The UberAir project: Literally making an idea fly

Margaret Paton

At the moment, entrepreneurs Christian and Kirsten Uhrig are busy doing the ‘ground work’ to make their start-up idea fly.

They’re part-way through a KickStarter campaign to raise the $95,000 they need to launch ÜberAir, a flight-sharing platform to match travellers with commercial and private pilots who have spare seats in their planes. Their concept is anticipated to be a welcome transport solution for Australia’s regional areas.

The idea provides a great case study on how an innovative start-up validates and executes its services. After all, Christian and Kirsten’s final decision on whether or not to launch ÜberAir to Australia, still lies ahead.

“With over 16,000 aircraft and over 30,000 pilots in Australia alone, there are hundreds of flights every day where space capacity is unused, while travellers are paying more or spending excessive times driving to their destination where a flight could cut that travel cost by 75 per cent,” says Uhrig. And he’s not talking about the bigger operators such as Qantas, Virgin or Rex either.

His ‘ridesharing app’ for pilots and passengers would allow pilots to register their future flights and the number of spare seats for travellers to search and connect with the pilot (and vice versa). They sort out the trip details directly, but the pilots can only charge to cover a percentage of their flight costs, no more, says Uhrig.

“That’s when I said, I have four seats in my little plane. I fly every second week … I could take three more people."

He has a background in IT, project management and running a skydiving school, while wife Kirsten was a nurse for 30 years and, for the last 10, worked in various businesses. They’re keen aviators and also run a project management company, Unimex, an eco-resort (near Lismore) and are converting an 1858 Tenterfield property into a German café.

“As a professional skydiver, while spending thousands of hours in airplanes, I never did my pilot’s licence. In 2014 I finally got my pilots licence, hired a Cessna from the club then bought a Mooney, to fly back and forwards from Parkes to Lismore,” he said. The flight time is under three hours instead of the drive, 14 hours.

“That’s when I said, I have four seats in my little plane. I fly every second week … I could take three more people. I started to look at who else is flying and whether there was a dating website for pilots and potential travellers. There was nothing so I decided to investigate.”

That was February 2014. The major legal hurdle he found was that only commercial airlines could advertise tickets.

“I can, however, tell others about it, so private people can then join me as the pilot. Then it’s totally legal to join the flight. So I, as the pilot, pay 25 per cent of the flight costs and the three passengers each pay 25 per cent. There’s nothing commercial about it, just a better way to use the expensive resources (plane and fuel).”

“Money defines value, so if the world’s not ready for it, I can walk away from a good idea."

Legally, private pilots can only share the flight costs while on charter flights the return trip is already paid for while flying empty. That is, unless a smart and easy to use platform found travellers for those empty seats on the way back.

“I’m part of a community of 3,000 to 4,000 pilots in Australia and have spread it around to a lot of private people too. We’ve got a Facebook page for ÜberAir, but getting any attention in the media is hard and still [gives you] a half-life of five seconds.”

Uhrig put the idea on KickStarter asking people to pledge from $15 to $500 offering a year’s membership to the platform (for a $35 pledge – that’s the same price as about six minutes on a plane) or for $500, a lifetime membership, plus a T-shirt and a seat on the advisory board. You’d pay the pilots directly for your flights on top of that..

So far, he’s worked out the legalities, security issues and has been developing prototypes of the platform, “but it needs more people to support and buy in to make it fly” Uhrig says. He’s keeping a level head with one month left on the KickStarter campaign to raise $95,000 – about two thirds for tech development and maintenance and a third for marketing roughly. If the campaign doesn’t hit that magic mark, funds pledged will be refunded and the idea grounded.

“Money defines value, so if the world’s not ready for it, I can walk away from a good idea knowing that I have given it my best shot. I have 10 more ideas I could work on.

“There’s nothing worse in business than inventors or engineers who love their product, but it’s not feasible or viable.”

“If we get enough people on board and the project takes off, we will have excess funds and, we can do something good such as transport patients, a bit like Ronald McDonalds house, but in the air.”

Margaret Paton

Former Sunday Age and Fairfax Media staff journalist, Margaret Paton (formerly Jakovac) has written widely throughout Australia and Europe. Her niche areas are startups/entrepreneurs, business, education/training and property/construction.

Image: Flickr Creative Commons License, Bernal Saborio

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