Asobo's Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is pretty special. Flight sim enthusiasts and the more casual crowd alike were wowed by the tech and beautiful visuals behind this product, and I say "product", because as a game, it's definitely lacking. Nothing new, for the venerable Microsoft Flight Simulator franchise.
When you've seen all you want to see, in free roam, and tried out the various aircraft, weather conditions, and not forgetting to find your house, what's left? Aerosoft's OnAir Company attempts to answer that question, by giving you the chance to create a virtual airline, and turn a small pile of cash into a big one. Or do a Flybe...
Do it. Download the 7-day free trial from the OnAir website. Skip all this boring stuff below. It's just words, when you could be flying in your own virtual airline already!
...is what I'd be saying if I got paid to write stuff like this! But since I'm not being paid, and I just happen to quite like OnAir, if you want the honest truth, I think it's expensive for what it is, the UI is awful, but it works very well, and has impeccable attention to detail.
A worthy addon for Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, if you feel it's a fair price. It genuinely does add a long-term career mode to the game, and MSFS is all the better for it.
What is it?
Aerosoft have been making simulator stuff for a long time, but rather than a single aircraft or piece of scenery, this is an online massively multiplayer (MMO) game, of sorts.
SimConnect, which is part of Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, and a number of other flight simulators, allows the game to send and receive data from other programs on the same computer.
So, by downloading the OnAir client program, it will just detect that Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 is running, and you can choose to let it track your flights.
This all connects back to Aerosoft's website, on which you'll be creating your own virtual airline, to compete with other players doing the same thing, trying to make a quick buck off passenger or cargo flights, while trying to get the best deals on aircraft rental, fuel, maintenance, and, for those with deep pockets, buying their own aircraft.
It costs real money!
OnAir comes with a monthly subscription price. There's other similar things out there for free, such as FSEconomy, but you get what you pay for, and OnAir has pretty much everything you'd want from a virtual airline addon for a flight simulator.
It's worth noting that you can start a free trial for one week before you need to subscribe, so by that time you should have a pretty good idea of whether it's worth the money, but the month-by-month price is, in our opinion, insanity, when the yearly price is a full three times less expensive.
At about 3 Euros a month, if you purchase 12 months at a time (36 Euros), it's worth comparing it to other, single addons, like an aircraft, which can often be even more expensive than this.
Ultimately, it'll be up to you to decide what price, if any, you'd be willing to pay for adding a long-term objective to Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020. I'd say those who got the game "free" through Game Pass might have a little extra in their pockets to splash out.
Getting started, and the learning curve
Signing up couldn't be much easier, and you're automatically in and on the 7-day free trial. Downloading and installing the client is simple enough as well.
From there, Aerosoft supply a PDF manual to help new players, but I think the more casual, the harder a time you'll have with understanding exactly what's going on.
There's three separate "worlds" (a bit like realms in MMOs) to pick from:
- Cumulus, the default world, for casual play, where you can do pretty much whatever you like; teleport instantly from place to place, give yourself all the skills from the skill tree immediately, it's a good place to start.
- Stratus, which is like the hardcore realism mode, where you only start with minimal cash, and you'll need to physically travel from place to place.
- Thunder which is the exact same as Stratus but without the ability to hire AI pilots to fly on your behalf.
Once you've chosen a world, you'll create your company, complete with callsign and a very limited choice of avatars. The Cumulus world gives you a bunch of extra options such as how well jobs will pay, effectively controlling the difficulty.
There's also a very useful and rewarding tutorial mission available when starting in the Cumulus world. It grants a decent cash reward, but, more importantly, gives you a Cessna 172 to own, so you'll be a decent position to get going.
Home sweet home
You'll get to set a base of operations for your budding new virtual airline. By default, to save resources, OnAir disables what it deems "small" airports, but if these are turned on in the options, you've basically got a choice of 35,000 or so airports to call home.
This will vary depending on the specific flight simulator you're using, but the impressive airport selection in Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 will leave you spoiled for choice.
The objective is to make it rich! Or, on the "survival" worlds, simply stay in business. Airlines have it tough these days!
You can take jobs, each of which will pay a certain amount, such as delivering X number of passengers, or carrying Y pounds of cargo, and each job might vary from under 50 miles to over 3000, with higher pay for greater distances.
You'll need to offset this against your costs, which will be fuel (charged at different rates depending on the airport), maintenance of your aircraft, and even accommodation for yourself or your AI crew, if you're stopping over at a destination that isn't your home base. That's at a fixed cost though, so you won't have any arguments over Radisson versus Hilton versus Travelodge!
Your new ride
Although you'll be starting your career with an empty hangar, in the Cumulus (casual) world, you can do a reasonably simple tutorial mission to earn yourself a bit of starting cash and a Cessna 172 for keepsies. This is massively valuable as well, because on the "survival" worlds, you only start with ten grand in cash and no aircraft.
Anyone knows you're not going to get in the air with wings of your own for less than ten grand, which means you'll need to rent. Rental involves putting down a refundable deposit, and then paying rental fees per flight hour, but the minimum is ten hours, to prevent you from constantly renting and returning aircraft.
The rental company is going to expect that aircraft back with at least as much fuel as when they gave you the keys, so you'd better gas it up beforehand! This is a nice touch; a bit of extra, but completely unnecessary, realism that shows attention to detail on the part of Aerosoft.
Plenty of employment offered
Pretty much whichever airport you look at, there will be available work, so there's often no need to worry about having to travel long distances just to find your next job.
You can take any job you like, providing you have the skills for it (more on that below), and if you're canny, and your aircraft can handle it, you might be able to take on more than one job at once. Double the pay, half the effort.
As you'd expect, there's real life time limits on these jobs, so don't take one that you think you might not finish, or you'll have to pay a penalty fee for failure to deliver!
Skills to pay the bills
A bit surprisingly for a virtual airline MMO, there's a full-on skill tree. You'll begin each game with one point to spend, but will get more by earning XP from completing jobs.
At the outset, your airline will be very limited. No passenger trips, no bank loans, no AI staff working for you... these are all things you'll have to prioritise and earn through the skill tree.
Although the tree doesn't look massive, it's designed to be very difficult to complete in full, so you'll find that for most jobs, XP rewards are quite low compared to the levelling speed you might expect in other games. This is definitely a long haul (groan).
Gimme fuel, gimme fire
Fuel calculations are especially important for OnAir flights, and perhaps the thing with which most casual simmers will be least familiar.
Fuel will add weight to your aircraft, and you can fuel up or down as much as you like before each job, but the carrying capacity of your aircraft will need to account for the people on board and also the fuel weight, as well as any cargo.
So, if you thought your 172 Skyhawk was good for 800 lbs, then you discover your pilot is going to take up 190 of them, because he ate all the pies from the last job, you'll need to be careful selecting jobs where the cargo weight is anywhere near your aircraft's carrying capacity. Or make multiple trips, which, thankfully, OnAir handles quite gracefully.
It's worth noting that the aircraft configuration screen is very clearly laid out and easy to navigate, but you aren't given information on the net carrying capacity of the aircraft after it's fully loaded with crew and fuel, until after you've taken a job. As you'd expect, OnAir simply won't let you start any jobs with an overweight plane.
Once you're all set up with an aircraft and a job, you can choose the aircraft, select the relevant cargo or passengers, and begin tracking.
This will send a message to your simulator, such as Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, to say you're ready to go. It's still necessary to load up the flight manually in the simulator; SimConnect can't do that for you.
So, for example, if your job is flying a shipment of bacon from London to Copenhagen, and you've selected that job in the OnAir client, you'll need to load up the correct aircraft and route in the flight sim as well.
In Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, by default, if you choose a ramp or gate as a starting location, you'll be put into the aircraft in a cold dark state, whereas if you choose a runway to begin, you'll start fully powered up and ready to go.
OnAir expects you to start up from cold and dark, so it's best to start from a gate or a ramp
OnAir will automatically start tracking your flight, assuming you've loaded your simulator at the correct airport, and you've powered on the engines.
You're free to fly as you please, and you're free to choose your own weather settings, but by default, it will set the time of day to the current real-world time at your departure airport. There is an option to override this though, in the OnAir settings page, and this option is one of the few that is still available in the "survival" worlds, so if pure VFR is your thing, you'll never be forced to fly at night or in a vicious storm.
All throughout the flight, the flight sim will continue to send live data to OnAir, which will update its operations screen for you, so you can see what the sim is doing and make sure that OnAir is showing the same info.
OnAir is clever enough to detect when you've landed, and also when you've switched off the engines, so you'll need to do both in order to complete a job or a flight. It won't interfere with your own ATC and realism settings though, so if you smash it down and stop in the middle of the runway, then cut the fuel pumps like a badass, you'll still complete the job.
What, you think your new pilot with 0 hours' flight time and ten grand in the bank is going to just rock up to a 737 and jump in the cockpit? Think again!
You'll start a virtual airline with just a single piston engine certification. You can earn additional certifications, but get this, Aerosoft have actually put in certification tests with a virtual instructor!
Once you've found the relevant aircraft, you can choose to take a certification flight. If you're feeling cocky, you can just buy the aircraft up front, or else you can rent one. Typically a certification flight involves following a set of instructions given to you by the instructor, and there's various modes, from easy to realistic.
Only by passing the certification flight will you then be allowed to use that category of aircraft for future jobs, such as twin engine piston, single engine turboprop, jets, everything. You won't need to certify in each and every different aircraft, just the category of aircraft, determined by engine type and configuration.
This is a really nice balancing touch, because most of the time, you'll actually need to know how to operate the aircraft in the simulator, so it's OnAir's way to prevent very inexperienced pilots just jumping in a large cargo jet without having to work for it first. That, and the immense cost of those things, as well!
OnAir will actually track an impressive number of data points during your flight, and reward you for flying safely. Not using flaps during landing? Exerting more than 2.5G or 45 degrees of bank angle? Leaving landing lights on above 10,000 feet? No juicy XP bonus for you!
Aerosoft have obviously thought long and hard about this, and erred on the side of having fun, so you'll still complete any job normally, even if you're doing Immelmans in your Beechcraft, 500 feet above a major city, it's just that you won't earn the bonus associated with safe flying.
A little help from my friends
Unless you're playing on the Thunder world, which specifically disabled it, you're able to hire AI pilots and staff for your airline. They will expect to be paid in return for not showing up to work blind drunk, and having to put up with passengers who do.
To add to the realism, they will also be limited to 14-hour shifts, of which 9 can be flight hours, and require at least 8 hours between shifts!
It's worth noting that OnAir is a game that can be enjoyed even if you don't use a flight simulator of any kind, just by hiring and managing your AI staff, who will fly in real time, so if you send your crew off to an 8-hour round trip, you will have to wait 8 hours in the real world, too.
If you are using a flight sim to fly your own jobs, this level of detail adds a new, but utterly optional, aspect to the game. It is deliberately not that easy to balance crew salaries and planned AI jobs, on top of aircraft and fuel fees, and still make a profit, so this is aimed at the more logistically-minded, and is much more than a simple case of logging in once a day and clicking a few buttons.
Beam me up, Scotty
Teleportation will depend on whether you're playing on Cumulus, the more casual world, or not. If your aircraft is in Cornwall, but your newest job begins in Aberdeen, you'd better be prepared to use the flight hours and the fuel to drag your sorry ass hundreds of miles north, because without teleportation, you'll be expected to do all this manually.
Alternatively, you can send crew, including yourself, on public transport, which will be simulated in real time, and the crew will be unavailable for that time.
The one exception to this is you're granted a free teleport to the location of your very first aircraft, whether that's a rental or a purchase, and that's so you can get going right away. After that, all the logistics, including making sure aircraft and pilot are in the same physical location, are up to you.
That is, unless you don't want that hassle, in which case, the Cumulus world allows you to teleport about to your heart's content, like an out-of-work middle aged Harry Potter who decided to sign up to a flying school for "the lolz".
OnAir supports pretty much all the aircraft in every simulator, including paid addons. You will need to select the correct version of the aircraft for your simulator, though. For example, a lot of different flight sims include the Cessna 172, but if you want to use OnAir with Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, you'll need to select the "MFS" version, even though there's other versions listed.
This does mean there's a huge amount of variety in the aircraft on offer in OnAir, and they're all modelled pretty accurately with regards to price, fuel consumption, payloads, passenger capacity and the like, so while it's possible to up your game by buying a bigger, faster aircraft, it won't come cheap.
Let's face it, the client's a bit shit. It's confusing, and that's not just because I'm not a commercial pilot so I don't understand all the jargon. It's confusing because it's shitly designed.
Luckily, this comes with time, but is going to be even more confusing and hard-to-learn for more casual players who have to deal with the jargon as well.
For example, I've got my job. I've accepted it and my pilot is at the right airport. How do I actually start the job? There's no button or anything, so I ended up clicking about for a few minutes, until I discovered that you start from the aircraft and not the jobs list.
This actually makes sense, because you can potentially load up cargo or passengers for two separate jobs at once, if you wanted, but until I realised that part (or read the manual, but hey, I'm lazy), the UI didn't really make it that obvious.
Other little things aren't explained, like new companies will always get a bonus mission right at the start, which awards a ludicrous amount of XP and a decent payout, but unless you check the active jobs list, you'll miss it. I went straight to "find jobs" because why would I already have a job in my list? I've just started!
Something like the above could be solved with a simple mailbox system for notifications or something, so that new players have a kind of checklist for getting started.
There is a very real possibility you can get stuck and be unable to continue. This isn't due to any kind of bug; it's just that, especially in "survival" worlds, you can easily spend all your money or be unable to do something you need to do, in order to get anywhere.
As an example, I wanted to see whether it would be possible to immediately rent a Cessna 208 Caravan upon starting a new company, in survival mode.
You begin survival mode with $10,000, and one skill point, which you can immediately spend on "learning" bank loans, and take the largest possible loan of around $9,000. This is only just enough to put down a deposit and begin renting a reasonable 208, with a little left over for fuel.
Of course, you won't be certified for the 208, a single-engine turboprop, when you begin a new company, and so I needed to immediately take the certification before I'd be allowed to take on any jobs.
Unfortunately for me, I'd rented the 208 with just 36 gallons of fuel on board, and the instructor refuses to begin a certification flight without at least 66 gallons on board.
No problem, I'll just fuel it up. After all, I have that little bit of fuel money left over. Only, there's no available FBO at the airport where I'd rented the 208. No way of fuelling it up.
A pain, but it still has 36 gallons in it, so I'll just fly it to the nearest airport where I can buy fuel, and fill... I'll just fly it to... and then it hit me, I'm not certified.
So I was left with hardly any money, no way of flying the 208 without taking a certification, no way of certifying without filling up with more fuel, no way of filling up with fuel without flying to another airfield, and no way of flying without a certification.
Luckily, OnAir will allow you to completely restart your company from scratch at any time. Obviously, the more and more invested you get in your own virtual airline, the less attractive this button will become, but it's great for new players who just want to try and "learn by doing", not worried if they restart after a few messy flights and erroneous early choices.
A hearty recommendation
Should you get an OnAir subscription? If you're more than just a little into flight simulators, I'd say, go for it. After all, there's a 7-day free trial so it won't cost anything to try it.
I think that the player base for Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 could be split into roughly three arbitrary groups:
- Die-hard simmers who probably won't have an issue using OnAir. It's just about whether they want to choose to pay for this product. Most will probably have at least tried an alternative, or enjoy simulator flying enough already without the added "career mode". If they do, they'd probably want the "survival" options turned on.
- Casual simmers who are used to simulation games, but probably don't go further than buying a HOTAS. OnAir might be great for the Cumulus world, since the pure sandbox experience of base Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 loses its lustre after a while.
- Casual gamers who wouldn't usually buy a flight simulator, but either got Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 through Game Pass, or bought it because it reviewed so well. I think the extra hassle and time commitment with something like OnAir might be enough to put them off.
So all that's really left for you to do is decide which type of player you are, and whether the cripplingly hardcore realism-fest of survival mode is for you, whether you're up for running your own virtual airline but don't want to rage hurl your HOTAS through the monitor, or whether you're good with just the base sandbox experience.
Remember, there's other, similar products to OnAir out there, and FSEconomy is free, but, in this world, you mostly get what you pay for. Luckily, you can try both for 7 days, and decide whether the price is worth paying for the extras you get with OnAir!