Would you pay $1,750 per month to take an unlimited number of short-haul flights within California?
This is the business model for Surf Air, a Santa Monica, California-based airline that uses what it calls the "Netflix" model. For a fixed fee each month, plus a one-time initiation fee, you can fly all you want.
Granted, it's a limited operation. I took a ride recently on Surf Air's fourth aircraft, a new Pilatus PC-12 turboprop with eight leather seats. On the busiest of days, Surf Air now flies roughly 30 departures from six destinations -- Burbank, Hawthorne, San Carlos, Santa Barbara, Truckee, and Carlsbad. It will begin flying to Oakland in December. Between many markets, it's flying three times per day.
I would have thought Surf Air would be popular among travelers seeking value. But CEO Jeff Potter told me the average user flies only about 3.5 segments per month. He said customers generally choose Surf Air because it's more convenient and comfortable than scheduled airlines. Surf Air operates from private terminals, so it's possible to arrive at the airport 15 minutes before departure. Passengers at these private terminals also do not need to clear security, and they get free snacks and drinks while they wait.
Many Surf Air travelers -- or members, in company parlance -- tend to be entrepreneurs and techies, who use Surf Air to get between the Los Angeles area and Silicon Valley. Apparently, they enjoy networking with each other on board the aircraft. The memberships are also popular among people who have second homes in places like Santa Barbara and Lake Tahoe. The majority of members ordinarily would fly on commercial airlines, though some used to fly private and others used to drive.
Surf Air just placed a firm order for 15 new aircraft, only one of which has arrived, so the airline will be soon be in growth mode. Eventually, it wants to have similar operations in Florida and Texas, as well as a larger footprint in California.
But there could be drawbacks to joining Surf Air. First, the route network remains limited, as is the number of flights. Second, while it is an all-you-can-fly model, some flights do fill up, so it's possible you might not be able to get that last-minute ride home if you do not plan ahead. Third, while Surf Air has done a great job outfitting its turboprops, you need to know you're not getting a private jet experience. The PC-12 is not a large airplane, and it is noisier than the typical commercial jet, at least in my opinion.
What do you think? Are you intrigued by Surf Air?