Fly­ing high Hitch a ride with the ‘Uber of the skies’

Fancy find­ing a cheap flight on a pri­vate air­craft head­ing across the Chan­nel, nip­ping across the So­lent or sight­see­ing over the Dales? Flight-shar­ing web­sites can help. Ru­pert Jones re­ports

The Guardian - - CLASSIFIED -

We’ve had cars and bikes, and now the shar­ing econ­omy is go­ing air­borne with ser­vices that al­low the pub­lic to take to the skies in an af­ford­able way.

Flight-shar­ing web­sites such as Wingly claim to be bring­ing pri­vate avi­a­tion to the masses and giv­ing or­di­nary peo­ple the chance to pop over to France for lunch in a pri­vate plane, or nip across to the Isle of Wight for tea, with­out hav­ing to take out a sec­ond mort­gage.

Flights from the south coast to the Isle of Wight start at about £26 each way per per­son, with day trips from just out­side Lon­don to the French re­sorts of Deauville and Le Tou­quet from £66 each way (see box at right).

Wingly con­nects pri­vate pi­lots with mem­bers of the pub­lic so they can share the cost of a flight, and has been var­i­ously dubbed “the Uber of the skies” and “the Airbnb of avi­a­tion”. Most of the pi­lots fly small sin­gle-en­gine pis­ton planes with be­tween two and six seats.

The web­site spe­cialises in sight­see­ing trips and ex­cur­sions, as well as of­fer­ing a speedy way of get­ting from A to B. In ad­di­tion to north­ern France, the Isle of Wight and the Chan­nel Is­lands, pop­u­lar destinations in­clude York, Ox­ford and Cam­bridge.

But if you are the sort of per­son who trav­els a lot for busi­ness and was think­ing this could be a good al­ter­na­tive to tak­ing a train or fly­ing with the likes of Ryanair, then think again – this is all about leisure travel.

Based in France, Wingly now has 3,000 UK pi­lots on its books – across Europe the fig­ure is 10,000 – but it is not a com­mer­cial air­line or a char­ter ser­vice, and it is also not an “on-de­mand” ser­vice in the style of Uber. The vast ma­jor­ity of the pi­lots have day jobs, so it is likely it will take a few days to ar­range things. And be aware that flights may be can­celled for any rea­son in­clud­ing weather con­di­tions or be­cause the pi­lot’s plans have changed. There are no sched­uled routes – you are sim­ply shar­ing a ride.

Wingly isn’t the only flight­shar­ing ser­vice op­er­at­ing in the UK – oth­ers in­clude fel­low French-

based com­pany Coavmi. Both were name-checked in a May 2018 blog by the UK’s Civil Avi­a­tion Au­thor­ity (CAA), which some might view as an en­dorse­ment of sorts.

Wingly is al­most cer­tainly the big­gest player. It op­er­ates in the UK, France and Ger­many, takes a com­mis­sion on all flights, and says that more than 150,000 peo­ple have signed up to use the ser­vice. How­ever, ac­cord­ing to a re­port on avi­a­tion news web­site Flyer this week, “sev­eral air­fields have banned Wingly op­er­a­tions”, so it has clearly not all been smooth sail­ing.

The big sell­ing point for pri­vate pi­lots is that flight-shar­ing can help them cut the cost of their pricey hobby. Un­til re­cently, pi­lots could only share these costs with friends or fel­low fly­ing club mem­bers. How­ever, the CAA says that “thanks to the in­tro­duc­tion of a reg­u­la­tion by the EU”, these costs can now be shared by up to six peo­ple in­clud­ing the pi­lot, while re­stric­tions on ad­ver­tis­ing have also been re­moved, al­low­ing on­line plat­forms to match up pi­lots and pas­sen­gers.

Roughly speak­ing, it costs about £150 an hour to fly a pri­vate plane, and the av­er­age cost of us­ing Wingly is £50 per per­son per hour, says a spokesman. As the ma­jor­ity of the Wingly flights carry two pas­sen­gers, us­ing the plat­form al­lows a pi­lot to cut their ex­penses by about two-thirds.

Would-be pas­sen­gers can search on the site for flights de­part­ing from their area, or by des­ti­na­tion, price and so on. While some of the flights listed are on spe­cific dates, most are flex­i­ble – users typ­i­cally mes­sage the pi­lot to dis­cuss dates and re­quire­ments.

The price de­pends on a num­ber of things, in­clud­ing how many peo­ple are shar­ing the flight and the length of the jour­ney. And there are likely to be lim­its on the amount of lug­gage.

The ser­vice seems to be par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar with peo­ple look­ing for a novel way to cel­e­brate a spe­cial oc­ca­sion such as a birth­day or wed­ding an­niver­sary.

Fly­ing to Bem­bridge on the Isle of Wight is one of the most pop­u­lar trips of­fered by Wingly pi­lot Steve Batch­e­lor, 57, who signed up with the plat­form in De­cem­ber 2017 and owns a four-seat Piper Warrior which he keeps at So­lent air­port in Hampshire.

Batch­e­lor, who lives near Chich­ester, has been a pi­lot for eight years. Since join­ing the plat­form he has done about 20 trips, the fur­thest of which was to Alder­ney in the Chan­nel Is­lands.

Asked how much pas­sen­gers typ­i­cally pay, he says: “Most of the trips seem to be around £50 to £100 re­turn ... It’s worked out well for me – I’m fly­ing more than I ever did be­fore. It’s great to meet new peo­ple.”

Flight-shar­ing is per­fectly le­gal, though pi­lots are not al­lowed to make a profit, and the CAA says the “di­rect costs” must be shared be­tween all the plane’s oc­cu­pants, in­clud­ing the pi­lot, up to a max­i­mum of six peo­ple. Di­rect costs means those di­rectly in­curred in re­la­tion to a flight such as fuel and air­field charges.

Wingly han­dles the pay­ments and col­lects the money from pas­sen­gers via cards or PayPal.

Fly­ing by pri­vate plane will be re­garded by some as dan­ger­ous, and it ar­guably is: UK fig­ures for 2016 show that while there were no fa­tal­i­ties or se­ri­ous in­juries in­volv­ing com­mer­cial air trans­port that year, there were 21 fa­tal­i­ties and 28 se­ri­ous in­juries in­volv­ing pri­vate fly­ing. But the CAA has said in the past that you are more likely to die rock climb­ing or horse rid­ing.

What about cus­toms and im­mi­gra­tion if you are fly­ing to, say, France? Talk to your pi­lot be­fore you go about any­thing you may need to do. You will need to take your pass­port. The rules will vary de­pend­ing on the air­field – with some, the pi­lot will need to sub­mit de­tails in ad­vance, and there will usu­ally be some­one there who is re­spon­si­ble for check­ing UK vis­i­tors.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: STEVE BATCH­E­LOR

▲ Tak­ing con­trol … Wingly of­fers the chance to book be­spoke plane trips

Wingly pi­lot Steve Batch­e­lor’s Piper Warrior air­craft

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