Hitchhiking in the air

Hobby pilots like to take paying passengers with them. How expensive is this way of traveling? We tried it.

A single-engine light aircraft at Mainz-Finthen airfield shortly before take-off.

EIt’s an unusual kind of blind date. Not with a pretty lady, not in the evening by candlelight in a restaurant. But in the afternoon, at the Mainz-Finthen sports airfield. With Alexander. I got to know him through Wingly, Germany’s largest online airline. He is a hobby pilot and regularly offers flights via the portal. Not as a commercial flight, but as part of a flight for a fee. I want to try that out.

Wingly has been arranging these flights for Germany, France and Great Britain since 2016. In Germany, more than 30,000 flights are offered annually from 450 German airports, and 4,000 pilots are registered in this country. The brokerage costs a fee of four euros and 15 percent of the flight price. Competitors Flyt.club or, for France, Coavmi also charge agency fees. Eddh.de and mitflugzentrale.de are free, but less professionally managed, with less choice of flight offers and not always up-to-date.

The providers are something like a blazer in the air, so a chance to fly in small two or four-seater hobby aircraft. The pilots offer flights in order to be able to share the high costs of aircraft rental and fuel with passengers. You have to pay 150 euros to 350 euros per flight hour, depending on the size of the aircraft. You are allowed to pass these costs on to all other passengers, but you cannot make a profit. They also want to get the prescribed number of flight hours through the flights in order to keep their license. Twelve hours in the past twelve months are required.

A one-hour flight starts at 50 euros

The passengers, in turn, fly at lower prices compared to commercial providers. A one-hour flight starts at 50 euros. You benefit from an impressive flight experience at low altitude. And routes that the big jets of the established airlines cannot fly because the airfields are too small. For example to Konstanz, Freiburg and Worms. Or Flensburg, Koblenz and Ingolstadt. Or to tourist destinations such as the North Sea islands, Usedom, Rügen and Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Even a trip to South Tyrol or Venice over the Alps is offered. Around 40 percent of the flights are cross-country flights from A to B, some with return flights a few days later. The rest are round trips, especially near big cities.

I’ll try that out. It should go from Mainz to Frankfurt and back. One hour, 84 euros. The tour would have been available for 54 euros, but only in a smaller plane. I register on Wingly, name and email address are sufficient. When booking, I have to state my weight and possible baggage weight. Because that determines the fuel consumption.

Ten sightseeing flights are currently offered. The route is described on the website, but requests can be expressed in direct conversation with the pilot, such as a flight over one’s own house. The portal describes the pilot’s experience based on the total number of flight hours and with the particular aircraft. The more the better. Those who are anxious can also have their flight license and logbook shown before take-off: Has the pilot made the three mandatory take-offs with this aircraft in the past 90 days? How many starts did he have in total? Most accidents happen during take-off and landing; collisions in the air or technical defects are rare. In 2017 there were 64 accidents in Germany with small aircraft weighing less than two tons, seven of which were fatal. However, there are also estimated to be more than a million private flights and 6,500 registered small aircraft. Most of them are owned by aviation clubs; they are rarely privately owned. The maintenance is checked annually by the air supervisor.