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Navigating Flight-Sharing’s Complicated Skies

Navigating Flight-Sharing’s Complicated Skies

In the decade since Uber made its debut in San Francisco, all sorts of businesses and ideas have been dubbed the “Uber of” something. The Uber of apartments, the Uber of childcare, the Uber of dinner – this list goes on and on. But the French flight-sharing startup Wingly very much looks to avoid that comparison.

Part of that, says Founder Emeric de Waziers, is the basic desire to distinguish their brand. But the more important part of the issue is a legal one. Uber drivers are working for profit; they make money on the rides they provide. While there is a bit of a legal grey area in terms of the proper use of a standard-issue driver’s license and passenger vehicle, and whether or not Uber drivers should be required to get livery licenses, for air travel it is more straightforward: If one is flying a passenger for profit, that person must have a commercial pilot’s license.

Wingly pilots are all licensed, but around 9 out of 10 lack commercial licensing, which means they cannot fly customers. However, they are allowed to fly with guests and request that those guests defer the costs of the flight. Waziers noted that early in the formulation of the company, they realized that amateur pilots want to fly, but are often limited by the costs of going up on their own. Wingly has created an opportunity for them to get more airtime while deferring their costs – and that alone is a significant incentive to join the platform.

“What often happens with hobby pilots is they set a budget for the year. They’re going to fly as many times as they can with this money,” Waziers told a news outlet. “If they can fly four times cheaper, they can fly four times more [often]. We have many pilots posting what we call ‘flexible flights,’ saying, ‘hey, I’m available for a roundtrip from San Francisco to Tahoe.’ The passenger says they’re interested and they book the flight.”

From a regulatory standpoint, air “carpooling” (or planepooling, in this case) is a much lighter lift, and has a simpler licensing requirement than an air taxi service. But that’s not to say they haven’t had regulatory issues.

Though founded in France in 2015, Wingly relocated its headquarters to Germany about a year later. Eventually, and with “some scuffling with French regulators” about the concept, Wingly managed a triumphant return to its home nation and expanded into the U.K. A U.S. expansion is planned, but there are few specific details as of yet.

As of early 2019, the service was reporting 2,000 passengers a month, with each flight averaging 1.8 passengers. If that sounds like a small haul per flight, it is – but the planes themselves are pretty small. Most of the pilots fly single-engine piston planes with between two and six seats.

The flight paths themselves – and Wingly offers several thousand options – are largely focused on sightseeing expeditions and very fast travel from point A to point B. The afternoon jaunt from London to Paris for lunch comes highly recommended.

The challenge that Wingly will face is scale, and pushing up those average flight figures as it pursues a path toward profitability. Flight-sharing is something of a harder concept to launch, so to speak, than ridesharing. While consumers are somewhat used to getting into cars driven by Uber or Lyft drivers they don’t know, climbing into a propeller plane or dual-engine Cessna with a hobby pilot is quite a bit outside their typical experience.

Those who have flown with Wingly, particularly for sightseeing, have reviewed the experience highly, so perhaps all it takes is to get customers into the sky that first time. But that first step is still a big one, and a gap Wingly needs to find a way to coast across.

They aren’t the Uber of air travel, on that Wingly is quite clear. What they do want to be, however, is the first planepooling service to ever get to global scale. A bigger goal, to be sure, but it is the final destination Wingly is targeting.

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