Wednesday Aug 09 2017

French start-up takes off with flight-sharing app

Pilot Somasekhara Pemmireddy (L) and passenger Adam Nicholas park the plane after a flight over the capital in a Cessna 172 plane, at the London North Weald airfield on August 1. PHOTO: AFP

A French start-up is reaching for the skies with a flight-sharing app, matching pilots with passengers looking for a low-cost way to take off in a private aircraft.

"It's a great way to get on planes. It's quite a unique experience. It's something new," says Adam Nicholas, 27, at an airfield close to London.

He is readying for his second trip with Wingly, a French firm connecting passengers and pilots for short flights, and the undisputed market leader in Europe with a community of more than 80,000 members.

In Nicholas' first experience he took his girlfriend on a surprise day trip to Le Touquet, across the Channel in France.

"We flew there in the morning, had some lunch, had some wine and then flew back again in the evening," he says.

This time the Londoner will be flown by pilot Somasekhara Pemmiredy, 34, above the British capital aboard a Cessna 172 aircraft.

Pemmiredy has clocked up more than 290 hours since gaining his pilot's licence in 2011.

Working in security at a London airport during the evenings, he flies for Wingly in the daytime as a way to add more flight hours which are vital to achieving his ambition of working for an airline.

Pemmiredy describes the set-up as a "win-win situation", as he prepares an eager Nicholas with the details of the altitude, speed and flight path they are about to take.

But not before the pilot checks out another flight request on his phone, using the Wingly app which allows clients to contact pilots directly.

"A month ago, I received a request for a flight with one-hour notice and I managed to fly," says Pemmiredy.

"The guy was very lucky as it was my day off, so I could fly the couple to celebrate their anniversary in France."

After the technical checks have been meticulously carried out, Pemmiredy and his passenger board the small aircraft which is owned by a flying club.

The duo return an hour later after their flight over the city, both smiling.

'Leisure and discovery' 

Adopting a low-cost approach, Wingly co-founder Emeric de Waziers says he wants to "demonstrate that private aviation is accessible" and should not be restricted to a privileged few.

Himself a pilot, Waziers explains that the flight-sharing model "allows you to fly cheaper and enjoy this passion without money being an obstacle".

Rather than compete with commercial airlines or other modes of transport, he explains the focus is on "leisure and discovery" through picking destinations which are usually hard to reach.

Wingly flights only cover short distances and, given the size of the aircraft used, can be cancelled at short-notice due to poor weather conditions.

The London to Le Touquet route is among the most popular -- costing around £100 ($133, 112 euros) per person each way -- along with Paris to French islands Belle Ile or Ile d'Yeu.

Rather than be likened to car service Uber, Waziers prefers to be the "BlaBlaCar of the skies" because Wingly allows passengers to divide the costs of a flight.

While flight-sharing is proving popular in the UK and Germany, it has been slower to take off in France owing to restrictions on short flights by the civil aviation authority (DGAC), which were lifted in June.

Between the three countries over 80,000 people have registered with Wingly, including 6,000 pilots, and each month the community is growing by 20 percent.

The Parisian start-up attracts around 600 monthly passengers, while there are more than 30,000 flights listed on the platform.

Its smaller competitors include Coavmi in France, SkyUber in Portugal and FlightClub in Germany.

The Federal Aviation Administration has banned private pilots from offering flight sharing to the public in the United States, ruling out competition from across the Atlantic for now.

Waziers has his eyes on the horizon, predicting an increasing number of people will come to understand the private planes "are not reserved for the elite".

With Wingly's expansion, he hopes "everyone can enjoy it in the next ten years".