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San Francisco startup offers free airport parking while it rents your car

Company combines airport valet parking with car-sharing that allows vehicle owners to make money and their travels more convenient.

By Douglas Newcomb Feb 19, 2013 11:45AM

If you’re a frequent traveler, you know what a hassle airport parking can be. You calculate the cost of parking versus taking a taxi or shared-ride van for a long trip -- and find it’s usually a wash. Speaking of which, you often come back to find your car filthy, and maybe with a couple of new door dings.

Of course, you could use an expensive valet service that meets you at your car door, takes your keys, parks your car and will even wash it while you’re gone. But what if you got all of this for free, and the parking service even gave you a free gas card?

There is a catch: Someone would be using your ride while you’re gone.

That’s the idea behind a California start-up called FlightCar, which combines airport parking with a car-sharing service like ZipCar. FlightCar is testing the concept at San Francisco International Airport using a nearby rented warehouse that can fit 30 or 40 cars.

Outbound travelers who have registered with the service via its website can call FlightCar when they're departing for the airport, and they’ll be met there by a valet. The valet takes the keys, documents the fuel level and mileage and takes pictures to verify the condition of the car.

But before you consider driving your wreck to SFO and making money off of it, keep in mind that the company accepts only cars with fewer than 150,000 miles on the odometer and made after 1999. “They have to be generally rentable,” co-founder Shri Ganeshram said to “We don't want cars that people would be embarrassed to drive around.”

FlightCar then offers the cars it receives for rent to arriving travelers. According to, a late-model Volkswagen Touareg SUV rents for $30 a day. Renting a BMW SUV from Avis at SFO for one day costs $210, $60 of which is taxes and surcharges.

FlightCar carries $1 million in liability insurance, and comprehensive collision and theft coverage. The owner's insurance "doesn't get involved at all," Ganeshram said. The daily rental rate includes 90 miles, after which there's a 35-cents-per-mile charge, all of which goes to the vehicle's owner.

When car owners return, they call FlightCar and a valet brings their vehicle back to the airport. The gas tank is filled to the same level as when the car was dropped off, but the owner is also given at least a $10 gas card -- and more depending on how nice and new the car is.

Even if the company didn’t manage to rent your ride, 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," Ganeshram said. "And you get a cleaner car when you come back."

Depending on its success in San Francisco, Ganeshram said FlightCar plans to launch in a second city later this year and is considering Boston, Los Angeles and Seattle. But county and state tax officials may have a say in whether the startup can get off the ground by deciding whether it’s subject to the same levies as rental-car companies.

Ganeshram contends that because FlightCar is a car-sharing service similar to ZipCar, and for members only, it shouldn't have to pay the same taxes imposed on rental-car companies. He pointed out that ZipCar successfully used that reasoning to avoid taxation and that FlightCar intends to only collect the sales tax that’s included in the daily rates on its website.

At least the founders could always fall back on their day jobs as students. Ganeshram is taking time off from his undergrad studies at MIT to launch the company, while the other two founders, Kevin Petrovic and Rujul Zaparde, are high-school students who are heading to Harvard and Princeton.


Feb 19, 2013 2:48PM
Could be real trouble.  Those renting your car will have the registration and know where you live and how long your out of town.
Feb 19, 2013 2:17PM
I really like this concept, however I presonally would struggle to hand over the keys to my vehicle to a perfect stranger even if any damages would be covered by the companies insurance.
Feb 19, 2013 2:33PM

It all sounds reasonable, the only glitch I see is, what happens when you come back early and it is rented, or it is rented when you come back on time. I would also be concerned about who is renting it and if they abuse it, ie.,racing with it. It might look good but you don't know if the internals were ruined.


Feb 19, 2013 3:39PM
Sorry but I'll pay for parking before I let someone treat my car like a rental and risk thousands in damages... and what if they're late returning the car? Or in an accident? Or have really bad body odor? Good luck getting your insurance to pay that claim.

Great alternative for renters, dumb idea for owners...
Feb 19, 2013 4:18PM
WHAT??? ARE YOU NUTS??? STAY IN SCHOOL GUYS!!! What happens if someone is killed in your car? What happens if someone robs a bank in your car? What happens if someone steals your car? what happens.......               all for a free car wash and some free parking.  WOW you've got to be kidding. I'm just saying.
Feb 19, 2013 3:49PM
Yeh what a great idea.  Rent to a gang for drive by, or a pimp and his girls, or maybe a trip over the border to bring back some drugs, or just locally to a bank robber great  that prefers to us someone elses car.  Kids that need a car for prom. or someone has  just gotten there drivers temp and dad doesn,t want to scratch his car . 
Feb 19, 2013 2:26PM
This only makes sense if one is leasing one's car rather than buying it.  A person who is leasing is going to be generally less attached to the car, anyway.  If one is leasing, and any damage is covered by the rental agency's insurance, it might be okay--but, still, I think that it would be really hard to prove "damages" such as stains and odors . . . and such damages would be kind of gross.
Feb 19, 2013 3:23PM
"Apack" is correct: the renter (and FlightCar employees) will be able to find (and rob) your home while you're away.

That brings up a question: Would I actually have to buy an airline ticket? What if I simply won't need my car for a week or two (maybe because I take a bus to work) and want to make some extra $$?

Feb 19, 2013 1:59PM
Probably wouldn't get very many business people as their T&E would cover the regular fees along with a rental on the other end.
Feb 19, 2013 3:58PM
what a great idea, and hopefully you won't get someone prone to road rage who might return the car in less han pristeen condition.
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