We’ve had cars and bikes, and now the sharing economy is going airborne with services that allow the public to take to the skies in an affordable way.
Flight-sharing websites such as Wingly claim to be bringing private aviation to the masses and giving ordinary people the chance to pop over to France for lunch in a private plane, or nip across to the Isle of Wight for tea, without having to take out a second mortgage.
Flights from the south coast to the Isle of Wight start at about £26 each way per person, with day trips from just outside London to the French resorts of Deauville and Le Touquet from £66 each way (see box at right).
Wingly connects private pilots with members of the public so they can share the cost of a flight, and has been variously dubbed “the Uber of the skies” and “the Airbnb of aviation”. Most of the pilots fly small single-engine piston planes with between two and six seats.
The website specialises in sightseeing trips and excursions, as well as offering a speedy way of getting from A to B. In addition to northern France, the Isle of Wight and the Channel Islands, popular destinations include York, Oxford and Cambridge.
But if you are the sort of person who travels a lot for business and was thinking this could be a good alternative to taking a train or flying with the likes of Ryanair, then think again – this is all about leisure travel.
Based in France, Wingly now has 3,000 UK pilots on its books – across Europe the figure is 10,000 – but it is not a commercial airline or a charter service, and it is also not an “on-demand” service in the style of Uber. The vast majority of the pilots have day jobs, so it is likely it will take a few days to arrange things. And be aware that flights may be cancelled for any reason including weather conditions or because the pilot’s plans have changed. There are no scheduled routes – you are simply sharing a ride.
Wingly isn’t the only flight-sharing service operating in the UK – others include fellow French-based company Coavmi. Both were name-checked in a May 2018 blog by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which some might view as an endorsement of sorts. Another company that was ploughing this furrow, called Skyüber, apparently couldn’t make a go of it and threw in the towel last year, and Guardian Money couldn’t find out much about one that we found online called Share My Flight.
Wingly is almost certainly the biggest player. It operates in the UK, France and Germany, takes a commission on all flights, and says that more than 150,000 people have signed up to use the service. However, according to a report on aviation news website Flyer this week, “several airfields have banned Wingly operations”, so it has clearly not all been smooth sailing.
The big selling point for private pilots is that flight-sharing can help them cut the cost of their pricey hobby. Until recently, pilots could only share these costs with friends or fellow flying club members. However, the CAA says that “thanks to the introduction of a regulation by the EU”, these costs can now be shared by up to six people including the pilot, while restrictions on advertising have also been removed, allowing online platforms to match up pilots and passengers.
Roughly speaking, it costs about £150 an hour to fly a private plane, and the average cost of using Wingly is £50 per person per hour, says a spokesman. As the majority of the Wingly flights carry two passengers, using the platform allows a pilot to cut their expenses by about two-thirds.
Would-be passengers can search on the site for flights departing from their area, or by destination, price and so on. While some of the flights listed are on specific dates, most are flexible – users typically message the pilot to discuss dates and requirements.
The price depends on a number of things, including how many people are sharing the flight and the length of the journey. And there are likely to be limits on the amount of luggage.
The service seems to be particularly popular with people looking for a novel way to celebrate a special occasion such as a birthday or wedding anniversary.
Flying to Bembridge on the Isle of Wight is one of the most popular trips offered by Wingly pilot Steve Batchelor, 57, who signed up with the platform in December 2017 and owns a four-seat Piper Warrior which he keeps at Solent airport in Hampshire.
Batchelor, who lives near Chichester, has been a pilot for eight years. Since joining the platform he has done about 20 trips, the furthest of which was to Alderney in the Channel Islands.
Asked how much passengers typically pay, he says: “Most of the trips seem to be around £50 to £100 return … It’s worked out well for me – I’m flying more than I ever did before. It’s great to meet new people.”
Flight-sharing is perfectly legal, though pilots are not allowed to make a profit, and the CAA says the “direct costs” must be shared between all the plane’s occupants, including the pilot, up to a maximum of six people. Direct costs means those directly incurred in relation to a flight such as fuel and airfield charges.
Wingly handles the payments and collects the money from passengers via cards or PayPal.
Flying by private plane will be regarded by some as dangerous, and it arguably is: UK figures for 2016 show that while there were no fatalities or serious injuries involving commercial air transport that year, there were 21 fatalities and 28 serious injuries involving private flying. But the CAA has said in the past that you are more likely to die rock climbing or horse riding. Meanwhile, the CAA blog aimed at pilots stated that “flying with strangers opens new potential issues ranging from security and personal safety to insurance implications”.
What about customs and immigration if you are flying to, say, France? Talk to your pilot before you go about anything you may need to do. You will need to take your passport. The rules will vary depending on the airfield – with some, the pilot will need to submit details in advance, and there will usually be someone there who is responsible for checking UK visitors.
Trips on Wingly this week
• The London city skyline from the air for £50 per person, flying from Damyns Hall aerodrome in Upminster, Essex
• A day trip from Redhill aerodrome in Surrey to Le Havre in Normandy for £53 each way
• Day trips from Blackbushe airport in Surrey to Deauville in Normandy or Le Touquet, a little further up the French coast, for £66 each way
• Lunch or tea in Bembridge, on the easternmost point of the Isle of Wight, for £26 each way, flying from Solent airport in Lee-on-the-Solent, Hampshire
• A York and the Yorkshire Dales sightseeing flight for £50 per person, flying from Bagby airfield, near Thirsk, North Yorkshire
• A day trip from Cornwall to the Isles of Scilly for £32 each way, flying from Cornwall airport, Newquay
Prices may be dependent on how many passengers are booking