AIN Blog: Finally, Airplane Rental Without The Ritual Checkout

 - December 3, 2013, 7:37 AM
Cessna 172 over California coast
Rental without the ritual: Cruising north along the rugged California coastline near Santa Cruz. (Photo: Matt Thurber)

Last Friday, the day after the Thanksgiving holiday, was one of those perfect Northern California late-autumn days, and it was a day off so I took my stepfather, Dennis, flying. Although he has a private pilot certificate, he no longer flies. But every time I visit he asks if I can take him flying. This time, the answer was “Yes,” instead of the usual “No, because I’m not checked out at any of the local airplane rental companies.”

So we drove over to Reid-Hillview Airport in San Jose, showed my pilot and medical certificates and renter’s insurance papers to the friendly folks who run Trade Winds Aviation, and just minutes later preflighted a Cessna 172S and took off into the bright blue skies for a day of aviation adventuring. This all happened without my having to get a formal flight checkout at Trade Winds, saving me at least $200 in rental and instructor fees. Before that day, I had never set foot in Trade Winds Aviation.

How was it possible that I could rent an airplane without a checkout? It was thanks to OpenAirplane, a new service that allows pilots to rent airplanes throughout the U.S. after obtaining a checkout at just one member company.

I live in Los Angeles and Dennis lives in Palo Alto, south of San Francisco. To rent an airplane in the San Francisco area, I’d have to get checked out, which usually means an hour flight with an instructor. And that checkout is normally good for 90 days, which makes the prospect of getting checked out not only expensive but relatively useless, because I’m not going to rent from an outfit so far away from my home every 90 days or fewer. And I don’t want to go through the checkout process every time I just want to take Dennis flying when I’m visiting.

This was the first time that I rented an airplane in the OpenAirplane network after completing the OpenAirplane Universal Checkout. Member pilots undergo this checkout once a year; it basically mimics the Civil Air Patrol recurrency process and meets the requirements of an FAA Biennial Flight Review. It qualifies the member pilot to rent the same kind of airplane at any other OpenAirplane member operator. For different airplane types, a brief checkout may be required, but not the full Universal Checkout. OpenAirplane plans to add mountain flying and other types of checkout to its menu, which should encourage more companies to join the network, according to co-founder Rod Rakic.

OpenAirplane now has 30 airplane rental company members, from California to Massachusetts and even one in Palmer, Alaska. There is no fee to join OpenAirplane; rental companies pay a fee based on the rental rate, and they are free to charge more for an OpenAirplane rental if they wish. Trade Winds Aviation charges the same amount whether it is a normal rental or an OpenAirplane trip.

For my Universal Checkout, I booked a flight at California Flight Center in Long Beach in a Cessna 172. California Flight Center also charges the same amount per hour for OpenAirplane or regular customers. Before I showed up for the flight, I had to update my OpenAirplane profile to reflect my certificates and flight experience and provide my credit card information. All billing is done through OpenAirplane. I also spent some time reading over the local procedures section in the California Flight Center listing on the OpenAirplane website.

I added some IFR proficiency practice to my Universal Checkout, so it took longer than normal, but overall the checkout with CFI Rob Grehan was thorough, with a ground session, airwork and a variety of takeoff and landing types. Once that was done, Grehan updated my records on OpenAirplane and this then qualified me to rent Cessna 172s elsewhere in the OpenAirplane system.

To set up the flight for Dennis, I logged onto OpenAirplane and used the map of locations to find Trade Winds Aviation. I picked an airplane from the Cessna 172 fleet and booked my reservation. I had planned to fly on Saturday, but one missing feature of OpenAirplane is visibility into the rental companies’ scheduling systems. In this case, none of the 172s was available on Saturday, so I soon received an email from CSR Greg Hobbs, who offered the same airplane on Friday. OpenAirplane will eventually hook into rental companies’ schedules, according to Rakic. Luckily the Friday schedule worked fine.

On the appointed day, Dennis and I drove to Reid-Hillview Airport, parked outside the Trade Winds office and stepped inside. Just minutes after introducing myself to Hobbs and company owner Walter Gyger and showing my certificates and renter’s insurance information, Hobbs gave me the keys to N2129C and walked us out to the airplane. And that was it. Simple and efficient.

Dennis and I enjoyed a great flight over Monterey Bay to see the humpback whales gorging on anchovies, then north along the coast to Half Moon Bay, to Watsonville for a delicious lunch at the airport’s Props Restaurant, then back to Reid-Hillview. We logged 2.4 hours in 29C, and that was 2.4 hours of revenue that Trade Winds was likely not going to get from me if it weren’t for OpenAirplane.

After the flight, I could have input the Hobbs time into OpenAirplane myself, but Hobbs did that for me, and the billing was done automatically, with an email sent to me showing the charges. The email included a link for me to review Trade Winds, which I happily gave five stars for the company and the airplane. Gyger and his team clearly care a lot about proper maintenance, and 29C was nearly flawless, with all avionics and systems working, a clean interior and exterior, well kept manuals and a handy tote box with extra oil, a soft window cleaning cloth and a fuel tester.

OpenAirplane more than met my expectations, and I hope to use it again, especially on a business trip where I need to visit multiple companies located at different airports at a distant location from home. One of OpenAirplane’s goals is to help rental companies earn more revenue from pilots who otherwise wouldn’t fly with them. Another goal is to get pilots to fly more. In my case, OpenAirplane is working, and I hope that more rental companies jump on board.

As OpenAirplane’s Rakic put it, “We don’t have to change the laws, we don’t have to change the rules, we just have to offer an alternative to the way the industry does business.”