Back-Seat Driver

Surf Air exec: Sacramento may be next stop

Passengers at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank in June 2013 board a plane operated by Surf Air, an airline that offers unlimited travel to members who pay initiation and monthly fees.  Surf Air started flying between smaller airports in California, focusing on flyers who do business in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, and who would prefer doing so without the hassles of major airports.
Passengers at Bob Hope Airport in Burbank in June 2013 board a plane operated by Surf Air, an airline that offers unlimited travel to members who pay initiation and monthly fees. Surf Air started flying between smaller airports in California, focusing on flyers who do business in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, and who would prefer doing so without the hassles of major airports. New York Times file

Aaron Barnhart of Sacramento has his fingers crossed that he soon will begin living an air traveler’s fantasy. Here is how his fantasy goes:

Barnhart, a businessman, needs a last-minute flight. He taps an app on his smartphone and, in 30 seconds, has booked a plane to the Bay Area. The next morning, he drives to a private terminal, possibly at Sacramento Executive Airport in Land Park, hands a concierge his car keys, and steps immediately onto an eight-seat Swiss-made turboprop.

Within 15 minutes, he’s in the air. No federal TSA checkpoints. No crowds or waits. Just a complimentary coffee in hand, and a seat that swivels.

Barnhart, an executive with HP Communications, will get that wish if a new California-based air carrier called Surf Air makes good on plans to start doing business in Sacramento in 2015.

Surf Air is a members-only airline that serves a handful of California cities, but has plans to grow substantially in the next few years. In terms of a business model, it’s a lot more like Netflix, the online membership entertainment service, than it is like traditional air carriers Southwest or United.

Surf Air charges members a $1,000 initiation fee, and a $1,750 monthly fee. Members can fly an unlimited number of times per month. Surf Air’s customers fly out of private terminals, avoiding the hassles, lines and other time-wasting aspects of commercial flights.

Surf Air isn’t for everybody. It flies in and out of Truckee, San Carlos, Oakland, Santa Barbara, Hawthorne, Burbank and Carlsbad, with up to 42 flights a day. That makes the company of use to a small slice of travelers, usually business people who fly frequently inside California.

Surf Air officials say they typically need to sign up at least 100 members in a city for it to make financial sense to add that city to their service network. They say they are looking at adding Sacramento, Sonoma, San Jose, Monterey and a few other cities soon. The company also is considering future expansion to other states.

Others in the charter air industry say they are watching Surf Air to see if its business model has legs.

Jeff Potter, CEO of Surf Air, said his company recently ordered 65 more planes for delivery over the next five years to allow it to expand.

“Sacramento, I can say, it is not if, it is when,” Potter said. “We have 10 airplanes coming next year. That would probably represent four to five new markets. Sacramento would likely be one of those. The earliest we’d open new markets is late first or early second quarter.”

Potter, who is the former head of Frontier Airlines, said his company is unlikely to have much influence or impact on commercial airline companies. Its planes are small, and its flights are limited. But he said Surf Air is finding a niche market among people and companies who do not want to pay for expensive, exclusive executive jets, but who want more ease and service than normal airports offer.

Sacramento businessman Barnhart said he contacted Surf Air a year ago and asked to be put on the wait list, in hopes the company will open shop here. He now drives to the south Bay Area frequently. His current round trip car drive to the Bay Area can take six hours, a horrible waste of time.

If Surf Air starts up, he’ll take a 37-minute flight to San Carlos and drive to his San Jose office, or catch a plane from there to a Southern California office. His company will pay the membership fee. He’ll still have to use commercial flights for out-of-state business trips.

“It enables me to be so much more productive at work,” Barnhart said. “The biggest thing it will change is my family life. I have four boys here. The biggest plus is to get home to sit at the dinner table with them every night. To me that is priceless.”

Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.

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