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Share Flights with the New ‘Uber for Light Planes’

Somebody had to do it: start an online ride-sharing service for light planes. One such somebody is Flytenow. Some press reports call it “Uber for small planes,” but that’s not accurate. It’s more like “Zimride for planes,” in that it’s really for owner/operators of small planes to get some help with their gasoline costs rather than make any money.

Flytenow works just like any of the big ride-sharing applications. If you own a small general aviation aircraft and plan a trip somewhere—Flytenow calls them “adventures”—but don’t have a full plane, you post your trip and offer to take one or more folks along with you to share your costs (typically fuel, oil, and airport fees). If someone decides to go along with you, he, she, or they split the cost with you. Because federal regulations prohibit ordinary private pilots from carrying anyone for a fee, you can charge only a prorated share of actual costs. You can’t, as with Uber, actually make money out of the deal.

You don’t have to pay to post a trip. Pilots are free to reject any passenger they don’t want to carry, and they are not obligated to complete the trip if something disrupts their original plan.

As a potential “adventurer,” log onto Flytenow and find someone planning a trip somewhere you want to go. You then notify Flytenow, agree to help with costs, and set schedules. Flytenow provides an estimate of cost based on plane type, origin/destination, and distance. Costs are based on a strict proration of airplane seats. That means that, in a four-passenger plane, each adventurer pays one quarter of the cost, regardless of how many other seats are occupied. Flytenow calculates probable costs prior to departure, and adjusts them, if necessary, after completion. Final charges are based on “Hobbs time,” a standard measure of the time an airplane is actually turned “on” as a system.

For some folks, just the thought of “light plane” raises the issue of safety. Flytenow says it vets all its pilots, it notes that all pilots are FAA certified, and it claims to ensure that all its pilots fly often and maintain proficiency. It also provides links to each pilot’s Facebook or LinkedIn pages for background information. The bottom line, of course, is that any time you share a ride—airplane, car, motorcycle, whatever—you’re putting yourself in the hands of an individual, not an airline or taxi company.

Clearly, as a potential passenger, if you need to take a trip for a business or family reason, Flytenow isn’t for you. The chances of finding someone with exactly the same itinerary needs are, as the math mavens say, “vanishingly small.” Instead, the service really is, as its terminology suggests, for someone looking for a spur-of-the-moment short trip to some nearby interesting destination—especially if there’s no scheduled air service. The websites describes a sample trip of Boston to Martha’s Vineyard at an estimated cost of $120 roundtrip, and a flight from San Francisco to Tahoe for $250.

Presumably, almost all trips will be regional. Most small planes have a maximum nonstop range of 500 miles or less, and travel at around 140 miles per hour; this is a combination that wouldn’t work very well from Boston to San Francisco, for example. And given heavy air-traffic congestion, service to/from major cities is likely to be through small general aviation airports: Hanscom in the Boston area, Manassas in the Washington area, and VanNuys in the Los Angeles basin.

Flytenow currently operates from the Boston and San Francisco areas, with Chicago, Cincinnati, Los Angeles, and New York “to come.”

Flytenow isn’t the only air-sharing option. A similar service, Airpooler, is reportedly on hold pending review by the FAA. It operates from Boston, San Diego, and San Francisco.

Yet another approach is offered by several online outfits that arrange to fill unused seats on corporate-jet flights. But even on a cost-sharing basis, Blackjet, for example, quotes almost $3,000 for a seat from Chicago to San Francisco—lots more than a first-class airline ticket. Arrow is similar; seat costs are also high. Presumably, these outfits base their business plans on the appeal and superior travel experience on private jets, not price.

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