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Business aims to make it easier for pilots to rent small planes

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, June 20, 2013, at 6:59 a.m.

A Chicago-based startup with Kansas ties aims to make renting airplanes easier for pilots and more profitable for their owners.

OpenAirplane opened for business this week, announcing it had partnerships with six fixed-base operators and flight training schools in six cities: New York; Los Angeles; San Jose, Calif.; Detroit; Chicago; and Kissimmee, Fla.

Chicago pilot Rod Rakic and software builder Adam Fast of Lawrence are behind the company, which operates a Web portal that allows pilots to rent small airplanes the same way people rent cars.

Typically, a pilot who rents an airplane has to be checked out on the airplane by a flight instructor before using it. That’s a process that can last an hour or more and is repeated every time a pilot rents an airplane from a different operator.

OpenAirplane’s aim is to eliminate that costly process. Its concept is that a licensed pilot would register as a member at openairplane.com. By registering — it is free — the pilot also agrees to participate in its universal pilot checkout, which is performed annually by a certified flight instructor who is part of OpenAirplane’s network. The checkout requires an oral examination and flight time with an instructor, who grades the pilot on a pass/fail basis. Pilots who complete the checkout are able to rent an airplane at a participating OpenAirplane FBO or flight school for the next 12 months, without having to do the checkout every time. Rakic added that the universal pilot checkout will also give pilots a 10 percent discount on the cost of their rental insurance.

About 5,800 pilots have signed up on the site so far.

“What we think it will do for the market, it will create a significant amount of incremental flying … and hopefully increase utilization,” said Rakic, who said he has 750 flight hours as a commercial-rated pilot.

The other key element to the company’s business plan is that via its website searches, pilots can locate aircraft to rent, view an extensive profile of each specific airplane including a dozen photos, and book a time to rent the airplane. OpenAirplane also handles the billing of the rental and payment to the operator. It makes its money by taking a percentage of the rental fee it collects for the operator.

The company hopes to leverage an endorsement from Cessna, which it received last fall, to increase the number of participating operators. In November the company was named an endorsed partner to the Cessna Pilot Center program, which Cessna officials in Wichita confirmed this week.

As of now, the partnering operators offer light sport aircraft and single-engine pistons for rent. Rakic expects the aircraft variety to increase as OpenAirplane adds operators. He said he expects to announce two more operators — in Naples and Tallahassee, Fla. — to the OpenAirplane network by the end of this week. “We have almost 50 locations in the pipeline,” Rakic said.

And when does he expect OpenAirplane to make its way to Kansas? “We got a call from an operator in Kansas (Monday) … (but) we don’t have a commitment, yet,” Rakic said.

Reach Jerry Siebenmark at 316-268-6576 or jsiebenmark@wichitaeagle.com.

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