As someone who doesn’t own a car, I’m a bit of a vehicle-share junkie. I carry a bus pass. I belong to three different car-share groups for when I need a car at home or traveling. So you’d think I’d be a natural for OpenAirplane, the service for which you use a single, universal checkout to rent airplanes across the United States.
The short answer is that I am a happy member, and OpenAirplane works. The longer answer is that coordinating with dozens of independent flight schools and FBOs scattered across the country won’t remotely resemble the seamless experience we know from Alamo or Zipcar. Expect a bit of legwork before you’re in the air.
Membership is free. You sign up through the website (www.openairplane.com), which is refreshingly simple and devoid of ads. Once you sign up and upload copies of your certificates, the next step is requesting the universal pilot checkout. The UPC is the heart of OpenAirplane. All locations (called operators) honor the checkout from any other operator. Do the checkout once a year—anywhere—and you’re good everywhere.
The UPC is based on the Civil Air Patrol Form 5 checkout. In fact, a current CAP Form 5 counts as a UPC for the same aircraft, as does current Cirrus factory training. The basic UPC is VFR only, with additional IFR, mountain, and multiengine components if you want those privileges. You could do those all at once or accumulate them over time.
The UPC also is limited to traditional gauges or glass-panel avionics until you’ve shown proficiency in both. The UPC is aircraft specific, but you can add additional aircraft with an abbreviated checkout. You must renew your UPC each year, but you can do it in any of the aircraft you’re approved to fly. Completing the UPC earns you an endorsement for the flight review.
Scheduling that checkout was the first snag I hit: The option seemingly vanished from the OpenAirplane website whenever I logged in to my account. Luckily, customer service is terrific. I got an email back from Rod Rakic, the boss himself, explaining the fix and getting me on my way.
I scheduled my UPC in a Cessna 172 with Executive Flyers at Hanscom Field in Bedford, Massachusetts. Back came the email confirmation reminding me what to expect and what I must do to get ready. One thing you might overlook is insurance. OpenAirplane requires members upload proof of aircraft renter’s insurance before they can fly.
The day of the flight came, and I woke up sick. The question was now, “Whom do I contact to reschedule: OpenAirplane, Executive Flyers, or both?” I opted for both, which worked, but OpenAirplane wasn’t sure if Executive Flyers would charge a penalty, and Executive Flyers wasn’t sure if it could reschedule without my going through OpenAirplane.
This revealed weakness one with OpenAirplane: Scheduling is a game of telephone. You find the operator on the OpenAirplane website and submit a request for a flight, OpenAirplane contacts the operator, the operator books it locally, and OpenAirplane contacts you with the approval—or with word the airplane is unavailable. You can short-cut the process by contacting the operator directly and finding the airplane and time that works for you, asking the operator to reserve it, and then going back to OpenAirplane for official scheduling. That step matters because the rental and billing are through OpenAirplane.
My rescheduled UPC, with instructor Chris Cancelliere, was like a flight review. After an hour on the ground and 1.2 in the air, I was blessed for the Cessna 172, VFR, at any OpenAirplane location. There was some confusion in that Executive Flyer requires demonstrated night proficiency to rent its airplanes at night, but the UPC does not. Tip: Schedule your UPC at night if this is an issue. Billing is through OpenAirplane, so be sure to record both your Hobbs and tach time for your flight. Log on to the OpenAirplane website and record it after your flight, and OpenAirplane will bill you.
Ups and downs on the road
UPC completed, I scheduled a Cessna 172 for a month down the road when I’d be in Florida with the family. The day before the flight, OpenAirplane emailed that the operator had cancelled the flight.
I called the operator and discovered its leaseback 172 was no longer under contract, but the company had a Cessna 150 I could rent. I scheduled the checkout for that with a block to fly it with at least one of my sons afterward. Here we hit OpenAirplane issue number two: Operator ethics vary.
The operator asked if I wanted to just schedule this with him directly. That should have been a clue, because this would have eliminated OpenAirplane’s share in the rental. I insisted on OpenAirplane.
When I arrived, the instructor was late and the airplane was, well, questionable, but nothing that was an outright no-go. We did three stop-and-goes, which was all the instructor wanted to add a 150 to my approved airplane list.
I had noticed that something felt odd about the yoke. It wasn’t until a more thorough preflight with my son that I realized a bushing was missing where the yoke passes through the panel. We scrubbed the flight and returned the keys, as the instructor had already departed for the day.
This illuminated what is both a strength and a weakness of OpenAirplane: reviews. The operator had one review, and it was good, but it was for the 172. I emailed Rakic asking how I should handle a review of this 150. He wrote, “Reputation systems don’t work well if folks aren’t honest about their experience. Everyone starts off with three stars, which is what folks should get if they meet expectations. ...Think about what you’d want to read if you were the next pilot. We understand not every operator is going to have a great day every time. Treat the matter factually and fairly in the review.”
I gave OpenAirplane one more try by booking a 172 at Trident Aviation at Bay Bridge Airport in Maryland for another family sightseeing trip—which I had to cancel because two weeks out I broke my arm in two places.
However, determined to test the system, I drove up to Trident and met with Taylor Cellini as if I might rent that day. He couldn’t have been more professional. All that would have stood between me and flying was 20 minutes on the ground with Taylor and showing my Washington, D.C., Special Flight Rules Area training certificate (required for flying close to D.C., and a no-fly item if you can’t show it to Trident).
Sticking with it
Even with the hiccups, I’m still one of roughly 10,000 happy OpenAirplane members at 92 locations nationwide. The system works, provided you take an active role in making it work.
Your best tool is contacting the operator directly to get a feel for its operation, discover any local issues or requirements of the organization, and find a spot on the schedule that works for you. Note that some points in the pilot participation agreement, such as showing Hobbs time for at least 40 percent of your booked time, can be waived by the operator.
Once you have things squared away, book your ride, show up, get the keys, and go fly. That’s what I’ll be doing—as soon as this arm heals.
Jeff Van West is a freelance aviation writer who lives in Maine.
Hertz launched an airplane business in 1958. A 12-hour rental was $1.50 an hour and 13 cents per “flight mile.”