certificate. This certificate is issued to applicants that plan to conduct interstate, foreign, or overseas transportation, or to carry mail.
  • An Operating Certificate. This certificate is issued to applicants that plan to conduct intrastate transportation.

Carriage for hire, which does not involve “holding out” to the public, is considered PRIVATE CARRIAGE—generally referred to as “contract carrier”. A private carrier also transports people or property for compensation or hire under a mutual contractual agreement between the operator and a person or organization, which did not result from the operator’s holding out or offering service. The customer seeks an operator and enters into an exclusive contract. Examples include the carriage of participating members of a club, carriage of a company’s employees or property, etc.

A PRIVATE CARRIER still needs an air carrier or commercial operating certificate that will depend on the type of operation conducted and the size of the airplane. Consider that this carriage is only for a few select customers generally on a long term basis. A large number of contracts might show that the operator is willing to carry anyone, and the FAA can render it as a COMMON CARRIER and shut down the operation. Always keep the FSDO informed to avoid a potential slip off.

Common carriage vs private carriage

So, if both PRIVATE AND COMMON CARRIERS require an operating certificate, what is the difference between the certificates? That’s an easy answer, the operating specifications issued under each certificate. PRIVATE CARRIERS that generally operate under PART 135 or 125 regulations have fewer limitations than COMMON CARRIERS that typically operate under PART 121 regulations. An example is the rest time for pilots that operate under PART 121. These operations have to be more limited since pilots have more restrictions than if they were operating under a part 135 certificate.

Part 119 Exceptions

Part §119.1(e), list operations that commercial operators can conduct for compensation or hire without the need of an operating certificate.

  1. Student instruction.
  2. Nonstop commercial air tours conducted in compliance with an LOA issued under § 91.147 (see Volume 3, Chapter 18, Section 3, LOA A049).
  3. Ferry or training flights.
  4. Aerial work operations, including:
    • Crop dusting, seeding, spraying, and bird chasing.
    • Banner towing.   
    • Aerial photography or survey (see subparagraph C below).
    • Firefighting.
    • Helicopter operations in construction or repair work (but part 119 does apply to transportation to and from the site of operations).
    • Powerline or pipeline patrol
    • Sightseeing flights conducted in hot air balloons.
  5.   Nonstop flights within 25 statute mile (sm) radius of the airport of takeoff for intentional parachute operations.
  6.   Limited helicopter flights within a 25 sm radius of the airport of takeoff.
  7. Part 133 (rotorcraft external load) or 14 CFR part 375 (certain foreign civil aircraft operations within the United States).
  8. Emergency mail service (49 U.S.C. § 41906).
  9. Operations conducted under the provisions of § 91.321.
  10. Small Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) operations conducted under part 107.

Operating Certificate Flow Chart

The chart below will walk you through the decisions you must take to determine the certificate required, and the regulations that will govern the flight you want to conduct as a commercial operator.

Don’t stop here, let’s keep learning!