OpenAirplane: Maximizing Your Pilot's License

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OpenAirplane's national network of rental aircraft is growing. Is it really as easy as renting a car?

The annual adventure trip to Arizona with my buddies would have been better if we could fly around the desert in a rented Cessna as we planned. An important part of that plan included my checkout and endorsement to rent the FBOs Skyhawk. Unfortunately, scheduling the checkout turned out to be more difficult than I planned—even though I planned the chore well in advance of our trip.

Due to our busy schedule, my window for completing the checkout was narrow. Ultimately, the window closed without me getting a checkout due to instructor scheduling and the lack of aircraft. The boys were disappointed and I looked stupid. OpenAirplane—a beta program that’s intended to make renting a plane as easy as renting a car—shows signs of solving this dilemma, while unlocking the utility of a pilot’s license. 

If OpenAirplane existed during my vacation, I could have taken care of the checkout at home, scheduled the flight on the my smartphone, walked up to the counter at Sawyer Aviation at Scottsdale Airport and grab the keys to my rental. Since my credit card would already be on file, I wouldn’t have to waste time paying after the flight. This is exactly the seamless rental process that OpenAirplane is trying to achieve. 

Value Proposition

OpenAirplane co-founder Rod Rakic told me that his initial goal was to make the pilot certificate more useful. In 2011, he recognized AOPA’s flight training initiative as a fine effort to reduce student dropouts. According to Rakic, the initiative didn’t address the problem of keeping pilot’s interested in maintaining their certificate once their initial training was complete. For those who don’t own an airplane, the pilot certificate often turns off when the pilot is away from their home base because the process of renting an aircraft while away from home can be a hassle.

“What I was seeing was smart people trying to create better experiences for students coming into the lifestyle but there wasn’t anyone addressing the value proposition of having a pilot’s license in the first place. It’s what comes after taking your spouse and friends for an airplane ride that wasn’t being addressed,” said Rakic.

According to OpenAirplane, 96 percent of pilots they surveyed said that they would fly more at locations away from their home base if only it was simpler. Moreover, 51 percent of them said that they don’t rent while 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.

Rakic said OpenAirplane was developed to make the experience of renting airplanes across the country, or just across the airport, fundamentally better for pilots and the operators. “For the participating FBO, it creates incremental revenue and additional customers who might not have found them. Even the busiest FBO might have holes in the rental schedule that can be filled by renters who want to fly while they are away from home base,” said Rakic.

Over the years, this general concept has been tried with little success. In the 1970’s, Lease a Plane created a business model that mimicked that of a rental car business. It’s said the model failed partly because the company owned the aircraft but couldn’t maintain the capital to purchase newer aircraft as older models depreciated. 

Rakic maintains that his business model is different—and growing—because OpenAirplane doesn’t own any aircraft. Instead, OpenAirplane helps existing operators monetize existing aircraft that might not be renting as much as they can.

Universal Pilot Checkout

Renting aircraft in the network starts at home. OpenAirplane requires the pilot to complete a single standardized annual checkout that’s specific to the make and model of aircraft they plan to rent. The program is available to any pilot who holds at least an FAA private pilot or sport pilot certificate. According to OpenAirplane, both the National Association of Flight Instructors (NAFI) and the Society of Aviation and Flight Educators (SAFE) have contributed expertise in the development of the program’s training model.

The first step in signing on with the program is creating an online pilot profile.  This process documents your airman credentials and flight experience. The idea here is to eliminate the tedious process of filling out paperwork at each new place you rent. You only have to sign up once because your credentials will follow you at each OpenAirplane location. You’ll also need to provide proof of renters insurance (this isn’t required to complete the checkout). From there, you’re directed to an OpenAirplane facility that’s close to your home base to schedule what’s called a Universal Pilot Checkout (UPC) (PDF). This is a standardization/evaluation program designed specifically for OpenAirplane. The UPC is required every 12 months and you’ll need to document proof of 90-day currency.

Rakic made it clear that the UPC is conducted to a higher standard than the typical BFR. Where a BFR isn’t a pass or fail exercise, OpenAirplane’s UPC is pass or fail and is evaluated against the FAA practical test standards for private or sport pilot. If you blow the ride, you’ll of course have the opportunity to fly again until you prove you can meet the standard. 

Chad Verdaglio from Sawyer Aviation in Scottsdale, Arizona told me he has proof that the UPC pass/fail system is more valuable than just accomplishing a checkout. “One of our first candidates failed the UPC. He was a part time pilot who was competent but simply rusty when it came to stalls, steep turns and other maneuvers. The UPC afforded him the opportunity to recognize that he needed to come back the following Saturday and fly some more. He did and ultimately passed,” said Verdaglio.

The UPC typically consists of a one-hour ground session to review the oral portion of the knowledge required by the PTS, plus an hour and a half or so in flight for the practical portion of the PTS. You’ll also demonstrate several takeoffs and landings.  An IFR checkout, which could include an IPC, will obviously take longer.  Rakic said pilots don’t have to test to IFR standards, even if they are instrumented rated (they’ll be limited to VFR operations at the time of rental). 

If there's any question about your proficiency and the ability to pass the UPC, OpenAirplane recommends you prepare for the checkout by reviewing the knowledge needed to complete the PTS oral and fly a practice flight with another CFI to polish up maneuvers. During the UPC, you'll be charged the operator's published rate for both instructor time and aircraft rental. 

The UPC is specific to the make and model of the aircraft you plan to rent and not all checkouts are created alike. For instance, a checkout in a normally aspirated Cirrus SR22 isn’t sufficient to rent a turbocharged model—you’ll need an additional checkout to focus on the procedures that are required to operate the turbo. Similarly, a checkout in a round gauge Skyhawk won’t cover you in a G1000 glass cockpit model. Still, these additional checkouts are abbreviated—focusing on the differences in aircraft and systems rather than covering PTS standards a second time. When it’s time to renew the UPC, simply pick the most complicated aircraft you are checked out to fly and complete the UPC in it for blanket rental privileges (enabling you to rent both round gauge and G1000 aircraft, for example). Completion of the UPC qualifies you for a 10 percent discount on renters insurance.

Tribal Knowledge 

Since a checkout often provides knowledge of the local area (becoming familiar with reporting points, local procedures and landscape features, for example) my concern with getting checked out outside of the rental environment is that the rental pilot could lack the confidence of a local pilot. Call it the home field advantage. 

OpenAirplane addresses my concern with the local procedure briefing (LPB). Rakic said OpenAirplane works extensively with the operators to document all the local procedures that a renter might otherwise learn during a checkout. This might include information that doesn't get into the airport facility directory or isn’t depicted on local charts. OpenAirplane asks each operator 43 questions that a renter may ask when getting checked out in the local area.

Operators within the network then publish the LPB information on their web page (and on the OpenAirplane app) so you can read up on procedures ahead of time. This might include the operator's procedures and practices, local airspace considerations, airfield operation hints and even notes on flight planning.

I asked Richard Gentil from Naples Air Center in Naples, Florida for his thoughts on checking out away from the rental environment and on OpenAirplane in general. His operation was one of the first to join the network.  

“There’s nothing like flying the local area while interacting with an instructor,” Gentil told me. Still, Naples Air Center ensures that rental pilot’s get all of the resources they need to become familiar with operating in the area, even if it means additional training. “Just because an OpenAirplane client has checked out at their home base doesn’t mean we won’t spend all of the time that’s necessary to ensure their confidence and safety. We have instructors available every day who can fly with a renter if necessary,” said Gentil.

According to Gentil, his rental fleet of 23 aircraft fly1000-2000 hours per month and the 13 or so that are on the OpenAirplane program stay busy. “It’s too early to tell just how OpenAirplane will change our bottom line but it’s clearly a way to increase the amount of time our aircraft fly. In the winter months, there are lot’s of northerners who come to Florida for vacation and OpenAirplane makes it easy for them to rent and fly on their own rather than taking an instructor along or completing a time consuming checkout,” he said.

Participating operators provide detailed information on their rental aircraft. This includes actual photos of the aircraft—including the radio stack, autopilot and interior—so you’ll know exactly what to expect when you show up. You won’t get a generic photo of a Cessna, for example. Instead, you’ll see the exact aircraft that’s available to rent. There’s also a star-rating process for the operator and for the aircraft to help you decide where you want to fly.

Surfing for Rentals

You can find available planes and how they are equipped plus check rental rates and make a booking request on OpenAirplane’s web page. While the most common rental in the fleet is the Cessna Skyhawk, the network has a healthy variety of aircraft—from the Cirrus SR22 to the Remos LSA. There are plans to add high altitude airports, twins and possibly seaplanes and tail wheel models to the program. There’s also the possibility of adding N-registered aircraft to the program in other countries.

OpenAirplane launched in June 2013 with six bases and added another eight in August 2013, covering 14 cities. There are over 3400 pilot’s currently signed up on OpenAirplane’s web site, even though there are sizable holes in available bases. This can be frustrating for the pilot who is looking to complete a checkout close to home.

Still, Rakic said the network is growing rapidly. It took six months to get the first six operators on line and six weeks to get the next eight on line.  The goal was to have 25 bases by the end of 2013 and Rakic plans to easily surpass that number. We’ll keep tabs on OpenAirplane and continue to report on its growth and progress. For more information, visit OpenAirplane.com.

Listen to the OpenAirplane podcast from AirVenture 2013