Skift Take

There have been so many startups trying to solve problems of frequent flyers and found little success. Surf Air's modest yet competent approach may be the solution some have been looking for.

Colin Nagy, head of strategy at Fred & Farid, a global advertising agency, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality, innovation, and business travel. “On Experience” dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across hospitality, aviation, and beyond.

Around six years ago, JetBlue experimented with a novel idea: the “All you can Jet” pass.

For a set price, you could fly as much as you wanted for a month for a fixed price, paying applicable taxes for international flights. Presumably it was a marketing ruse, and also an experiment to boost activity after the summer travel months and the following September lull. They likely lost money on it.

I gave it a shot for a month, and it was great (but short-lived). The biggest pain was getting to and from Kennedy (shocker). But the experiment really made me think about mobility and how models like this could gain steam as the country and the world gets smaller. One must only look around at the bloated ranks of 1Ks and Executive Platinums slumping around domestic airports with laptop bag in tow, knowing that many are flying similar routes over and over, often at inflated, last-minute fares.

A few years on, a few entrants into the market are trying to address this repeat, domestic travel in interesting ways.

Surf Air, based in California, seems to have figured out a sustainable model. The company flies Swiss-made Pilatus PC-12 executive aircraft on popular routes in and out of smaller commuter airports around Los Angeles, San Francisco, Truckee, Palm Springs, and Napa.

Memberships go for a $1,000 dollar initiation fee and around $1,950 a month. But when you consider the costs for frequent commuters —say a $300 round-trip flight once or twice a week up and down the West Coast, it starts to make sense, particularly from a business travel angle. And, when you take out the pains of modern TSA in peak travel seasons, it comes down to the age-old time/money equation.

But it is not easy, and the space has been littered with casualties, notably SurfAir’s short-lived east-coast competitor, Beacon, which closed up shop in April. BlackJet was another replete with big name Silicon Valley backers, that promised to sell seats on private jets, with the idea that there’s fallow inventory to be monetized. But they failed miserably in execution and also because it is hard to guarantee a uniform experience across different plane inventory. An “Uber for private jets” doesn’t have the same demand as an Uber for taxis does.

Another upstart, JetSmarter, applies a different model, offering seat sharing on private jets — similar to what BlackJet tried to do. There’s regularly scheduled “shuttle” routes for members and then a la carte options at around $2,000 a seat.

But reviews are mixed. A recent WSJ piece highlighted unhappiness with the shared plane concept for longer flights. “For similar prices, you can fly more comfortably in American First or JetBlue Mint Class,” a passenger commented in the story.

So what is the formula that makes Surf Air seem to work so far? I canvassed a few happy customers and unpacked the following recurring themes:

  1. Consistent, predictable product. They fly the same plane on all routes, so you know what you are getting. Not some shared experience on an empty leg of a garish Sheikh’s jet.
  2. Users can only hold one round-trip reservation at a time, as to avoid seat speculation.
  3. Emphasis on popular short-haul routes. Anything else gets tight and claustrophobic for longer haul.
  4. Small, easy airports where you can arrive shortly before departure.

It’s easy to think that this model, especially as frustrations rise with public airport experiences, could be replicated globally for well-heeled commuters. Think London to Cannes, or Paris to Geneva. In fact, Surf Air is already doing it in Europe under a similar plan.

Of course, this isn’t for the everyday traveller. But when you consider people — the consultant class, for instance, regularly paying last-minute business class fares to fly recurring routes, it starts to make a lot of sense. Or those that don’t want to actually live in the riveting suburbs of the Valley, preferring to shack up in L.A. and commute. But success will come with operational acumen, and obviously all of the variables like the price of fuel, that burden the entire aviation industry.

Colin Nagy is a columnist for Skift. Reach him at [email protected]

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Tags: jetblue airways, On Experience, surf air

Photo credit: A promotional image of the all-you-can-fly Surf Air service. Surf Air

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