Websites that connect pilots with passengers who are willing to share the cost of a flight in a private plane are making light aviation more accessible. It can be a cheap way to travel, but people need to be aware of the potential pitfalls.The flight I took from a grassy airstrip in North Yorkshire was tremendous fun. There was no long run up. The little plane took to the air almost as soon as we started moving. We flew at the perfect height to get breath-taking views as we followed the coast looking down on Whitby, Scarborough and Robin Hood’s Bay. Listen to Jon’s flight down the Yorkshire coast
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But if I had been relying on this flight to get me to a certain place at a certain time, I would have been disappointed. It had to be rescheduled twice because of the weather.
I had met the pilot, Nathan Missin, through the website, Wingly. It’s one of a number of platforms set up so pilots and passengers can share the costs of a flight. “This is my eighth flight with many more bookings to go,” said Nathan who uses a plane that belongs to his local flying club. “It’s a good way of sharing my hobby, meeting new people and it is more interesting to be honest.”Pilots register online submitting copies of their pilot’s licence, medical certificate, details of their experience and the aircraft they will be flying. Once verified, they are able to publish their planned flights. Any passenger who chooses to join a flight books online and pays a share of its costs.
The websites make money by charging the passengers service fees. No profit allowedPrivate pilots are allowed to carry up to six cost-sharing passengers in a light aircraft providing no profit is made. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) says costs do not have to be shared equally but the pilot must make a contribution.No profit is allowed because that would make it a commercial flight for which an Air Operator Certificate would be needed from the CAA. It is illegal to conduct commercial flights without that certificate. Andrew Waller has been a passenger on eight cost-shared flights from near his home in Oxford.
“I’ve been as far afield as Perranporth down in Cornwall and then done some local sight-seeing flights of about an hour”, he tells me. “The Perranporth trip worked out at about £200. An hour local flight can be as little as £40. It varies depending upon the type of aircraft and the expenses that pilot incurs. “Obviously the view from up there is absolutely stunning”.Last minute cancellationsSome passengers have found the flights can offer a quicker or cheaper alternative to other forms of transport. They can post requests for flights to chosen destinations online, but there is no guarantee a pilot will be available to take them.
Unlike a train which takes people right to the heart of a city, these flights rely on airfields in more remote locations. One of Wingly’s founders, Emeric de Waziers, accepts it is not always a viable means of transportation. “Weather is a really important constraint for light aviation and flights can be cancelled [at] the last minute that’s why we are focussing the company on more leisure types of flights”. Emeric thinks it can work as a means of getting from A to B but says “overall you shouldn’t use Wingly as a business way to travel”.Wingly started in France but launched in the UK in July 2016. To date, it says more than 400 passengers have used it to join cost-shared flights from UK airports.
Other websites – such as Coavmi or Skyuber – offer similar services but Wingly currently claims to be the biggest in the UK in terms of the number of flights being offered. Safety worriesThe growth of these websites can be a boon for pilots who need to fly for a minimum number of hours each year to keep their pilot’s licences so value the chance to find people willing to share their costs.But not all private pilots are enthusiastic about flying with a stranger sitting next to them.
Others worry about the safety of passengers flying with relatively inexperienced pilots who fly for a hobby rather than as a profession. The websites themselves make it clear these are not commercial flights. Prior to a passenger placing a booking, Wingly’s website states: “you should be aware of the fact that safety rules for cost-shared flights are not as strict as they are for commercial flights. This means that there is more risk involved in taking a cost-shared flight than buying a ticket from a commercial airline operator”. The risks are “comparable to car transportation” according to Wingly’s Emeric de Waziers who maintains “it remains something safe to do”.
“At the end of the day the flights are conducted by pilots and those pilots – as per regulations – are responsible for all the safety issues”, says Carlos Oliveira, the co-founder of Skyuber. Anyone with any concerns – either a pilot or a passenger – can cancel at any time without incurring any cost, he adds. The Civil Aviation Authority says that by enabling private pilots to share the cost of flights, it is “anticipated that they will find it easier to remain in current flying practice and therefore maintain high safety standards”. It advises anyone looking to book a seat in a cost-shared flight to conduct their own research and to ask questions prior to any flight.