"Let's buy a plane. . . and start an airline!" That's not the usual aspiration of those who find flying a casual hobby, but Wade Eyerly listened to his brother (who was then in flight school) and started Surf Air in 2011. A former Economist for the Defense Intelligence Agency and Staff Officer with the Department of Defense, Eyerly had no knowledge of private flight, let alone affordable private flight. "It started as a joke," Eyerly admits. However, once five of their friends quit their comfortable high-paying day jobs to commit to Surf Air's mission to revolutionize the world of air travel, the venture was no longer just a jest.
In 2011, Surf Air was accepted to the coveted Mucker Lab in Santa Monica, "Silicon Beach" — as it is now deemed by venture capital circles. Money was raised, three Swiss-made Pilatus PC-12s were bought, and 23 full-time employees opened three routes to Surf Air members in May of 2013. Since then, members have enjoyed the "Netflix" model membership for $1,650 a month, which allows them unlimited flights up and down three of California’s most desirable cities — San Carlos, Santa Barbara, and Burbank. I recently flew from Burbank to San Carlos, just 20 minutes south of San Francisco, and delighted in the lack of lines, advance reservations (you can book a flight in 30 seconds just an hour before take-off), fuss, TSA scrutiny, and tacked on fees. The top-notch service and fellow entrepreneur passengers were an added bonus.
I sat down with Eyerly one afternoon in Santa Monica to learn more about Surf Air and its increasing demand.
Justluxe: Surf Air is a "Netflix" of the sky, as you describe it. Tell me more.
Wade Eyerly: Surf Air is an all-you-can fly monthly subscription-based airline that operates in a similar fashion to the original Netflix model, in that it was "all you can watch" DVDs, but you'd get four at your house at once. We do the same thing, but with boarding passes instead of DVDs. Fly one, and you can book it again — but in essence, you can hold four reservations at any one time.
JL: It's not just private flying and the incredible convenience, though. You told me that 92 percent of your members are CEOs and entrepreneurs. Has the "networking" aspect surprised you, and is that a value you'll directly promote? Is it a more demure "perk" of being a Surf Air member?
WE: There are several elements that lend themselves nicely to building community and facilitating networking conversation — from the initial route (Silicon Beach to Silicon Valley) to the social elements built into our booking system to the configuration of the seats on the plane. We certainly knew that the community would be important (and it's one of our four key values), but I don't think we knew how important it would be. We've seen everything from camping trips planned between people who met on our flights to a business that raised its round during the flight.
JL: One benefit Surf Air has, compared to another start-ups that lack infrastructure in the market, is the ample available airports that can accommodate your planes. Will you elaborate on this?
WE: We fly the Pilatus PC-12 executive aircraft, which is one of the safest, most dependable and versatile single-engine aircraft on the market. Most airports in the U.S. are highly underutilized, with 90 percent at only 1/3 of capacity. That gives us a lot of "runway" to work with.
JL: Right now, you have three aircraft and plan to buy more with a capital raise later this fall or winter. You also have quite the wait list with about 6,000 currently on it. Is the plan to get more planes in the air in order to meet this demand? What else are you aiming to do with the cash infusion?
WE: At Surf Air, excellent customer service is a priority. Because we leverage a monthly subscription model, it is imperative that we consistently deliver on our core values of Safety, Simplicity, Community and First Class service, or our members won't come back again and again. We've had an incredible response to the model and numerous requests from potential members begging us to open in their market next. But we're a supply constrained business, so to meet all the demand we need more planes.
JL: One Forbes article mentioned the issue of safety; that your jets, specifically, are not required to meet the same safety standards as the regular commercial airlines, like United or Southwest.
WE: Safety is the first of our four company values. We hold ourselves to a high safety standard, one that significantly exceeds regulations set forth by the FAA and DOT for airlines of our classification. Surf Air is not a place where the bare minimum is acceptable; we have a moral obligation to give safety every possible attention, and we do just that. But we also posted a specific response to that article in the comments, outlining specifically some of the actions we take.
JL: Is Surf Air really a "luxury" offering, in your mind?
WE: Certainly. $1,650 a month for air travel is a discretionary expense. Surf Air offers safe and luxurious travel at an attractive monthly rate, making it an ideal choice for entrepreneurs and other professionals who want flexibility and convenience, without the hassles of commercial travel. Our members enjoy unlimited, scheduled flight benefits, on-site concierge service and a first-class experience on executive aircraft. We eliminate the hassles, cost and wasted time of commercial travel options by offering 30-second or less booking and cancellations, travel to and from un-congested regional airports, and an easy arrive-and-fly process with no hassle, no lines and no extra fees. We aim to make every interaction with Surf Air exceptional.