Blackbird app lets you split cost of a private plane trip

Blackbird app lets you split cost of a private plane trip

No shoes were removed, no toiletries put into separate clear bags, and there was no need to arrive two hours before the flight.

As part of flight-sharing app Blackbird's media flight, we walked right onto the tarmac to the door of our plane at the small but busy San Carlos Airport. San Francisco International is just 10 miles away, but this tiny airport would end up being much more efficient for a quick jaunt down the California coast.

We then climbed aboard a Pilatus PC-12, a pretty luxurious single-engine turboprop plane. For startup Blackbird's newest service, dubbed Hitch, passengers fly on smaller private airplanes, splitting the cost of travel (that's oil and fuel costs and any airport and rental fees) with the pilot and any passengers. We were flying fewer than 100 miles south and back for a day trip to show how smooth and simple this could all be, if only people could accept flying as a normal — instead of extravagant — travel option.

This trip would normally cost the pilot about $200 each way. Blackbird said there’s "a small transaction fee" for trips booked through Hitch, but wouldn’t share an exact figure.

A pilot already going from, say, Palo Alto to Santa Barbara can match with a couple looking for a flight to the same destination. Another person who wants a ride can request a flight and get matched with the group. Suddenly a $200 one-way trip for the pilot is divided among four riders and its $50 per person. Not bad compared to commercial flight prices.

The matching and booking is done through the Blackbird app, which feels like a hybrid of a traditional airline app and Uber or Lyft, sharing details about pilots, their experience, and ratings from other passengers.

Blackbird wants to take all those unused seats in a plane (usually a pilot is riding solo with four or more seats empty) and bring down flying costs for pilots and travel costs for passengers. For short-haul flights — Blackbird currently operates Hitch in California, but is soon expanding to Florida and eventually New York — this seems doable.

Blackbird is tapping into the massive U.S. network of around 1,200 regional airports, which can be less busy and expensive than the country's 400 major airports. They also don’t charge pilots much or anything to land.

Blackbird is also trying to create a pilot community. The company knows that many planes and seats on flights go unused most of the week. Like Uber, Lyft, or Airbnb, Blackbird wants to make use of that extra capacity. So it's offering up a way to flight-pool. Last week a trip from San Carlos to Burbank, California, matched three separate travelers to a Hitch trip, making the flight for the pilot a lot less lonely and much cheaper, especially since they were already going to make the trip.

While Hitch is shockingly well-priced for private-ish air travel, other options on the Blackbird platform are more expensive. Reserve, which finds you a seat on scheduled flights, can cost around $300, while Charter, which lets you charter your own flight, can cost more than $1,000.

To show how the flight-pooling system works, the company took a small group of journalists on a "lunch trip" from San Carlos, California, just south of San Francisco, to Monterey, California, farther along the coast.

That's normally just over an hour-and-a-half drive, but our trip was about 30 minutes, with the plane reaching only 7,000 feet in elevation. Once at the Monterey Jet Center, ride-sharing cars took us to a lunch spot in the nearby bucolic seaside town of Carmel. On the way back in a smaller Piper Seneca we encountered some low clouds and needed to wait out the weather system, so our return was somewhat delayed, but it still was surprisingly zippy. No big slowdowns or traffic jams in the sky.

Bear in mind these are small planes and I experienced a lot of air travel in a short period of time. Hopefully your vacation isn't only a few hours. For those of us who get a bit queasy on a bumpy experience through the air (that's admittedly me) even a traffic-laden trip on the ground might be worth it to avoid the nausea.

Founder and CEO Rudd Davis, who founded Groupon-acquired startup Swarm before starting San Francisco-based Blackbird last year, has a stronger stomach than me. He wants to normalize private flying. Instead of making it high-end with more and more amenities (and a heftier price tag), he wants to lower the costs and make flights like this accessible to people usually stuck in traffic.

He's well aware of other "Uber for planes" startups that have come before Blackbird (remember JetSmarter, which literally tried to extort journalists?). But most are about connecting travelers to the most luxurious travel experience, not the most cost-effective.

He talked about families, commuters, travelers, vacationers, and day-trippers taking advantage of quicker air flight. He wants to see private air travel become something for everyday people, not just rockstars and billionaires. He knows perceptions about the cost and safety of private flying needs to change.

So he may be onto something with reasonably priced trips with licensed and certified pilots. But we're not there yet. No matter how hard Davis and the Blackbird team want to believe otherwise, we're a car-centric society. It's still easier and perceived as safer to drive, even if flying is statistically safer.

Until mini airports, like Uber's futuristic skyports, pop up all around cities, flying from small regional airports probably isn't going to work well enough to make flight-sharing mainstream. Even if riding along with pilots keeps costs down, this type of travel is likely to remain confined to special occasions.

But for those who can stomach it, some good deals are just a download and flight match away.

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