FlightCar opened at Los Angeles International Airport in November. My annual two-week winter vacation loomed in December. As the editor of the trade publication Auto Rental News, my chance to finally “secret shop” FlightCar had arrived.
Negotiating the raised eyebrows of my officemates and my wife, I logged onto FlightCar to register my car a day before our flight. The process was simple, with only basic information to surrender. I immediately received an email with specific drop-off instructions.
The next day I pulled into the FlightCar operation, located smack-dab in the middle of the concrete prairie of major car rental companies serving LAX. I pulled into the lot and was immediately greeted by a friendly millennial with an iPad. The LAX FlightCar operation itself is slapdash — a banner unfurled on a brick building, a front office consisting of a computer monitor, foldup table and water-damaged drop ceiling.
As the attendant checked in my car, I sized up my rental “competition,” relatively late-model, desirable units such as a Toyota Prius, Mini Cooper and VW Golf. Will anyone want to rent a 2005 Mazda3 with 95,000 pampered miles on it?
The attendant took my registration, copied it with my name blacked out and, explaining this safety measure, put the copy in the glove box while handing me the original registration slip. I remembered to remove my personal belongings before the trip, though apparently storage lockers are available on-site.
I asked the rep what happens if my car gets scratched or dented, and he replied that FlightCar would repair any damage, even a minor scrape. He said the company takes photos of all vehicles before they are rented and when they are returned.
The process could’ve taken less than five minutes if I hadn’t slowed it down with questions. I hopped in the waiting black Town Car, passing a major rental company’s lot with a wraparound queue of holiday travelers.
FlightCar drivers work for independent car services, and the driver — nice guy, as I’ve always found car service guys to be — made it clear that tips were part of the deal. I was curbside at LAX in five minutes and tipped him $10. Judging from his reaction, I think $5 would’ve been sufficient.
During my vacation, I checked my inbox looking for that email that my car had been rented. None came. I felt bad for my Mazda3, but that’s OK. A child can always count on the love of its parent.
Returning from my trip, I got an email on pickup instructions. I called FlightCar from baggage claim, alerting that I’d be curbside in 10 minutes. I also received a text that the driver was dispatched, and he showed up promptly. I must admit I felt like a C-list Los Angeles celebrity getting picked up in a black Town Car, in spite of my six bags, baby car seat and wife and child in tow. I’ve pulled the same maneuver in a rental shuttle, and I felt like a dock worker.
The pickup was as smooth as the drop off. I tipped the driver $10; he deserved it. He even helped take my bags to my Mazda, which was spotlessly clean, inside and out. I circled my car to check for new damage. I couldn’t find anything.
Understanding from the driver that FlightCar had been quite busy in the last two weeks, I found it strange that my car wasn’t rented. Oh, no, said the new friendly millennial check-in attendant — your car was indeed rented, for 613 miles. She couldn’t explain the lack of an email notification, but did say I would be receiving a check for — wait for it — $30.65! I opted for an emailed receipt, finger-signed the iPad and was on my way.
The customer service experience supplied by FlightCar was seamless and impeccable. I’m sure it doesn’t always go this smoothly — but in my experience, it did.
My 2005 Mazda3 awaits my return on the FlightCar lot at LAX.
The question is, was it worth it? I operate in a different world than the average consumer, one in which commercial fleet managers keep close tabs on the total cost of ownership of fleet vehicles, right down to the cents per mile. But these costs, for the most part uncalculated, matter to consumer drivers, too.
For a very rough reference, I took a look at AAA’s analysis of annual average driving costs for 2013, specifically for a small sedan in my yearly average mileage band. Removing fixed costs such as insurance, registration, depreciation and financing, the key is a cents-per-mile calculation of wear and tear. In AAA’s survey, this is captured in maintenance and tires. My AAA scenario estimates 4.60 and 0.64 cents per mile, respectively. We should also tack on just a bit for decreased depreciation for the added miles.
In terms of my costs, I need to include my two tips to the drivers. If I wasn’t so generous, we’ll call that $10 total. And one more thing: As I drove off, I noticed that my fuel gauge read 7/8, not full as stated on my emailed receipt. I imagine if I returned to FlightCar this would’ve been addressed, but I simply didn’t have the time. If we add $3.50 for the gallon of gas lost, my profit was really $17.15 — while my calculated costs are nearly double that.
On the plus side, the black car experience beats a rental shuttle any day and you get free parking. FlightCar says I saved $288 on parking for my 16-day trip. That calculates to $18 a day; though I know you can find parking at LAX for $7 to $11 a day. Let’s throw in an extra $20 for the (very) clean car, bringing my “profit” and benefits to just under $200. For me, it’s not worth it. In my estimation, it’s the free airport parking that gives FlightCar a fighting chance in the peer-to-peer space.
All in all, I was somewhat uncomfortable with an unknown driving my car. I was relieved that my car did not get damaged, though I’ll take FlightCar at its word that it would fix any damage. This begs the question on FlightCar’s profitability model, because making good on scrapes and dings through body shop repairs will eat away at the bottom line. Those issues — along with when and how the liability insurance will be tested — belong in a blog for another day.
My circumstances don’t quite fit the FlightCar type of renter, though from an anecdotal look at its rental vehicle listings online, it appears that a lot of people are giving this a shot. At the very least, car rental companies and service-based companies should try FlightCar and take note of the excellent customer experience.