PlaneSmart: A New Shared Ownership Option

A New Shared Ownership Option

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PlaneSmart affords the benefits of ownership, but with shared costs.

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.

PlaneSmart Training My one-eighth share lease agreement on a PlaneSmart SR22-G2 began, as it does for every PlaneSmart customer, with a thorough checkout. Even though I have around 150 hours in SR22s, I had to go through the same 10-hour training period as every new customer. For more than a year PlaneSmart has been a Cirrus Authorized Training Center, a move that allowed it to negotiate the minimums-free insurance coverage. So its training follows procedures established by the manufacturer.

At first, the 10 hours of training seemed a bit excessive, but after my first day, I realized I not only had a lot to brush up on, but I had a lot to learn still.

PlaneSmart uses highly experienced professional pilots to conduct all of its initial and most of its recurrent training. I flew my first rides with the company's chief pilot, Rick Khalar, who also flies a King Air for the University of Texas system, and Tom Travis, who flew widebodied airliners for American for a few decades. They are two of the best instructors I've ever had the pleasure of flying with. And all of PlaneSmart's instructors are Cirrus Standardized Instructor Pilots (CSIP), so you know you're getting factory standard training.

Like all of its employees, the instructors at PlaneSmart seem to recognize the importance of giving the client the kind of attention he needs. And both Khalar and Travis, I'd like to add, were well aware of the airports in Central Texas that are closest to the best barbeque joints. (And on this subject, I have two words to say: "Llano and Cooper's.")

The training consisted of basic familiarization with the SR22-G2, standard airwork and operating, emergency and instrument procedures. After eight hours, I'd felt as though I'd had a very thorough checkout in the SR22 and I felt good to go. My last two hours were spent flying the SR22 and the SR20 in real world situations (so-called "scenario-based" training) with a flight up to Dallas in the '22 and back to Austin in the '20 with PlaneSmart instructor and marketing manager Debbie Norman (who's also type rated in the Falcon 20, by the way), another excellent instructor.

Part of the "training" program is to familiarize customers with the way they can interact with PlaneSmart. The company has an excellent website, planesmart.com, where you can check on availability or book a flight. You can also check or pay your bill there, review recent flights and training, go over your account details and much more. In general, I prefer to arrange flights over the phone, which I can do by calling PlaneSmart at its 800-number from anywhere in the country.

In the System My first trip after my checkout was out to Albuquerque, and the process couldn't have been easier. I stopped by the Trajen Flight Support (now Atlantic Aviation) terminal at Austin Bergstrom, where I picked up the keys to the airplane. The SR22 was already fueled, as I'd requested when I made my reservation, and it, like all of PlaneSmart's airplanes, had four Bose headsets ready to go. Plus, PlaneSmart had put all my IFR charts (and some backup VFR) charts in the airplane, as well. And because they knew I'd be flying up high on my way up to Albuquerque, the ops guys did me the favor of putting a portable oxygen system in the airplane for me, too. Well taken care of? It's hard to imagine it being much better.

In addition to my Albuquerque trip, I've so far flown the SR22 to Oshkosh for AirVenture, to Wichita and to Dallas on numerous occasions. And I've got two trips planned soon to California and another to Florida. I've gotten the airplane every time I've scheduled it, too, even once when Shannon Bookout, the company's customer care representative, had to do some serious juggling to make that happen, due to two airplanes being in for upgrades-one was getting its air conditioning system installed.

So far I've flown about 35 hours in PlaneSmart airplanes, including my 10 hours of training, and that number is set to almost double within the next couple of months. Will I be able to stay within my 75 allotted annual hours and 21 overnights? Probably, but it will be close. Then again, I fly a lot more than the average pilot, about twice as much in fact. Last year I flew about 150 hours total, not counting logable simulator time, so if it's close for me, it should be easy for most pilots. In fact, Cullen says that many pilots come to the program worried about exceeding their overnights and allotted hours, and he says it very seldom happens. And for those who need, or want, to fly more, PlaneSmart offers up to half shares in the SR22-G2, with 300 annual allotted hours. While PlaneSmart is the new kid on the shared ownership block, so far my time with them has been my best yet, and my previous experiences with OurPlane and AirShares Elite were both great.

As Cullen himself says, it's not cheap to own a share of a professionally managed airplane, but PlaneSmart so far has made the experience seem well worth it. For more information check out planesmart.com, and see additional information about fractional ownership, including frequently asked questions and archived stories about my experiences flying with OurPlane and AirShares Elite, on flyingmag.com.

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