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This month, ExpertFlyer talks with Steve Lewis, founder and CEO of AirPooler, a platform that lets pilots and travelers easily find one another to share expenses on private flights the pilots would be doing anyway.
— Steve Lewis, CEO of AirPooler
Where does AirPooler fit in to the air travel industry? In terms of price and accessibility, is your service a real option for the regular air traveler?
Private pilots have been ride-sharing since the days of the Wright brothers. AirPooler is just making it much easier to do. In terms of how this fits into the world of aviation, these are small planes (single or double prop) that fly to smaller general aviation airports that are almost never served by commercial airlines. At the same time, weather is a big factor for smaller planes and pilots cancel or change flight plans often. So ride-sharing on small planes is not a substitute for regular air travel. It is a different option that people can use to expand the range of their regional leisure travel.
Who is your typical passenger and how are they using your service most effectively?
AirPooler’s typical passenger is tech savvy, loves to travel and explore but is short on time and careful about how she/he uses it. They’ll use AirPooler to do something, or go somewhere that otherwise wouldn’t have been an option – especially for short durations like weekends.
How do you vet pilots? If experience is the most important contributor to air safety, are pilots screened by hours of flight time?
AirPooler facilitates pilot and passenger ride-sharing and does not itself offer transportation services or in any way become involved in vetting pilots or the airworthiness of airplanes. However, we work closely with well-regarded pilot clubs which have extensive programs and resources devoted to safety and pilot training.
What types of planes are used and how many people can be accommodated per flight?
Most airplanes are piston-driven single or double propeller planes that can seat from 2 to 6 people, including the pilot. In practice, because of weight limitations, most planes fly with less than their full passenger payload.
How much lead time is required to book a flight with AirPooler?
Most pilots decide on their flight plans a maximum of 4-5 days out. Depending on the popularity of the destination, available spots can fill very quickly or remain open. And since these are flights the pilots would be doing anyway, passengers can often find rides to share very close to departure.
AirPooler was launched last year with service in California. What markets are you servicing now and where are you expanding to within the next few years?
Just to clarify: AirPooler launched to the public in California in March of this year, following a multi-month private beta. We’ve received hundreds of inquiries from pilots and prospective passengers around the country who want to know when the service will be available in their home airports. We’re trying to figure this out now.
Do you think AirPooler will reach critical mass, such that major commercial air carriers will feel a pinch from you competitively? How many flights are you facilitation a month now?
As I mentioned, AirPooler pilots fly mainly to smaller airports that are not served commercially so ride-sharing is not really a substitute for flying commercial. As a small private company, we do not disclose overall usage numbers for competitive reasons.
Is the key benefit to pilots using this service filling empty seats? What’s their feedback been?
Yes. The cost of flying has continued to grow with increasing fuel prices, forcing many pilots to cut back dramatically on their flying time. So, defraying some of their costs is a big deal for most pilots. But many pilots also value companionship.
Are you looking at offering any type of frequent flyer rewards program in the future?
Most likely not. Federal regulations prohibit pilots from taking compensation (passengers on AirPooler pay only their pro-rata share of a trip’s costs) and require pilots and passengers to have bona fide independent reasons for making any trip. We would not want to introduce incentives that may interfere with that.
There have been other startups that have launched similar travel options, like BlackJet and SurfAir. How is AirPooler different and better and how will you succeed where they failed?
BlackJet sold discounted seats on chartered jets. Even discounted, the economics of that are incredibly different: at least $4000 an hour for jet travel, vs. $50-100 an hour on light airplanes. So these are totally different audiences. SurfAir is a commercial airline that operates on a membership basis: customers pay a monthly fee and get “all you can fly.” Flights listed on AirPooler are by private pilots, on a non-commercial basis.