When David Eyerly earned a partial scholarship to attend a California flight school, he asked his older brother Wade for some advice. Pilot jobs were tough to come by and David didn’t see the payoff. But Wade, 32, wanted his brother to stick with flying and asked what it would take to keep him in the air. David, 27, joked that Wade could just buy a plane, start an airline and hire him…
The basic model for commercial air travel has stayed pretty much the same for almost 100 years: you buy a ticket for a flight, board the plane and take off. But then in the early 2000s, the rising cost of fuel, airline mergers, consolidations and outright failures drove the industry into a tailspin.
All that has changed Surf Air has been called “a disruptor of tomorrow” by Fast Company, and “the future of flying” by Forbes, but when it comes to winning customers over, this startup has reached the stratosphere. At a time when commercial air travel is universally loathed, Surf Air has become a game-changer. Since its inaugural flight five years ago, Surf Air has grown to several thousand members, with plenty more eager to sign up: the waiting list is in the several hundreds. As a membership club, Surf Air touts an upscale, exclusive community and is gradually introducing member perks to keep customers on board. The original business plan targeted careerists traveling between Southern California and Silicon Valley. Now the Santa Monica company is enjoying a major expansion. Servicing locations in Texas and Europe now, Surf Air hopes to evolve from a business airline into one that includes personal lifestyle travel.
Time is luxury. “Time is the new commodity,” explained Justin Hart, vice president of member acquisition. Surf Air saves members time by cutting back on the pain associated with air travel. Members book flights from their smartphones in less than a minute, arrive at the airport as little as fifteen minutes before departure time, skip traditional security lines, and enjoy friendly concierges who greet them in the terminal to handle baggage check and other details.
Because air travel has changed, and not always for the better, it seems. It’s common for flight crews to bark at passengers. Planes spend so much time taxing that driving from one destination to another often would have made more sense. Long gone is the Golden Age of travel of fun and convenience. It’s now a race to the bottom with nick-and-dine costs.
Even with the changes in the airline industry, it seems that flying private is not often considered an alternative. Privacy, efficiency, and comfort are all nice, but the cost is not financially realistic for most. The economics simply don’t make sense to a mainstream private-air market.
But there still remained a segment of the population that wanted better. They were consistently building their lives around flight schedules already, regardless of the inconvenience. They were entrepreneurs, inventors, captains of industry, adventurers, and world record breakers. And they knew it would be only a matter of time before a solution emerged to address their travel needs. And that solution was Sur Air.
So what did Surf Air do it? The founders started with a Venn diagram of the two currently existing air travel solutions: private and commercial. In the middle was the growing vacuum where our members worked and lived—there was nothing just for them, no in-between. In response, Surf Air built a high-frequency flight schedule to accommodate everyday commuters. The airline flew in and out of more manageable private airports in major cities, eliminating the chaos and crowds. Surf Air infused the entire service philosophy with hospitality, inspired by iconic hoteliers and restaurateurs – not large, commercial airlines. Finally the company focused on building and fostering a tight-knit community, and created spaces—like the eight-seater executive planes—that made connecting comfortable and easy.
As a result, Surf Air originally launched in California in 2013 as the country’s first private membership airline. Today, it has grown to accommodate more than 4,000 members who work in a variety of industries—most commonly technology, financial services, entertainment and healthcare. Surf Air members are frequent fliers and often identify as entrepreneurs, business executives, or leisure travelers. Their foundational core markets are the largest and/or highest yielding markets under 400 miles, major professional corridors, and leisure markets for second home ownership or weekend getaways.
For anyone who has experienced a ride, they’ll tell you that the focus of Surf Air is safety, simplicity, community, and being “first class.” The company has a “big data” approach as well, blending some art along with science. It uses advanced mathematics to calculate how many flights it can operate profitably based on its subscription model. Once the company operates for a longer time on more routes, it can refine its mathematical model to optimize both profits and customer satisfaction.
Download the Surf Air iPhone App.
California and Texas: Short flights to cover long distance. California and Texas are both great – and incredibly large – states. Respectively they are the fifth and tenth largest economies. It’s not surprising that a Californian or Texas may look surprised when a New England colleague said it only took him two hours to pass through three different state. The westerners know that two hours often just barely gets you out of the city.
And so it makes sense for Surf Air to base its operations in California and Texas. The “Texas Triangle,” for example, is Austin, Dallas, and Houston. Each city is between three and four hours from each other, depending on highway traffic. A flight is only hour. But the hassle of airport transport makes it (accurately) feel that less time would have been spent then flying. This is especially troublesome for the business traveler who sacrifices time on planes to prepare for meetings to instead break out his GPA, his gas card, and hit the road. There has to be a better way. And Surf Air has found it.
At print, Surf Air services the following cities in California and Texas. Savvy travelers will note that Surf Air does not always operate at the major airports, but instead flying into and out of some of the smaller, more accessible runways.
- Los Angeles (Hawthorne and Burbank), San Francisco (Oakland and San Carlos), San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey, Napa Valley, Burbank, Lake Tahoe, and Palm Springs.
- Dallas, Houston, Austin, and Midland
Surf Air’s expansion is a remind of why members selected this method of travel: time-savings, personalized service, flexible flight options, and a community of like-minded travelers intent on doing more and being more in business and life. The use of secondary airports is a key element of Surf Air’s speed-to-destination sell. For example, Hawthorne in Los Angeles County, (best known as the home of Space X and Tesla) is just a mile from LAX but a world away in terms of aircraft, automobile, and foot traffic. Members get approximately two hours of their life back.
So are the use of specially selected plans. Surf Air’s Pilatus PC-12 planes are relatively low-cost to operate, and they’re quiet enough that passengers can sleep, work, or talk on board. Surf Air purchases the same models so that it can lower its maintenance costs and have plenty of spare parts when necessary. The turboprop engine is very efficient and provides for takeoff and landing on very short runways.
The company worked closely with Bespoken, a New York fashion house, to design the custom interiors of its new Pilatus fleet. New planes have eight seats, and the seats rotate 180* so they can face forward, back, or angled into the aisle, allowing passengers to engage in group conversations, while still avoiding knee-to-knee-contact. The new planes are also equipped with wi-fi, but the company is still in the process of negotiating service contracts, meaning in-flight connectivity is coming soon.
Membership opportunities. Just over a year ago, aviation industry veteran Jeff Potter was CEO of Surf Air, which at the time was seemingly shedding its training wheels and showing it could be a sustainable enterprise. Surf Air’s model, which originally entailed operating at least some of its flights, has changed too.
Customer happiness is paramount to Surf Air’s mission. The company wins customer love with an innovative offering backed by outstanding service. Distinguishing itself from its competitors, Surf Air doesn’t sell Members the entire aircraft as a traveler might get with on-demand charter or jet cards, which costs thousands of dollars an hour. Instead, passengers get a seat or however many seats that may be purchased or a membership entitles a traveler to. The business model, executives say, is to keep the price closer to commercial flights but the experience on par with private jets. Around half of Surf Air’s new members each month sign up for the service after it’s been recommended to them by existing members.
Our membership unlocks a new world of air travel efficiency, and it goes beyond that. Our members flew in over 56,000 flights in 2017. They save 94,000 hours of time. When every aspect of travel becomes effortless, our members are free to put their energy elsewhere. And because of that, our membership plans are as diverse as our members. We’re constantly and adding to and upgrading our services. Here’s what’s available now.
- Pay-As-You-Fly (individual membership). This option is perfect for infrequent fliers. Broken down, it comes to $2,500 per year plus $545 per one-way flight, access to all routs, easy-to-use iPhone app, access to special members’ perks, predictable travel expenses, no cancellation fee, no extra or hidden fees.
- All-You-Can-Fly (individual membership). This option is best for frequent fliers. At $1,950 it includes unlimited flying in California and Texas, predictable travel expenses, no cancellation fee, easy to use iPhone app, and access to special members’ perks.
- Group/Fly-With-Others (anyone may fly). This is great for companies and families, and it’s the newest membership level. A lifetime initiation fee of $250 per member grants your entire group access, for as many members as you’d like. From $5000 per month, members have access to all California and Texas routes, monthly recurring packs of 10 flights, unlimited fliers, predictable travel expenses, no cancellation fee, and no extra or hidden fees. If you need more flights added, you can easily purchase another 10-pack of one-way trips at anytime. Plus, any unused flights roll over to the next month.
On average, you have to fly about three times a month to easily justify the cost. And when you factor in the value of our time it’s even more compelling.
Last year, Surf Air offered members flights to and from the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which was such a success that the company is planning to run more limited-time routes for special events and weekend trips. It has held member-only parties and will soon roll out a new tier of membership that will provide expanded services such as one guest pass a month.
For the recent flight to San Carlos, travelers were greeted at the Hawthorne airport by a concierge who checked them in on an iPad and promptly whisked away their bags. There were free snacks and drinks in the waiting area, and more on the plane.
Surf Air’s custom Salesforce workflow also leverages Pardot automation to keep customer information and important tasks top of mind, while still allowing plenty of room for personalized, premium member service. That workflow also includes using Data.com to find new prospects in targeted areas along the West Coast, and then creating and nurturing new leads in Pardot to qualify and hand off to sales teams via Sales Cloud. And third-party AppExchange solutions like DocuSign make it easy to build new functionality into the platform as the company’s needs evolve.
If a commuter drives two to six hours regularly or flies commercial for more than two round-trips in a region every month, then a Surf Air membership will help implement a seamless travel experience and save up to hours of time. Members won’t have to worry about wasted valuable work (or play) time while being stuck in long airport lines, on hold with call centers, or navigating through complicated online bookings.
Members can hold up to four reservations at a time and make those reservations up to 15 minutes before a flight — no change fees, no added costs for last minute travel plans.
Strategic partnerships. These types of Surf Air experiences originally began as a way for Members to make the most out of their weekends through curated experiences available at across California. But since then, Surf Air has partnered with other luxury vendors to further enhance a Member’s travel experience.
This July, Surf Air has partnered with All Roads North, a California company that designs unforgettable luxury road trips across America. With each journey tailor-made from the ground up by a trained travel specialist, All Roads North’s utilizes its relationships with the finest hotels, lodges, and ranches to create an insider experience brought to life by local, on the ground experts. All Roads North have taken the quintessential American journey to a new level.
Surf Air also has an established relationship with The Private Suite LAX. Surf Air’s Preferred and Premium Members will receive a $4,500 complimentary annual membership and preferred rates to the newly built private terminal at Los Angeles International Airport. Like Surf Air, The Private Suite LAX is committed to providing hassle-free flying. For example, as with Surf Air, there is no waiting in crowded lines, because private TSA screening and U.S. Customs and Immigration is handled on premise. Even better, rather than walking through long, congested concourses or lining up at busy ticket counters and boarding gates, members of The Private Suite are chauffeured across the tarmac, directly to their aircraft, with boarding passes and baggage already arranged. Surf Air’s Members also enjoy pre-flight time in private suites, each with its own bathroom, food-service pantry, two-person daybed, and a runway view of aircraft landing and taking off in addition to a list of other amenities and dedicated services.
Finally, Surf Air also has a relationship with the popular FoundersCard, a members-only community of over 25,000 entrepreneurs and innovators who receive unprecedented benefits and networking opportunities. Exclusive benefits range from VIP travel privileges (i.e. complimentary elite status, priority check-in, and savings off standard fares) to access to its popular collection of top hotels and resorts, specifically offering privately negotiated preferred rates, added amenities and flexible cancellation privileges.