In California Pilot Trial, AirPooler Offers Ride-Sharing in the Sky

How long are you willing to drive for a weekend getaway?

Steve Lewis figures most folks are willing to drive two or three hours each way. If you live in the Bay Area, that means you might get as far as Mendocino. If you live in San Diego, sandwiched between the ocean and the desert, the drive to Las Vegas can easily take six hours or more.

Lewis, a software executive in Cambridge, MA, figured a lot of people might be willing to throw a few bucks his way if he could make it easy for private pilots to share their ride with passengers willing to pay their share of airplane fuel and tie-down costs. He is in San Diego and Silicon Valley this week to introduce a beta trial of AirPooler, an online platform that matches general aviation pilots and passengers who want to share flights and costs.

“We’re trying to create a whole new repertoire of regional travel experience,” Lewis said. “In a light plane you can travel three times as far as you can in a car over the same period of time.”

In San Diego, Lewis says AirPooler has struck a partnership with the local flying club Pacific Coast Flyers, which enables local AirPooler users to fly out of the McClellan-Palomar Airport near Carlsbad. In Silicon Valley—AirPooler’s second test market—Lewis is working with the Sundance Flying Club, so passengers can fly out of the Palo Alto Airport.

In a statement, Sundance Flying Club CEO Evan Williams says, “We are excited to be at the forefront of demonstrating how the shared economy can promote general aviation by introducing more people to flying.”

The idea is for private pilots to list their recreational flights with empty seats on the AirPooler website. Passengers who book a trip through AirPooler pay only their pro-rata share of the trip’s cost because federal law prohibits private pilots from transporting passengers for hire.

Because of such prohibitions, the AirPooler idea is not so much of an Über for general aviation as it is Couchsurfing in the sky. The law says passengers can only pay for certain operating costs, but Lewis says general aviation pilots are thrilled at the opportunity to defray the cost of flights they are making anyway for personal business or pleasure.

“The plane as an asset is way under-used,” he explained. “Because of rising fuel costs, the average flight-hours for pilot-owners has declined by 30 percent.”

AirPooler charges passengers a percentage of each trip’s cost. As an incentive for early adopters in San Diego and Silicon Valley, the company is offering a discount for the first 25 Xconomy readers who book a flight (use the discount code FLYX).

“One of the things we’ve discovered is that pilots can’t wait to get their hands on this,” Lewis says. “These are pilots who just wouldn’t be flying if they didn’t have someone to share those costs.”

For people who are willing to drive a few hours to get away, AirPooler offers a way to travel farther and a lower cost.

AirPooler Map

AirPooler Map

For example, Lewis says a trip from San Diego to Catalina Island that might take 2½ hours and cost $55 (including ferry) would take only 30 minutes in a single-engine Cessna 180—and would cost only about $24 in fuel and related operating expenses. A 4½-hour drive from Palo Alto to Tahoe that cost $95 would only take one hour and would cost about $49 by plane.

Lewis says he came up with the idea for AirPooler while running product marketing for the Cambridge, MA-based travel technology company ITA Software, which Google acquired in 2010 for $700 million. Lewis founded AirPooler last year with CTO Andy Finke, who previously provided strategic technology consulting services to Zipcar and others.

AirPooler came to California to test the idea because flying conditions are almost always good, Lewis said. “We thought this was a wonderful place, both in terms of pilots flying and in terms of early adopters.”

It seems likely, however, that AirPooler will face the same sort of questions that have bedeviled other sharing-economy startups. Once a friendly cost-sharing arrangement has been formalized through an online business agreement, how is asking passengers to pay a pro rata share substantially different from any other air taxi that transports passengers for hire?

Now that AirPooler is taking off, it shouldn’t be too much longer before the lawsuits start flying.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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