Fractionals for Small Airplanes: Part II

Can little airplane fractional ownership programs work? There are good signs in our long term test of a fractional Skylane.

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Fractional ownership for small planes

As a kid who grew up with the new math, I learned early on to look at numbers in new and different ways. So I was well prepared, it seems, to take an objective look at a different model of small aircraft ownership, fractionals.

The idea behind fractional ownership is to give the airplane's many owners the impression that each one of them owns the whole darn thing spinner to tail. They also get red carpet treatment from day one with few worries about the everyday concerns that can haunt traditional whole-airplane owners, like surprise annual bills. Just pay and fly. Who wouldn't like the sound of that kind of math problem?

In September, I gave our readers some background about our long-term test of the OurPlane fractional shares program for small airplanes. My major question was, and remains, would this, could this arrangement work? After living with the plan for a few months now, I'm getting to the point where I can form an opinion on it, and it's mostly good news.

My share is in a Cessna Skylane, not an old ratty one that's been around the patch a few thousand times too many, but a brand spanking new model, a 182T loaded with leather seats and a high-end avionics package that includes a multifunction display and a two-axis autopilot with altitude preselect.

I've been looking at buying an airplane for some time now, but the numbers never added up. Renting just made more sense for me and my growing family, because the kind of airplane I could afford, if I owned the whole thing, was less airplane than I wanted and needed. Renting, however, was no fun. It was cheaper than owning, yes, but the downsides were many and real. The airplanes were well traveled, there were often unresolved squawks, plus I needed to be proficient in several airplane and avionics types. These were all problems that would be solved outright with a fractional share.

My biggest fear, however, and I share this with just about everybody else who looks at these programs, was that the airplane wouldn't be available enough. I was ready for it not to be available sometimes, but not a lot. I mean, I would still be spending serious money for my share; I expected some serious usage in return.

As it turns out, the airplane has been available nearly every time I've wanted it, and, more important, it's been available every time I needed it. Not that there haven't been issues; there have been a few squawks. More on them later.

My ownership experience got started with a checkout in the new airplane from a local instructor, who for a day job flies in the left seat of a Global Express. I met him at the airplane's then-home base, Danbury, Connecticut, which is just 35 minutes up the road from my place. Like it is for all OurPlane owners, the checkout time was on the house, and since I had about 75 hours in 182s to begin with, the insurance company was happy with my level of experience and a thorough check ride. It was the usual stuff. Geoff familiarized me with the avionics, we talked airspeeds and systems and we went flying. Geoff signed me off, and I was an OurPlane operative.

Next in line was to go flying by myself in my new airplane. As soon as I got my login information?it took a couple of days?I visited www.ourplane.com and navigated to the Pilot's Login section, where I signed in and took a look at the availability. I wanted the airplane on that Thursday morning, I saw on the online scheduler that it wasn't booked, so I selected the date and my desired time slot and hit submit. That was all there was to it.

Well, almost all. The setup of the scheduler's submit buttons is counterintuitive for me, so it took me a while to get it right. In the process, I called for help and connected with OurPlane's service and a very nice woman who knew nothing about airplanes but who was glad to help me make the reservation.

When I got out to the airport on Thursday to go flying, the airplane had been pulled out of the hangar, the windshield was clean, the tanks were topped off and I was ready to walk around and fire it up. Nice.

Things went this way for a few weeks, and I found the drive to Danbury to be bearable. Then, the airplane moved. What happened was all very understandable. My airplane, which had just five owners in it (out of a possible eight) added a new owner. That gentleman preferred that the airplane be based at Oxford Airport, which is about a half hour's drive further for me than Danbury. All of the other owners, except me, agreed, and the airplane was relocated the next week. My 35-minute drive had turned into an hour-and-five-minute drive, which pushed the limits of the term "bearable." According to my contract, the move was perfectly within OurPlane's rights. It was just a big pain for me.

The next big test of the system came when I decided to fly out to Oshkosh for the annual EAA AirVenture fly-in. I would need the airplane for 10 days. Good news. With the show still two months off, the airplane was wide open for all 10 days. By then I'd figured out the scheduling, and I booked it.

Despite thunderstorms along the route and an unplanned but enjoyable stop in London, Ontario, the trip was great, if a bit pricey. At least I thought it would be. The way the scheduling works, you get charged not only for the hours you fly the airplane, but for the hours you have it and don't fly it. The maximum charge is $21 a day, so my 14-hour round trip cost me $1,400 for the flying time, plus a couple hundred dollars for non-flying time. I didn't object at all. The idea is to discourage owners from scheduling the airplane for long blocks of time without flying it much. The privilege, in my view, is worth it.

As it turned out, it wasn't an issue after all. After Oshkosh I learned that for longer trips, of greater than 500 nautical miles, like my trek to Oshkosh, the extra fees are refunded.

There have been a couple of other minor issues along the way. When I got my new medical in June, I failed to notify OurPlane, and since its records showed that I was without a medical, I was locked out of the scheduling system. A couple of phone calls cleared that up, and I was back scheduling and flying with no lost trips.

So while my experience the first few months hasn't been the perfect one, it has been overall a positive one. The airplane is great, the FBO that supports it, Questair at Oxford, provides first-rate service, and the availability of the airplane, which was my biggest concern going in, has been excellent.

As I write, the airplane has added two new owners, bringing it up to its limit of eight, so I'm curious to see how scheduling will go now. Will I still be able to get it when I want it on most occasions, or will the schedule get noticeably more crowded? Time will tell.

In the meantime, I'll make the schlep up to Oxford and keep my fingers crossed that OurPlane adds an aircraft at White Plains, which is 10 minutes from my home.

Part I - Fractional Ownership of Small Airplanes: Can It Work? Part III - Flying a Fraction of an Airplane