Flying a Fraction of an Airplane: Part III

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OurPlane Fractional Ownership

I recently finished a half-year evaluation of the OurPlane fractional ownership program, taking control of an eighth share in a brand-new Cessna Skylane. I was looking to see if fractional ownership programs, which are modeled loosely after those used for professionally flown business jets, like NetJets, could translate to owner-flown small airplanes.

The OurPlane program sells one-eighth shares in Cessna Skylanes, and Cirrus SR20s and SR22s (among other types), and bases the airplanes at full-service FBOs. Owners buy a share of the airplane and retain equity throughout the program (though OurPlane retains the title). Owners pay a buy-in fee (around $40,000 for a brand-new Skylane) and ante up for hours flown (around $110 for the Skylane) and for management of the airplane ($425 per month for the Silver-level share I had). At the end of the five-year term, the owners can either cash out their equity or roll it over into a new model. My Skylane was originally based at Danbury, Connecticut; after a month it moved to Oxford, Connecticut. It's kept in a heated hangar and rolled out by the FBO, so it's ready to go when the pilot arrives. Red carpet service.

The program and concept sounded great, but I came to it with far more questions than answers. The big four questions-OurPlane tells me that nearly every prospective owner asks the same things-are as follows:

1. Can you really divide a Skylane, or any other light airplane, eight ways? I mean, won't you have eight owners all wanting to the fly the thing to Nantucket on the same sunny summer Saturday?

2. Will the advantages of owning a fraction of a brand-new small airplane outweigh the increased costs? It is more expensive. Will it be worth it?

3. Is this concept viable? And if it isn't and the company folds, what happens to my slice of the Skylane?

4. And finally, what kinds of surprises, both good and bad, might be in store?

Question number 2, flying new versus flying used, was a gimme. I figured that as long as I had good access to it, owning a new airplane would beat the heck out of renting the kinds of old war horses you generally see in the fleet-if you rent, you know what I mean. Still, I underestimated the benefits of flying new. The 2002 Skylane, my 2002 Skylane, with its perfect paint job, plush leather seating and that indescribable new airplane smell, gave me an immediate and dramatic improvement in the quality of my flying life. It had other charms, too, most notably its high-end Bendix/King avionics stack, with a multifunction display, autopilot with altitude preselect and Stormscope. For a guy who for the past seven years had been renting airplanes, many of which soldiered on with missing or "collared" systems, not to mention the interiors, a new airplane was an incredible treat. It was also, I think, a real upgrade in safety.

Of course, none of these theoretical benefits do much for you if you can't get into your airplane when you want to. So the first big question-Can you split a Skylane eight ways?-is critical.

While it doesn't answer the question directly, let me start by saying that for all practical purposes I felt like the sole owner of the airplane, which is exactly the way OurPlane intended it. Although I flew with seven co-owners for the last five months of the evaluation (fewer before that point), during that time, I met another owner only once, when he showed up to take the airplane as I was returning it. The point is, when I showed up at the airport for my airplane, it was there, freshly pulled out of the hanger, clean inside and out, avionics working and no signs of use by any of the other owners. Virtual sole-ownership.

When it came to scheduling the airplane, my experience wasn't perfect, but then again, OurPlane doesn't claim it will be. I did fail to get the airplane when I wanted it on a couple of occasions. Both times were on short notice, once when Mac needed a ride to retrieve his airplane from the repair shop down in Maryland, and another time when the weather was beautiful and I just felt like going up and refamiliarizing myself with the airplane. In both cases, somebody else had the airplane scheduled first, and that's all there was to it. I made other plans. That happens with wholly owned airplanes, too, albeit for other reasons.

Otherwise, I flew the airplane pretty much when I wanted to, often reserving it just the day before for a day trip. I flew it for training, for regional, day-long business trips, for recreational jaunts and for week-long forays. In short, I was able to get the airplane more often and more easily than I had ever hoped.

This level of availability, at least based on my experience, is the result of OurPlane's business plan, which doesn't allow ownership hours to exceed a certain level. For starters, owners ante up for the level of access they want. I was a Silver owner, which afforded me a certain number of hours a year, as well as certain scheduling privileges, such as the ability to schedule further in the future. Gold- and platinum-level owners have even greater privileges, along with more flying hours per year. Also, there are limits on the number of days you can take the airplane away from home, and you get charged a nominal fee for hours you have the airplane but don't fly it.

The overall experience was helped by OurPlane's good customer service. The operation is still small enough that I, like the other owners, was on a first name basis with the employees. For example, when my medical was incorrectly listed as being expired-I had forgotten to fax my updated certificate-I simply called up Mike Huffman, OurPlane's operations manager, and he fixed things on the spot. This was one of at least a half dozen occasions when help was just a phone call or e-mail away. Also, the FBO that managed the airplane at Oxford, QuestAir, did a good job at keeping it clean, gassed up and warm.

Bear in mind that the system worked even with a single airplane at our location. With two or three identical Skylanes at the site, as OurPlane expects to happen if the program takes off, the availability goes up a great deal.

One of the most attractive features of shared ownership is the opportunity to fly airplanes other than "yours." Bizjet fractional owners almost never fly their N-numbered airplane. Instead, it's part of a pool of identical airplanes that they share with other owners. They don't fly their particular airplane; they fly the closest one. A share agreement, which allows any owner to fly any other OurPlane airplane, is part of OurPlane's basic plan. Sharing isn't yet part of day-to-day operations at most locations. Rather, it's used when a shareowner is traveling and wants to use an OurPlane airplane in another area.

I did just that when I flew out to Southern California for the AOPA Convention last fall. While my Skylane is based in Connecticut, I was also able to fly an identical Skylane based at San Diego's Montgomery Field. Again, Mike Huffman helped me make the arrangements. I flew in to the international airport, took a cab to Montgomery, filed my IFR flight plan, hopped in the airplane and flew up the coast. It couldn't have gone more smoothly. According to OurPlane, few owners are taking advantage of this program feature, but I loved it. Had I been an actual owner and not an aviation journalist doing a review, I would have used Skylanes at every company location. At last check, they numbered six: Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary in Canada, and Oxford, San Diego (MYF) and San Francisco (SQL) in the States. The company is also actively marketing shares in Houston, Los Angeles and New York (HPN). OurPlane also planned to begin selling airplanes in Florida this spring.

As to the fourth question-would there be any surprises? The answer was "yes."

The surprises came in both the good and bad varieties. First, I was amazed at how much nicer it is to own a new airplane than a used one. New ones, especially after the first few months when bugs are being worked out, are simply more reliable than used ones. While this sounds painfully obvious, I'd been renting for long enough that I was shocked by the difference in quality of life. With rentals, I was used to having a squawk or two every time I returned the airplane. With the Skylane, I only had one squawk the entire time I was in the program, and my airplane was never out of service for longer than it took to change the oil. That's luxury, and I'm now officially spoiled.

The second lesson I learned-though it's not necessarily related to the OurPlane program-is just how important location is. As I said, at the beginning of the evaluation, the Skylane was based at Danbury, a 35-minute drive from my home and office. After a month, OurPlane moved it to Oxford, which, while arguably a better facility, is about an hour-and-fifteen minute long drive for me. The move was for a good reason. The vast majority of the actual owners wanted it in Oxford, which was closer for them. A two-and-a-half-hour roundtrip for me, however, kept me from using the airplane as much as I otherwise would have.

The final question we came into the program with-What kind of financial risks are involved?-is left essentially unanswered. OurPlane's president, Graham Casson, says it's doing fine, and while the economic downturn hasn't helped anybody, OurPlane continues to grow, adding owners, airplanes-it's up to 11 at this writing-and locations. Existing OurPlane airplanes are 80 percent sold out, and availability, says the company, is even better than it had projected.

Is that a guarantee of long-term success? It's hard to say, but I do feel confident of a few things: Fractional ownership of small airplanes can work. My experience couldn't have been much better. It can also let people who could not afford a new airplane, or who can't justify the expense of one because they don't fly enough, to get into a shiny new model. Once more prospective owners figure that out, programs such as OurPlane could really take off, giving pilots a great new ownership option.

Part I - Fractional Ownership of Small Airplanes: Can It Work? Part II - Flying By Fractions