A new airline with an innovative, "all you can fly" business model is about to take off. Federal regulators have just given California-based Surf Air permission to begin passenger service.
Surf Air is a big idea with small planes. For a flat monthly fee, subscribers will be able to take all the trips they want among four California cities: San Francisco, Monterey, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles.
The airline's co-founder and CEO Wade Eyerly boasts that Surf Air will offer frequent commuters a corporate jet experience for not that much more than regular airline prices.
The company's general aviation facility is on the far side of the Burbank Airport in metropolitan Los Angeles. Instead of using big, busy terminals, Surf Air will fly out of smaller, low-key places like this one. No TSA screening is required, so there's no conga line, no emptying your pockets or removing your shoes.
"You're about probably 50 feet from the plane as it pulls up, and then the concierge will come get you when it's time to go," Eyerly says.
The total amount of time from parking your car to ducking inside the plane could be less than five minutes. The Swiss-made, eight-passenger turboprop has a single engine and two pilots. The longest flight — between San Francisco and Los Angeles — will be just over an hour.
The airline originally suggested the monthly subscription price would be about $1,000. But late last week, Surf Air said the first group of subscribers would pay a lot more: $1,650 a month for an unlimited number of flights.
Eyerly recalls that with Netflix, customers used to be able to order all the DVDs they wanted but could hold only a few of them at a time. With Surf Air, travelers can only have four boarding passes at once.
"It keeps any one member from sort of boxing everyone else out from every flight and makes sure there's enough capacity for everyone to be able to book regularly," he says.
Analyst Wayne Plucker with the firm Frost and Sullivan has been following the airline's progress.
"If they can get enough subscribers and keep them happy for long enough, it's a reasonable business model," he says.
But he cautions that the economics of any airline are tricky and says Surf Air will need enough cushion to cover mechanical or other problems.
Keeping Customers Happy
When Surf Air first emerged as a concept, it drew thousands of people to its list of potential subscribers. But with the substantial increase in price, it's hard to know how many will actually sign up.
Evan Owens, founder of tech startup Pogoseat, isn't joining right now. But he remains intrigued by the potential for making new business contacts.
"It's really the network connections I think. You know, if I sit down and meet an awesome startup founder or an investor who ends up investing in Pogoseat, that makes Surf Air completely worth it," he says.
Another entrepreneur, Francis Pedraza of a startup called Everest, also notes the potential for networking. He adds that the promise of faster, door-to-door travel that's hassle-free is also appealing.
"If I know that they understand me and they care about every little detail of the user experience, I'm far more likely to go with them than some airline that I just don't think gets it or cares about me or has any clue what customer service means," he says.
Surf Air CEO Eyerly says he knows that if passengers aren't happy, they won't renew their subscriptions, and the airline will fail. But Eyerly, who's new to the airline industry, doesn't seem worried.
"This is a market desperate for disruption. Airlines are literally the only industry that ranked below cable companies for what people think of them — dead last among 47 industries surveyed. No one likes flying," he says.
Eyerly hopes that will change when Surf Air takes to the skies. The first flight is expected in a couple of weeks.