Rod Rakic and Adam Fast are tackling one of the unique challenges facing the general aviation industry: how to get pilots to fly more. Rising fuel prices and the many obstacles that discourage pilots from flying have caused large reductions in flying time, which are reflected in low new aircraft delivery numbers, declining fuel sales and low used aircraft prices. “Our challenge is how do we keep people flying longer and more,” Rakic explained.
To do just that, Rakic and Fast are developing a new system called OpenAirplane, designed to eliminate the dreaded “checkout” that aircraft rental providers impose on pilots who haven’t flown the company’s aircraft before.
The simple concept behind OpenAirplane is to make it easier for pilots to rent airplanes in different locales. Under the existing system, when a pilot wants to rent an airplane from an FBO or flight school, the pilot is required to get “checked out,” which means flying with an instructor for up to an hour to verify the pilot’s skills and introduce him or her to the local area. The supposed reason for the checkout flight is that “it is required by the insurance company,” according to the rental provider. This isn’t always the case; many fleet insurance policies do not require checkouts, but rental providers almost universally require the checkout process for all new rental pilots.
If OpenAirplane is accepted by the aviation industry and receives the necessary startup funding, it could make it easier not only for pilots to rent airplanes at other airports, but also facilitate local rentals by business travelers. Many pilots travel for business and need to visit multiple sites at a destination. With OpenAirplane, they could rent an airplane after arriving at the destination and visit all those sites more efficiently, without having to go through an expensive and time-consuming checkout. Another benefit would be that instead of having to fly at least every 90 days with one rental company to stay current, the pilot could meet that requirement by flying at any OpenAirplane-participating rental provider.
The hassles of signing up and getting checked out at a new rental provider are enough to discourage most pilots from renting airplanes more often, according to Rakic. In a survey conducted by OpenAirplane, 96 percent of respondents indicated that they would fly more at locations away from their home airport if the process were simpler. More than 50 percent “said that they don’t rent away from home because of complicated checkout requirements, and 28 percent of pilots said that they don’t rent more simply because it’s hard to find airplanes.”
OpenAirplane would also be a Web repository for available rental aircraft, making it much easier for pilots to find rental providers. “It’s OpenTable for airplanes,” Rakic said, referring to the online restaurant reservation system. There is no fee for rental providers to join OpenAirplane, but they would pay a small percentage of the rental revenue.
Toward a Standard Checkout
Part of creating OpenAirplane is to assuage the fears of insurance underwriters, which ultimately set many of the standards used by the aviation industry and have driven the development of the dreaded checkout. The task, he explained, “is to create an industry-wide standard that everyone can be cool with. There’s no standardization of what constitutes a checkout.” One FBO might require filling out a complicated data form about the airplane and an hour-long flight while another will be satisfied with three takeoffs and landings.
This lack of a standardized checkout fuels distrust among rental providers. OpenAirplane will create a checkout standard that participating rental companies can rely on to know that OpenAirplane pilots have been checked out properly elsewhere. “It allows [the FBO] to know you weren’t pencil-whipped through the process,” Rakic said. “We’ve got some inertia here of pulling together a coalition of operators and insurance providers, to fix a problem that’s plagued pilots and created a lot of friction.”
OpenAirplane is working with insurance launch partner Starr Aviation, which has already put its stamp of approval on the OpenAirplane standardization and evaluation program.
OpenAirplane will include a system for pilots to rate the rental providers and their airplanes. The rental companies will also be able to rate pilots. A pilot who consistently leaves trash in the airplane will not be a welcome customer, for example. “If you bald spot a tire and leave FOD in the cockpit, you will not get a good review,” he explained. “This [creates incentives on] both sides of the equation.”
Reaction to OpenAirplane from airplane rental providers “has been fabulous,” Rakic said, and he and Fast are hoping to launch later this year.
OpenAirplane, he concluded, “can reduce the friction to make people fly more. It makes the pilot certificate more valuable. I can’t do anything about the price of gas, but I can do something about number of people buying it. With more utilization, we can keep private aviation from dwindling into nothing.”