Airpooler wants to let you hitch a ride on private planes

A plane prepares to take off at Hanscom Field in Bedford.
A plane prepares to take off at Hanscom Field in Bedford.

Hate the endless car trip to Bar Harbor, the car-plus-ferry trip to the Vineyard, or the pokey Amtrak to Albany? A startup called Airpooler is launching in Boston this week with a speedier solution: hitch a ride on a private plane.

Airpooler is working with local flying clubs like the East Coast Aero Club to help pilots fill empty seats with riders who can share expenses, whether they’re heading to the Berkshires for the weekend or just doing a quick flight up to Jaffrey, New Hampshire, to grab a burger and shake at Kimball Farm.

Co-founder Steve Lewis says that about 20 to 25 percent of private pilots are doing some sort of sightseeing trip, and the rest have a specific destination in mind. “We estimate that there are about 20,000 to 30,000 pilots flying recreationally in New England, and we think that’s a conservative number,” says Lewis. “It could be as high as 40,000 to 50,000.” Lewis is a former marketing exec at ITA Software, a Cambridge travel software firm that is now part of Google.

Andrew Finke, the other co-founder of Airpooler, adds that if pilots had a way to share fuel costs and aircraft rental fees — most or Airpoolers’ target pilots rent instead of own their planes — they would fly more often. “Cost is a big blocker to their flying more,” says Finke. More pilots flying to more places could create a nice network effect for Airpooler, making it easy to grab a lift for that day trip to Block Island or a weekend in Stowe.

But Lewis expects that at least 90 percent of the planes listing empty seats through Airpooler will be single-engine, piston-powered planes, flown by one pilot. Not everyone is game for that kind of travel experience — which can be cramped, bouncy, and hindered by bad weather. (There’s also no bathroom, and you’ve got to be completely honest about how much you weigh, since the plane’s take-off weight is an important safety issue.)

SteveLewisPhotoBut Lewis says that Airpooler, at the outset, is only working with pilots who are members of flying clubs like East Coast or Associated Pilots. “They have processes in place for vetting pilots, and ensuring the airworthiness of the planes,” he explains. They also have insurance policies for the pilots who rent their planes, which typically cover the passengers as well as damage to the airplane, says Lewis, pictured at right.

Because Airpooler is facilitating flights with private pilots, and isn’t a certified charter operator or scheduled airline, FAA rules strictly state that the pilot can’t be paid — only reimbursed for certain expenses, on a pro rata basis. So if there’s one pilot and one passenger in the plane, the passenger can’t pay more than 50 percent of costs like fuel, aircraft rental, and airport landing or parking fees. (If the pilot owns the plane, the passenger can’t chip in for maintenance or other costs related to its operation.) So Airpooler’s system calculates the allowable shared cost for each flight, bills the passenger, and passes the money on to the pilot after the flight — minus a transaction fee. Lewis says they’re still experimenting with that amount, but it will likely be in the 10 to 15 percent range.

William Herp, the founder of Linear Air, an air taxi and charter business based at Hanscom, says that services like Airpooler could attract scrutiny from the Federal Aviation Administration. The central issue is that the FAA doesn’t want recreational pilots flying to destinations at the behest of passengers. So everyone in the plane needs a “common purpose” for the trip. Lewis says that the FAA has interpreted “common purpose” to mean that “each party must have an independent reason for going to the destination/airport, but not that their business at that destination needs to be identical.” Herp says, “I certainly wouldn’t want to risk my license by listing a ride share and becoming a poster boy for the feds figuring out where they ultimately stand.” (Herp holds an Airline Transport Pilot License, which allows him to ferry passengers for pay.)

Neither Lewis or Finke are pilots, but Lewis says, “We both have a passion for flying.” Wisely, Airpooler’s legal counsel is a former Assistant Chief Counsel for Regulation at the FAA.

With travelers increasingly hitching rides around the city with amateur chauffeurs from services like Sidecar, Uber, and Lyft, could air travel be next? Lewis is optimistic: “Consumers have embraced the shared economy.” And another Boston startup, Flytenow, is trying to launch a similar business. (I mentioned Flytenow in this recent Globe column on plane-sharing.)

But getting Airpooler off the ground will be a challenge. As with any marketplace business, “in unison, you need to bring in enough pilots and people who are going to fly,” Lewis says. “Getting to critical mass fast is important.”

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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