Ownership: Opening the rental skies

Start-up hopes to streamline the checkout process, get more pilots flying

July 1, 2013

Rental skies

You’re vacationing in a sunny place—let’s say the Florida Keys—and you can’t help but dream about how nice it would be to fly along the coast. But you have no airplane on this trip, and your schedule doesn’t really allow for the half-day it likely would take to get checked out at the local FBO. So you set aside your dreams of cruising the coast for another day, yet again.

For the past two years, a team of aviators has been quietly working on a project that, by the time you read this, could be changing that familiar scenario significantly.

OpenAirplane, launched in beta mode in April, is aimed at helping pilots find aircraft to rent and streamlining the checkout process, thus making it easier—and quicker—to rent an airplane. The founders hope this will, in turn, boost business for participating FBOs while getting more pilots flying—an impact cofounder Rod Rakic calls “a dent in the universe.”

That sounds good, but is there any checkout involved? Yes. A pilot finds a participating FBO online (ideally near his or her home base) and completes a universal pilot checkout, or UPC. The UPC is tougher than a standard checkout—and it’s designed to be tougher. For one thing, it’s a pass/fail event. “You either fly to the [Practical Test Standards] or you don’t,” Rakic says. If you fail, you’d receive some additional training and return to complete that portion of the UPC, just as you would if you were having a bad day on a flight review.

Rakic points out that there are some advantages to completing the UPC. For example, it resets the clock on your FAA-mandated flight review. If you hold renter’s insurance, your carrier may offer up to a 10-percent discount for completing the standardized program. “Your local flight school has not made that deal,” Rakic says.

The UPC is good for one year. When signed off, you’re given access to a network of the same make/model aircraft available at any OpenAirplane operator, no matter where you completed the UPC. You choose and reserve your airplane via a free web app that can be accessed from a smartphone, iPad or tablet device, or personal computer. The app contains pricing information, detailed descriptions, photos, and user reviews of the aircraft—as well as pilot information (ratings, certificates, and other credentials) that the FBO can review on its end before processing the reservation. (The FBO retains veto authority on your reservation.) When you arrive, you’re given a local briefing, escorted to the airplane, and handed the keys. OpenAirplane handles the payment processing and keeps 10 percent of the transaction.

While its marketing materials describe the OpenAirplane process in a hypothetical fashion, it’s no longer hypothetical. Six operators are on board. On March 30, 2013, Chicago Executive Flight School at Chicago Executive Airport handed the keys to OpenAirplane’s very first client. He and a passenger took a scenic tour along the lakefront.

“We still have so much knitting of the payment and booking system and ratings review system,” Rakic says of the app, developed by cofounder Adam Fast. “All those things are all built, but are getting knit together.”

More than 5,400 pilots have signaled that they’d like the chance to put OpenAirplane to the test. Pilots have been following OpenAirplane’s progress through social media channels; some have volunteered to photograph aircraft for the website.

Rakic insists that the emphasis is not on getting pilots to sign up—there’s no charge for that—but to get them flying. “I’ve actually gotten emails from pilots who are not flying today [who say] that if OpenAirplane launches [they] will get back in the game because now [they] have a reason to fly,” he says. And more people flying leads to more oil changes, more engine overhauls, more fuel getting pumped, more flight instructors. In short, “all the good that we can drive comes from one thing and one thing only—Hobbs time,” Rakic says.

Will FBOs be willing to try something new? “About 85 percent of the time when we approach an operator, they’re very interested,” Rakic says. Some are less than enthusiastic. “If your fleet is getting the utilization that you’re looking for, don’t change a thing, and if OpenAirplane isn’t for you, that’s fine,” he says.

FBOs do have other considerations, notably insurance. Rakic says OpenAirplane’s standardization plan has received a sign-off from 100 percent of the insurance underwriters that work with flight schools. “Noone’s insurance policy has to change,” he says. There is no waiver or modification or rider that any pilot or flight school had to write to participate in OpenAirplane. “So when they call their underwriter and ask if we can rent airplanes in this way, the answer will be, ‘Go for it.’”

Cessna Aircraft has endorsed OpenAirplane as a partner; an agreement with the company standardizes the program across the Cessna Pilot Center (CPC) network. Rakic says this opportunity enabled OpenAirplane to work directly with the factory. “How do you make sure a pilot really knows how to operate a Garmin G1000? I get to call up [Cessna Chief Pilot] Kirby Ortega and ask him,” he says.

Four of the six operators on board are CPCs, but OpenAirplane won’t be exclusive to CPCs. Another 50 have expressed interest. Rakic says OpenAirplane wants to have participating operators “where you want to fly.” Aside from Chicago, there are operators in Detroit; Long Island, New York; Kissimmee, Florida; Dallas; and Long Beach and San Jose in California, offering a range of aircraft including Light Sport, Cessna 172s and 182s, and Cirrus SR20s and SR22s. Down the road, Rakic would like to see light twins and tailwheel aircraft added to the mix, and perhaps even a seaplane.

Rakic is the creator of MyTransponder, a social network for pilots that is “in suspended animation” while OpenAirplane is being launched. Cofounder Fast has a long track record of creating free web-based aviation apps such as Oshplanner and AeroMuseums. Joining the team are Jonathan Johnson, director of network development; and David Allen (host of the Other People’s Airplanes podcast) as director of community development, who will recruit and assist pilots with the OpenAirplane checkout process.

Email jill.tallman@aopa.org.

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Jill W. Tallman

Jill W. Tallman | AOPA Technical Editor, AOPA

AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who owns a Piper Cherokee 140.