As I curve around the freeway off ramp, I look in my rearview mirror, relieved that I’m no longer in the slow-moving flow of commuters making their way home up the valley. I pull up in front of a small building at the municipal airport in San Carlos, Calif., and park, just a few hundred feet from the runway. I grab my small duffel out of the back of my car and head toward the doors to Surf Air. As I enter, I’m greeted by Tyler, a young, very nice concierge who greets me by name and takes my bags. I’ve never met Tyler before. It’s 6:10 p.m. I’m offered water and snacks as Tyler logs me in and weighs my bag. “OK, you’re all set. We’ll board in just a few minutes.” The check-in process is done. I’m about to board for my flight home, which is 365 miles south. It’s 6:19. This is the start of my commute.
So begins my story ... is it feasible for me to commute to work from an entirely different city, hundreds of miles away ... by airplane? Could I trade my 45-minute car commute in ridiculously heavy traffic for a window seat, flying 14,000 feet over beautiful California? And can I do all this by not flying a commercial or private jet? I was about to find out.
6:24 p.m. — Boarding. Tyler returns just after taking the bellman’s cart with our luggage out to load the plane. We walk out onto the tarmac to our awaiting Pilatus PC-12, a single-engine turboprop. Five passengers are joining me for the one-hour flight from San Carlos to Santa Barbara — which I’ve chosen as my “home” for the next few days. As I enter the plane, I immediately notice the seats, leather ... comfortable ... operable seats. Our pilot Tyler (not the same as concierge Tyler) greets me and tells me it’ll be a smooth and beautiful flight down the coast. I settle in with my iPad, headphones, and, of course, my camera. My fellow passengers do the same. Some have laptops, others place Bose headphones on their heads, some exchange pleasantries. It’s 6:29.
So what is Surf Air? For one thing, it’s not a commercial airline. Founded in 2013, Surf Air was established as the nation’s first private travel club offering unlimited monthly flights. That’s not a typo: unlimited flights. Is it a luxury service? Not quite. When you think of private air travel, you think, private jets reserved for the likes of the rich and the famous. Not Surf Air. According to former CEO of Frontier Airlines Jeff Potter, who is now leading the helm at Surf Air, he cringes at the “luxury” label: “Eighty-five percent of our current members, prior to joining Surf Air, were traveling to work on commercial airlines, in economy class. From an economic and service perspective, they’ve taken the view that this is not necessarily a luxury, this is just a better way to do business and a better way to save time.” Are the planes luxurious? Sort of. All of Surf Air’s Pilatus PC-12s were designed with an eight-seat all-business-class interior to ensure the highest level of comfort and convenience.
In addition to the economic and timesaving perks, members are also saving their sanity. The U.S. Department of Transportation reported airline consumer complaints rose more than 20 percent in the first six months of 2015 (9,542 consumer complaints) compared to the same period in 2014 (7,935 complaints). In other words, flying commercial is not as pleasant as it used to be.
6:35 p.m. — Wheels up. As we ascend over the marsh that surrounds San Carlos Airport, I look out the window. I see the 101 freeway, packed with hundred of cars, slowly inching their way north and south. The cars are bumper-to-bumper as far up the Silicon Valley corridor as I can see. “Poor souls,” I say to myself. I ease back, place my headphones on, and relax. I’m commuting home.
So how does it work? Surf Air memberships start at $1,950 per month, with a $1,000 initiation fee. This gets you unlimited flights per month to such destinations as Santa Monica, Oakland, San Carlos, Santa Barbara, and Truckee, to name a few. That adds up to more than 70 daily flights all over California, booked at the click of a mouse. Airport parking? Easy. Hassle-free check-in ... with a smile? Yup. Security? Nope. Boarding rush to secure an overhead spot? Nah.
7:30 p.m. — We land at Santa Barbara airport, where the sun is casting an orange glow on the surrounding mountains. The passengers file out in an orderly fashion. A Surf Air concierge stands at the bottom of the stairs holding a basket filled with car keys. She greets each passenger by first name and hands over a key. I disembark last, and our Surf Air concierge asks me if I need anything — a rental car? Call a taxi? Water? Snacks for the drive home? I decide to use Uber. It’ll arrive in six minutes.
It’s not uncommon to hear the words “start up” when talking about Surf Air, and CEO Jeff Potter knows that: “I think we take the best from the startup mentality, which is entrepreneurial, thinking outside the box. People know they can talk to me, and they do, any time they want. And there’s no shortage of ideas.” Some have described Surf Air as the only service that is disrupting the air industry. The hotel industry has Airbnb and the ground transportation industry has Lyft and Uber. The skies now have Surf Air. But at the end of the day, Surf Air is an air service, and this fact is not lost on Jeff, who says, “We never lose sight of the fact that we are flying airplanes and we are responsible for the safety and security of all our members.”
7:33 p.m. — As I wait for my Uber, I check Instagram to pass the time and see that a few old high school friends who still live in Santa Barbara are having clam chowder down on the harbor. I decide to surprise them. After all, it’s not even 8 p.m. and I just got “home,” and I’m not at all tired from the travel — in fact, I’m getting my second wind, something I don’t get after driving in awful traffic for an hour. I send a text, “I’m on my way.”
8:20 p.m. — I’m cozying up to the bar and greet my friends. “What are you doing here?” they ask, perplexed. “I commuted from work,” I reply and describe my journey. Just a few hours ago, I was in the office, some 375 miles away, plugging away at my computer. And now I was in beautiful Santa Barbara, sipping white wine and eating a bowl of delicious clam chowder.
11:00 p.m. — Home. I have an early commute tomorrow (I want to go to the gym at work), so I’ve chosen a 6:30 a.m. flight to San Carlos.
Luxury air businesses such as JetMe, BlackJet, and NetJets take up a large market share of the private air industry that is open to those willing to shell out a huge sum for a flight that is not shared, but that doesn’t mean commercial airlines aren’t taking notice. Delta (DAL) operates Delta Private Air, which uses a range of jets with prices starting at $5,500 — and that’s per flight. So it’s easy to see how Surf Air can give you a bit of pause and head scratch as to its approach to the air industry and its subscription model.
5:15 a.m. — I wake up and try to muster the will to get out of bed. It’s too early. Ugh. I have to head to the airport. Maybe I’ll change my flight to one of the three later-scheduled flights that depart Santa Barbara for San Carlos. While that’s an option, I remind myself that I’m not going to a commercial airline terminal. No long lines at the check-in counter. There’s no security line to go through. I can do this. I get up, throw my gym clothes on, grab my bag, and head for the door. It’s 5:35.
At 5:52 a.m. I am pulling into the small parking lot located in front of the Surf Air office. I park and head in. I’m greeted by another Surf Air concierge who seems unusually happy for someone at 6:00, but I don’t mind. I go through the same check in, weighing my bags and being offered coffee and snacks. Our pilot comes in and says hello. And here’s something you don’t see every day ... the same pilot then takes our cart with our bags and heads out the door. I turn around and peek out the window. He’s loading it himself onto the plane. In the commercial world, unions would have a fit. Not at Surf Air. Everyone is there to help and lend to the experience, and that is what I’m realizing about Surf Air. They want you to have an experience.
It’s 6:13 a.m. and every member has checked in. We proceed out to the tarmac to board. I eavesdrop on members greeting each other. In fact, two passengers are talking about their kids, each of them catching up with the other. Another individual is still working on his laptop as we walk out. You could never do that in a car. The pilot greets everyone by first name. Where am I? What bizarro world is this? My morning commute begins.
After a formal security brief by the pilot, we are ready to take off. It’s 6:19, and the door shuts. I ease into my leather seat and look out the window. A few minutes later we are wheels up.
And beyond California? Surf Air has big plans. “In the next 12, 18 months, I think you could foresee us in Texas, in Florida, ultimately in the Northeast. But at the same time, in parallel, we’re looking at opportunities in the international setting.”
I’m awakened by a slight bump and realize that we’ve landed. I look at my watch. It reads 7:20 a.m. And within minutes, the plane door opens and we file out, again in orderly fashion, no pushing or shoving. The pilots say bye to everyone. The concierge greets us at the tarmac.
7:31 a.m. — I’m in my car and heading to the office. It’s a 10-mile drive to work, and there’s a bit of traffic. I don’t mind — I was just in Santa Barbara this morning.
7:50 a.m. — I arrive at the office and head to the gym. My day at work begins. I run into a co-worker who took the corporate shuttle from San Francisco and arrived at the gym at 7:30. I ask him what time he left his house for work. “Six a.m. to catch the 6:30 shuttle. Why?” he asks. I grin. “I left my house at 5:35 a.m. and just got here.” The look he gives me is the unmistakable look of “you poor bastard.” With a straight face, I reply, “But I came from Santa Barbara.” Mic drop.
For the next few days, I continue commuting by plane. I talk to other passengers who do the commute one to three times a week. A consultant. A lawyer. Not everyone does it daily. They work from home on those days. There’s a guy from Google (GOOG). A physician with a patient in the Bay Area. These aren’t the luxury jet setters I would imagine using such a service. And that’s exactly the way Surf Air wants it.
And again, it’s that “luxury” label that Surf Air wants to avoid, especially when the service appeals to corporate clients. Jeff wants them to see it as a “perk,” like a corporate shuttle or the free food you see in most Silicon Valley tech companies. But most importantly, it’s a cost-saving measure. “Over 50 percent of our members now are in some sort of corporate-related field, and when you take the individual members that are being paid for by their corporations to use Surf Air, we’re probably 65 percent to 70 percent corporate members. And those corporations see the monetary and economic value, but they also see the value of the time savings.”
I asked everyone why they signed up, and I got the same consistent answer: You gain time and convenience. But there’s more to the service than just commuting. Want to go to Napa for a wine tasting event? No problem, they fly there. Feel like a day hike around Lake Tahoe but have to be back in the Bay Area for a dinner? Easy. Surf Air flies regularly to Truckee. Want to watch the Warriors kick off their season at home? Surf Air goes to Oakland.
Surf Air has long-term plans. “We’ve just taken delivery of our 11th aircraft. We have an order for a total of 65 aircraft over the next five years,” said Jeff with big enthusiasm. That means more routes and more time savings.
7:32 a.m. — I’m on my last flight for this story. I disembark, having come from Santa Barbara and say bye to Captain Tyler, my regular pilot. We say we’ll keep in touch. I see Andrew, the concierge, and I shake his hand to thank him for all his work. I’ve broken a barrier that I normally wouldn’t have flying commercial. I’ve made acquaintances.
7:45 a.m. — I drive the 10 miles to work.
6:08 p.m. — With reality setting in, I walk out to my car after a long day of work. I have a 36-mile trip ahead of me. I check traffic on my Waze app. It will take me just over an hour. As I merge onto the freeway, the first thing I notice is the amount of cars and the slow-moving traffic. Alone in my car, I’m already longing for the days of commuting by air. It’s been 11 hours since I flew in from Santa Barbara. I merge onto the freeway. Sigh. I grip the steering wheel tightly. Foot on the pedal. Then brake. Then pedal. Then brake. I’m going 30 mph. I’m commuting home.