Flying from LA to San Francisco on business is a task normally fraught with stress and rage. But today, my journey begins from a better place. Instead of the gargantuan mess that is LAX, my Uber rolls up to a tiny airport three miles to the east. I start to realise just how different my work commute will be today.
I'm flying Surf Air, a new airline hoping to deliver some overdue disruption to the not-so-friendly skies. The year-old, swiftly growing company is a subscription-based model for private planes, but it's at a price point that could actually be accessible for frequent fliers. And on this sunny LA morning, I got to try it out.
Disrupting the sky
It's no coincidence that SurfAir has a partnership with Uber; it's already been referred to as a kind of Uber for flying, but in a way it's more like the subscription-based policies of Netflix. Members pay a one-time $US1,000 fee to join, and then $US1,750 per month to fly limitless trips to six destinations on the West Coast.
Is it worth it? Well let me answer that with another question: How long does it take to get from LA to San Francisco? In a plane, flying the 350 or so miles takes about an hour. But once you factor in traffic to get to and from the airport, security procedures, archaic boarding processes, and the inevitable delays, every traveller knows the truth: If you drive, you'll probably get there faster.
Think about that for a second: 60 years after the dawn of commercial aviation, we still don't have an easy, reliable way to span California in the air that's faster than a century-old Earthbound technology. The futuristic, limitless freedom of the skies is no more efficient than a relic of our Interstate Highway System, circa 1956.
So far, on the ground is where we're seeing true transportation innovation: autonomous vehicles crawling the streets, rideshare apps that let us to summon a nearby stranger's car. Meanwhile, the aviation industry is in shambles, and airlines are doing whatever they can to reduce costs by slashing services. Where is the change we need above?
Flying made painless
Because Surf Air's passenger numbers are so small — the planes hold seven people — the startup doesn't fall under the jurisdiction of the TSA (although it does need to follow other FAA requirements). That means no lines, no security screening. After checking my ID and taking my photo with an iPad, the Surf Air employee manning the desk informs me that I actually have enough time to go have coffee in the airport's cafe. My flight leaves in 10 minutes.
Members use an app to book and cancel flights and get SMS updates about schedule changes and delays. If you suddenly needed to be in San Francisco for a meeting and a seat on the next flight was available, you could claim it on your smartphone on your way to the airport. It's flying made as painless as possible.
My "ticket" on Surf Air which I retrieved via their app. Delays and updates come via push notifications or text message.
Surf Air founder Wade Eyerly acutely felt that airborne pain while working in politics flying around the country up to 27 days a month. "I didn't know anything about aviation except how broken it was," he told me in an interview earlier this year. Eyerly recently left the company but his philosophy still drives the business: leverage tech tools to help customers spend less time actually travelling and more time at your destination.
This seemingly simple goal could make Surf Air a model for change in the industry. While there have always been commercial airline alternatives for the very wealthy — like Netjets, which sells "partial ownership" of a private jet, or a startup named AirPooler that helps you find an available seat on a private plane (and was just nixed by the FAA) — Surf Air's model is actually more progressive. It has several consumer-focused, tech-forward features that is going to help it grow this niche market.
One innovative feature is what essentially amounts to on-demand flights. For example, today I'll be flying from Hawthorne Airport up to San Carlos, a small airport south of San Francisco, and a regular Surf Air destination along with Burbank, Santa Barbara, Truckee (near Lake Tahoe), and Vegas. The airline's stops are determined by suggestions from members. It has 900 members and another 350 that have paid deposits and are waiting on approval for their requested destinations to join.
With the help of a recent $73 million raised in funding, that expansion could happen quite fast. This is wholly different from the way traditional airlines operate, and not unlike the difference between city-determined public transit and the rideshare apps we have on our phones.
The six cities where Surf Air already flies, and the top cities requested by its members and future members
This data-driven approach helps ensure that customers are determining the path of the company, not the other way around, says Surf Air's current CEO, Jeff Potter. "It has not been done before and it's a perfect fit," says Potter. "We have a list of people who sign up and say, when you fly to my city, I'll join."
The hope is that this low-risk model will help keep prices reasonable — if the startup has enough future memberships applied towards a certain city, they put another plane into commission.
Commuting at 20,000 feet
I pay my bill at the coffee shop and head over to the "gate" when I see one of Surf Air's Pilatus PC-12s making its approach. The company currently owns three Swiss-made, turboprop aircraft often used for executive-level travel. They make about 28 flights a day in total. The new round of funding will grow the fleet by at least 15 planes and up to 65.
A few minutes before takeoff, myself and four fellow passengers are led out onto the tarmac. We climb into the aircraft, which is configured with seven cushy leather seats, four of them facing each other, train-style. There are copies of the Silicon Valley Business Journal strapped to the seats and Kind Bars are offered, although none of the men on my flight accepted snacks. Surf Air passengers tend to be men on laptops or iPads or iPhones, and sometimes all three simultaneously.
After a brief safety lecture, we're airborne. We climb over LA and into a striped sky, the glint of the Pacific to one side and snow-capped Sierras on the other.
Flying frequently from LA to San Francisco certainly isn't an extraordinary feat; Southwest Airlines built its business around these kinds of short-hop commuters, offering them ridiculously low fares and frequent service. In fact, the hypothetical ease with which we can skip over to the next major metropolis for the day has changed the way we define commuting.
A metropolitan area hundreds of miles away can now be considered as easy to reach by plane as a distant exurb is by car, and it has transformed the economic makeup of our cities. Now vast portions of LA County and the Bay Area are considered part of the same "city labour shed," with thousands of residents from each region trading places each day to get to the office.
Yet the West Coast is lacking the infrastructure that makes it easy to move up and down the Boston-to-DC corridor. As proposed costs of a high-speed railway balloon with no clear timeline in sight, I'm not counting on being able to take the train from LA to SF for anything other than pleasure anytime soon — right now on Amtrak, it takes about 11 hours and costs $US96, one way.
Could planes be the answer? Well, not the way they work today, says Greg Lindsay, co-author of the book Aerotropolis: How We'll Live Next. "Their size, cost structure, and the hassle of security are simply too much of a pain," he says. "If air travel today is like taking a bus, we need the equivalent of taxis — or at the very least, Uber — with smaller airports, no security, and flights you could step onto as if board a bus or train."
That's what Surf Air is hoping to do. The question is, who can afford it?
High flying with the C-Suite
At this point, the service is definitely targeting business execs willing to spend a bit extra to increase productivity. As we sailed north, I asked my fellow passengers why they opted for an airborne commute. They each seemed to have the same horror stories, and told me that once the option was available, their employers had eagerly paid for their Surf Air memberships.
"You can rationalize it really easily because it's shaving hours off my travel that was wasted time. You can sit in the airport for two hours," says D.J. O'Neil, creative director of the San Francisco marketing firm Hub Strategy, who had been in LA for client meetings. Although Surf Air could fall victim to the same socked-in fog conditions as commercial flights in the Bay Area, all the passengers agreed that the delays were far fewer than traditional airlines.
Brian Barnum lives in LA but had recently become the CFO of San Francisco-based Demandbase, a B2B marketing company. He flies Surf Air at least once a week. "I doubt it is saving money because if I was really careful I could probably have a similar or slightly lower cost on commercial airlines using advance reservations, but it's about the service, which is radically different," he says. "For me, the predictability is more valuable."
After landing in San Carlos, a concierge met us, pointing passengers towards pre-booked rental cars and, yes, Ubers.
The bottom line
As I waited for my return flight, I did some maths. Including the one-time fee to join, an annual membership to Surf Air would set you back $US22,000 a year. On the outset, that seems outrageous. But if your plans are often made last minute, a same-day LAX-SFO flights goes for $US500 round trip anyway. Do that once a week and it adds up to $US26,000 annually. You could save money by planning ahead, but for people who'd rather pay for convenience, Surf Air is actually a pretty good deal.
On the flight home, I talked to Michelle Sangster, the only woman I met during my Surf Air adventure. She's a senior vice president at Studio 9+, and one of Surf Air's most frequent travellers. Her job requires her to commute from LA to Silicon Valley several times a week, sometimes last-minute, she says. "I'll book a meeting in the morning from LA and meet in-person in San Francisco in the afternoon."
Before Surf Air, Sangster was spending $US400 per trip on Southwest, just about as I calculated, easily racking up several thousand dollars in tickets a month. She mentions all the perks that other passengers have mentioned: saving time, the flat monthly fee, the service. But what Surf Air has been able to do for her is even more important, she says: It allows her to spend more time with her kids.
"I'm able to get the children ready for school and get them to the bus and take the first flight out to San Carlos and then take the last flight back and be home before bedtime," she says. "I joke with others, but I think it's true: my commute from Hollywood to San Carlos is shorter than what my commute would be to Santa Monica."
The real trick about Surf Air is that it mostly functions like an airline — with schedules and staff — but it really is more like an on-demand taxi service: it takes you where you want to go, when you want to go there. The frills didn't matter. Instead of trying to market "premium experiences" like JetBlue's Mint, airlines need to strip away the perceived luxury and simply fly smaller planes to more places where people actually want to go, more often. For the right demographic, it could give traditional airlines some serious competition, especially if Surf Air is eventually able to bring its own costs down and broaden its customer base.
As the sun set, the pilots turned off the cabin lights. It was pitch black for a while, until the glow of LA's grid began to shimmer on the horizon. Someone made a joke and everyone laughed. It didn't feel like I was flying home from an exhausting day working in another city. It was like our dad was driving the minivan home from basketball practice at 20,000 feet. And we would all be home in time for dinner.