Some readers might remember that starting back about five years I wrote a series of articles about my experiences flying with two separate small airplane fractional ownership operations: OurPlane and AirShares Elite. The experiences were very positive, and I came to believe that shared ownership (as it came to be called) would be a major factor in the revitalization of general aviation once word got out that the concept, which everyone loves, works in the real world. Today it's no secret. It really does work. The biggest problem with the concept is that it's not widely available yet. Even though OurPlane and AirShares have both expanded since I wrote about flying with them, availability is still limited to a growing handful of urban centers.
So imagine my surprise back in early 2005 when soon after I arrived in my new home of Austin, Texas, I began getting mailings from a shared ownership company I'd never heard of before and based, quite remarkably, right there in Austin. I was delighted at my luck.
But to be honest, I was skeptical too. I knew from covering the beat that running such a business takes a lot of three rare commodities: money, smarts and commitment. Would this new company, PlaneSmart, have what it took?
Flash forward to this year. I was the part owner - it's a long story, but I still am - of a 1974 Cherokee Six, and I was looking to sell my share and find other lift options. It was right at that time that my phone rang. Who else would be on the other end of the line but Jeff Cullen, the guy who had started PlaneSmart. I was impressed that the company had lasted long enough for him to make the call, but I wasn't surprised any more, as I'd been following the progress of PlaneSmart as it grew.
Cullen wasted little time in asking if I was interested in doing a long-term evaluation of their shared ownership offering. I was, but naturally I wanted to learn more about the program and the company before I made any kind of commitment. We made a date, and a few days later I met at the company's offices at Austin's Bergstrom International Airport with Cullen and investment partner Adam Wagner, both pilots.
They told me that Cullen started laying the groundwork for PlaneSmart several years ago, realizing that such an endeavor would take a lot of preparation and some serious funding. The latter part of the puzzle started to come into place when Cullen met Wagner, a veteran high-tech venture capitalist. It took a while for him to convince Wagner that shared airplane ownership was a good bet, but once he got to know Cullen and the business plan, he was, as they say at the Texas poker table, all in.
Today, two years after it opened for business with a single SR22, PlaneSmart has six airplanes, four SR22-G2s and two SR20-G2s, more than 30 share owners and two locations, Austin and, now, Dallas' Addison Airport, where PlaneSmart last year established a headquarters, with 6,400 square feet of hangar/office space. Within the next year, PlaneSmart plans to add between six and eight airplanes at the two locations.
And even more growth is around the corner. The company is looking to expand more in Texas and farther west, too, with locations planned for Houston, San Antonio and Phoenix in 2007 (with two airplanes at each site) and locations in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas in 2008, with five airplanes serving multiple airports at each place.
Since the beginning, PlaneSmart has specialized in Cirrus airplanes, and the relationship with Cirrus has been a strong one, especially when it comes to training. While it's impossible to grow a fleet and keep the airplanes identical - Cirrus's regular updating of the platform ensures that - PlaneSmart has gone to great lengths to come as close as possible. Every one of its airplanes is outfitted with air conditioning, some with the aftermarket product and some with factory installed A/C, and they all have XM Weather, XM Radio and C-Max charts, Cirrus' version of JeppView for the cockpit.
PlaneSmart owners have the benefit of a standard shared owner-ship interchange agreement: You can fly any of PlaneSmart's SR22s if yours isn't available. This is one of the biggest advantages to shared ownership programs with multiple airplanes.
Taking the PlungeTo really know how good a shared ownership company is, you have to experience the program, which is what I did with both OurPlane and AirShares Elite. So after learning about the program, I signed up with PlaneSmart on a year's lease agreement to do what I hoped would be a thorough evaluation of its program. When it comes to the popular SR22-G2, the most popular share size by far is an eighth share (12.5 percent). That slice of an SR22 pie costs $71,900, with a $760 monthly management fee and hourly operating cost, including the current fuel price adjustment, of around $90 per hour. For that you get 75 hours a year of flying time, with 21 overnights. There's a lot of flexibility built into the system. Owners can carry over 25 percent of their hours to the next calendar year, or they can "borrow" 25 percent from the following year. Moreover, although they have to pay for training - including the initial training, a one-time charge of $1,850 - training hours aren't deducted from their overall allotment. Moreover, each owner can fly up to 15 hours a year on charitable pursuits without those hours being charged against the 75-hour allotment.
For their sizable investment, PlaneSmart customers get use of the airplanes, of course; aircraft registration services; hull and liability insurance; paid fuel and oil; charts; database updates; online and telephone scheduling; annual IFR recurrent training when requested; maintenance and maintenance management; and more. It's a comprehensive package that leaves very little for the pilot to do except train, schedule and fly.
To qualify for the program, SR22 pilots are required to have a private pilot certificate and instrument rating, and to go through the SR22 transition course and a biennial flight review. SR20 pilots, in addition to the transition course and private ticket, need only be working on an instrument rating. If you were wondering what the minimum time requirements are, wonder no more. There aren't any, so long, that is, as the pilot shows proficiency as demonstrated by meeting the other requirements. Cullen admits that the requirement of a private pilot certificate and instrument rating imply a certain number of hours, but nowhere close to the 750 hours or so once required by insurance companies of pilots looking to get into an airplane as fast and valuable as the SR22.
While share sales are what PlaneSmart does, Cullen says that "the airplane represents only about 20 percent of what we do." He stresses, instead, that the mission of the company is to provide management services to its customers, a difficult job to excel at, he admits, and one that requires tremendous responsiveness and attention to detail, starting from first contact and continuing through training and the entire ownership process. In fact, PlaneSmart emphasizes this point by referring to itself as a "professionally managed shared aircraft ownership" (PMSO) company.