America's largest car rental company is 56 years old. Which also happens to be the combined age of the three founders of one of that industry's more intriguing upstarts.
FlightCar, which was founded last year by three college dropouts (at least for now), debuted its operations near San Francisco Airport right around Valentine's Day with a concept that would make just about any traveler feel the love: free airport parking, with a car wash thrown in for good measure.
The peer-to-peer car-sharing network lets members post on FlightCar's website notices that their vehicles will be available for certain dates, drop off their cars at a parking lot in the Bay Area town of Burlingame (skipping SFO's $18 daily long-term parking tab in the process) and get chauffeured via Town Car both to and from the airport (less than 10 minutes away) upon their return.
And they get their car back all sparkly.
On the flip side, car renters coming into town can get the Town Car treatment, as well, getting shuttled to the Burlingame lot, where they can get a slightly- to somewhat-more-used car on the cheap.
How cheap? A two-day SFO economy rental at Hertz for the upcoming weekend runs about $45 a day, but the tab hits $130 once all the funny stuff's thrown in. For the same time period, FlightCar offers a late-model Toyota compact for $56 total or a slightly older Volkswagen Golf for a tidy, all-inclusive price of $46 (with a 90-mile-per-day limit).
Or at least they were offered. Those listings as of last week were sold out.
"We take this market and reduce this mass of inefficiency," said co-founder Rujul Zaparde, who, at 18 years old, is the baby of the bunch (the other two co-founders are grizzled 19-year-olds) and is putting Harvard on hold. "These other companies own thousands of cars. Whenever there's inefficiency on such a large scale, that's when you can really make something happen."
And nothing says "making things happen" like getting sued by the city.
In late May, right around the time FlightCar was debuting its second location near Boston's Logan Airport, the city of San Francisco and its airport operations entity filed a claim against FlightCar, saying that it should be paying the airport concession and facilities fees that the big boys like Enterprise, Hertz and Avis Budget have to pay. For example, that $130 Hertz weekend tab includes an airport-concession fee of $9.83 plus a $20 transportation and facilities fee.
FlightCar offers an interesting yin to the yang that represents the giants of a U.S. car rental industry that continues to become increasingly consolidated (and potentially monolithic), especially with Hertz buying Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group last year.
Indeed, privately held (and 56-year-old) Enterprise Holdings, along with Hertz and Avis Budget, account for a whopping 94% of the $23.6 billion generated in U.S. car rental revenue last year, according to the trade publication Auto Rental News.
And those sales became a wee bit more consolidated last week when Avis Budget announced that it had paid $50 million in cash for Payless Car Rental, putting another $80 million in annual sales under control of the three largest U.S. car rental companies.
That said, some car rental upstarts are gaining at least a little bit of traction. Silvercar, which earlier this year debuted operations at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport with its fleet of Audi A4 sedans (yes, they're all silver), has since expanded to Dallas' Love Field as well as to Austin-Bergstrom Airport and Houston's Hobby Airport.
Silvercar eschews the traditional reservation-counter setup and instead uses a system in which the reservation, payment and even the vehicle entry are handled through applications downloaded onto the customer's smartphone. It just attracted $5 million in funding.
FlightCar's gone one (million) better, attracting more than $6 million in seed funding so far. Appropriately, FlightCar's investors include Airbnb founder and CEO Brian Chesky, whose own fast-growing company typifies how peer-to-peer networking is having a growing presence within the travel industry.
In fact, New Jersey-reared Zaparde said that FlightCar debuted in the San Francisco Bay area because "that's where Airbnb launched." He noted, too, that "Boston has a pretty active startup scene."
Granted, there are always risks when peer-to-peer is involved, whether it be discovering upon your arrival at FlightCar's lot that your vehicle's interior might be described as "earthy." Or, on the other side of the transaction, there's the prospect that your car could be rented out to someone looking to do his or her impression of Steve McQueen in "Bullitt" throughout the City by the Bay (FlightCar says its listers' cars are insured for as much as $1 million).
Still, things have indeed taken off for FlightCar, which has about 30 employees (most of whom would, theoretically, be old enough to score booze for their bosses).
Vehicle rental numbers jumped more than 40% between May and June and are "creeping up on a thousand listings a month," Zaparde said, adding that FlightCar is likely to start operations near Los Angeles Airport by September.
As for that San Francisco lawsuit, which city officials say will likely result in a hearing sometime next month, Zaparde believes FlightCar is already paying its fair share to SFO. With the company reimbursing its partnering Town Car operators for airport entry fees and with each transaction generating four trips to the airport, Zaparde estimates that as much as 17% of FlightCar's revenue is eaten up by airport fees.
"The airport wants to put us into the traditional bucket of the typical rental car company," Zaparde said. "There are a bunch of things we do that rental car agencies don't."
Either way, FlightCar illustrates how car-sharing and peer-to-peer networking continues to make its presence felt in the tourism economy. In March, Avis Budget completed its $500 million acquisition of Zipcar, the world's biggest car-sharing operator.
Further typifying peer-to-peer transportation growth are the increasingly common sight of the pink-mustachioed cars in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago, Seattle and Boston that represent 1-year-old ride-sharing network Lyft, and the 350,000 folks who have used the ride-matching network Zimride.
Which was acquired by Enterprise earlier this month.
Contact Danny King at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dktravelweekly.