|Contributing Editor, Video Editor|
Aviation entrepreneur Rod Rakic's idea for OpenAirplane has earned the support of some big names in the aviation industry who believe it could simplify access to aircraft, improve pilot safety, increase profits for flight schools and FBOs, and generally boost the aviation industry -- all by changing how we rent airplanes.
OpenAirplane is nearing its public rollout, expected before year-end. If the concept catches on, Rakic believes it won't just put more pilots in the air more often, it will also lower accident rates for a segment of the industry that is notoriously worse than average. And it might just make him rich. Maybe. But Rakic's idea isn't revolutionary or even all that new. His approach might be. And, so far, that's made all the difference.
The concept is simple. OpenAirplane would standardize checkrides throughout a network of operators so that any pilot who has passed a checkride at any one operator within the network would be qualified to rent equivalent equipment offered by any other operator in the network. There would be no further paperwork, no extra flight checks or ground work, no separate insurance policies ... not even a questionnaire ... just an annual checkride (with currency requirement) active in the system. The result would be a streamlined rental process for member pilots flying from their home base -- and especially for pilots interested in renting aircraft from operators away from their home base. To facilitate usage, all in-network operators would post their available aircraft online, offer scheduling through OpenAirplane online, and partake in an online ratings review system. That wouldn't just keep people and operators honest, it would also let each of them know what to expect. But what about fees... .
"When was the last time you stopped at the front desk when you checked out of the hotel?" asks Rakic. "Well, OpenAirplane brings a similar 'checkout' experience to aircraft rental." After a flight, an OpenAirplane member would just log into the system's app through any web-enabled device, log their flight time, and go home. The operator would later check the logged time versus the time on the hobbs meter and bill, accordingly. Only then -- and only if the flight occurs at any operator other than the pilot's "home base" -- would OpenAirplane take a 10-percent fee for having created the systems that brought the two together. But there's a social aspect too, and OpenAirplane cleverly weaves it into a form of checks and balances.
Any discrepancies noted by either party (an aircraft that doesn't live up to its billing or a renter that abuses the aircraft ... any complaints or comments at all) are logged and revealed to the entire OpenAirplane community through an online ratings review system. It's a simple system that gives both pilots and operators a measure of assurance that both the aircraft and pilot can be expected to meet and maintain. It gives both parties added incentive to perform, and it's all integrated seamlessly into the OpenAirplane system.
The foundation of that system is a software platform that exists as a web app, meaning it is not iPad or Android dependent. Like the rest of Rakic's business plan, the system is built on the foundation of easier access and standardization. Any member with any web-enabled device can interact with the system, anywhere they have web access. And with that, all the keys to Rakic's program are laid out. But one critical component is missing ... insurance. So, how did he get the insurers on board?
To understand how Rakic managed to earn the support of insurance agencies, we need to look at his history. Rakic is one man in a universe of pilots who love flying and would love to own an aircraft, but haven't yet acquired the means. For Racik, that desire evolved into a life that made flying part of both his vocation and avocation. It drove him as a young man to the Civil Air Patrol (CAP). His association with CAP now spans many years and has seen him rise to the position of operations manager for a squadron. In short, his experience with CAP has brought him more than just flying experience, he's also learned the standardized efficient methods of operation the organization maintains. The same methods that place CAP as one of the safest subgroups in the light general aviation community. And Rakic has taken note.
What Rakic saw at CAP was a standardized training and a currency program derived from a military example, applied in the context of an organized pilot community. Like the airlines, CAP's standard systems didn't just produce safe pilots, they also maintained a culture of vigilance. Rakic reasoned that by applying a similar standardized checkride and currency program as a core requirement for OpenAirplane pilots and operators, he too could produce safer, more proficient pilots and develop a new pilot community based, in part, on that culture. He also believed that if his systems improved access to aircraft and facilitated the renter experience, he could draw more pilots and more operators into his network. It boiled down to more pilots flying more hours, safer; maybe, he hypothesized, up to 60-percent safer than certain other segments, as was the case for CAP. And that, he calculated, would be the hook for insurers.
With his sales pitch loosely formed, Rakic set off for Oshkosh 2011 to take his case directly to insurers. At the time, he didn't have much to offer other than a lemonade and some shade that he'd leverage into the chance to share his idea. And things didn't take off right from the start. "What I heard from the insurance representatives I spoke to was a lot of noncommittal, 'that sounds pretty good. Let me know how it develops.'" Until, says Rakic, he bumped into John Sweeney.
Years earlier, Sweeney was with Avemco. And Rakic, being proactively entrepreneurial, thought it might be a good idea to purchase the Avemco.com domain name. Once he had, he approached the company with a plan to develop a web interface for them. Back then, Sweeney was the guy who said "OK." At AirVenture Oshkosh 2011, he was about to help Rakic, again.
Sweeney had since moved from his position as underwriter with Avemco to broker at Air-Pros aircraft insurance, and he had ties throughout the industry. He passed some names and among them was Jim Anderson of Starr Aviation. When Rakic approached Anderson, Anderson listened. And when Rakic later returned with a letter of intent stating that Starr was willing to work with OpenAirplane, Rakic's idea earned life. "No one else had told me 'no,' but once Jim stepped up and said he was willing to work with us by signing a non-binding letter of intent ... that's when we earned permission from the industry to explore the idea and take it further." Unfortunately exploration doesn't make a business. Rakic still hadn't sampled his market.
Fortunately, also among Rakic's earlier entrepreneurial ventures was creation of MyTransponder.com, a social network site for pilots. Through that site, Rakic developed and maintained connections within the industry, including people at AOPA and NAFI, and also grew what would now become his own sample universe of pilots.
Rakic turned to his forum and posted a survey for his roughly 4,000 members. "With Jim [Anderson] on board, I had permission from the industry. In order to have a business, I needed permission from the market." Respondents to Rakic's survey gave him the statistics he needed to move forward. Of his audience, he learned that 28-percent don't fly when they're away from their home base because it's hard to find airplanes. Fully half said they don't fly at other locations because of the added time and expense of required check rides. Rakic was encouraged. OpenAirplane had solutions for those concerns. But what motivated him most was learning that a full 96-percent of those surveyed said they'd fly more if there was an easier way to do it. And 32-percent of those respondents estimated "more" at 10 more hours per year, on average. That spoke to Rakic's own experience and his desire to help the industry he loves.
And so it begins.
OpenAirplane hopes to be online by year-end, and will come to market with a ready group of pre-qualified pilots. Because its check system is based on CAP's, any CAP pilot with a current Form 5 checkride is automatically grandfathered in, pending application and verification. And aside from small independent operators, Rakic says Cessna is now on board, encouraging its Cessna Pilot Centers to join the OpenAirplane network. As more qualified pilots find easier access to aircraft and more operators find a broader base of qualified safe pilots, Rakic expects more of both will sign on. If that happens, out of network operators and pilots could start to feel the negative effects of not opting in. And that would be the tipping point that leads to OpenAirplane's market dominance.
So, will OpenAirplane change the aviation industry? Probably not. Though it's slimming, the possibility still exists that it might not take root at all. But Rod Rakic's plan also stands a chance of achieving exactly what he hopes: to create an incremental and sustained positive impact on a strained industry in a down economy. If all goes well, that's something OpenAirplane just might do.