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FlightCar invites you to park near the airport for free — and they'll rent your wheels while you're away

Posted by Scott Kirsner  February 15, 2013 10:36 AM

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Update: On April 15th, FlightCar announced that it had raised $5.5 million from a group of investors that included General Catalyst, Airbnb founder Brian Chesky, and "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest.

Co-founder Shri Ganeshram tells me he is moving back to Cambridge this week, where the plans to begin recruiting additional employees; he hasn't yet figured out where FlightCar will be based. "We're looking to hire designers and software developers at the moment," he says. The startup participated in the Y Combinator accelerator program in Silicon Valley earlier this year.


Here's an ideal that may appeal to some of you frequent travelers...

What if you could drive to the airport, hand your keys to a valet, get free parking for as long as you wanted, and have your car washed and cleaned. Oh, and you'd get a free gas card when you returned to pick it up?

A California start-up called FlightCar is testing the concept at San Francisco International Airport. There's just one catch: while they have your car, they rent it out to other travelers. It's a fascinating new twist on the car-sharing business model, which includes big companies like Cambridge-based ZipCar (now part of Avis) and smaller start-ups like RelayRides (founded in Cambridge by a Harvard Business School alum).

Co-founder Shri Ganeshram is taking time off from his undergrad studies at MIT to help launch the company; the three-person FlightCar team is now participating in the Y Combinator accelerator program for entrepreneurs.

Ganeshram tells me that the team noticed something basic about every major airport: there's usually one garage where departing travelers pay money to park, and another where arriving travelers pay money to rent a car. The founders — two of whom were high school students getting ready to head off to Harvard and Princeton — thought there might some synergy to be found in combining those two businesses. (Pictured above are founders Kevin Petrovic, Ganeshram, and Rujul Zaparde.)

Right now, they've rented a warehouse near SFO that can fit 30 or 40 cars, Ganeshram says. Departing travelers that have registered with the site can call FlightCar when they're driving to the airport, and they're met there by a valet. He takes the keys, makes notes about things like the gas level and mileage, and also snaps a few pictures to document the condition of the car. The company only accepts cars with fewer than 150,000 miles on them, and nothing made before 1999. "They have to be generally rentable," Ganeshram says. "We don't want cars that people would be embarrassed to drive around."

While you're gone, FlightCar tries to rent your wheels to arriving travelers. (A Volkswagen Toureg SUV rents for a quite reasonable $30 a day.) The company has $1 million in liability insurance, and comprehensive collision and theft coverage, so the owner's insurance "doesn't get involved at all," Ganeshram says. FlightCar's daily rental rate includes 90 miles; there's a 35 cents per mile charge after that, all of which goes to the vehicle's owner.

When you return from your trip, you call FlightCar again and they bring your vehicle back to the airport. Even though they've filled the tank to the level you left it at, you're given at least a $10 gas card (the amount can go up, depending on how new and nice your wheels are.) And even if the company hasn't managed to rent your car, the parking and valet service is still free.

"Instead of paying $18 a day for long-term parking somewhere, you might be able to buy an extra ticket and take a friend along with you," says Ganeshram. "And you get a cleaner car when you come back."

We'll see what happens to FlightCar when county and state tax authorities discover it. Ganeshram says that because FlightCar is a car-sharing service for members (similar to ZipCar), it shouldn't be subject to the same taxes levied on car rental companies. ZipCar managed to successfully use that argument, he points out. FlightCar intends to only collect sales tax, which Ganeshram says is included in the daily rates its web site displays. FlightCar charges a flat $30 a day for that Volkswagen SUV; by comparison, renting a BMW SUV from Avis at SFO for one day costs $210, $60 of which is taxes and surcharges.

If things go well in San Francisco, Ganeshram says the company plans to launch in a second city later this year. They're considering Boston, Los Angeles, and Seattle.

What do you think? Would you give it a try, either as a car owner or a renter?

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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