LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
A new airline with an innovative business model is about to take off. Federal regulators have just given California-based Surf Air permission to begin passenger service.
As NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports, it's an all-you-can-fly airline with payment made by regular subscription.
WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: Surf Air is a big idea with small planes. For a flat monthly fee, subscribers will be able to take all the trips they want between four California cities. The airline's co-founder and CEO Wade Eyerly boosts that Surf Air will offer frequent commuters a corporate jet experience for not that much more than regular airline prices.
WADE EYERLY: So we are walking in, you've parked your car, pull the door open and you see a sign where the concierge is standing to greet you. Let him know you are here for Surf Air.
KAUFMAN: We caught up with Eyerly at the general aviation facility on the far side of the Burbank airport in metropolitan Los Angeles. Instead of using big, busy terminals, Surf Air will fly out of smaller, low key places like this one. No TSA screening is required, so there's no conga line, no emptying your pockets or removing your shoes.
EYERLY: You're about probably 50 feet from the plane as it pulls up, and then the concierge will get you when its time to go.
(SOUNDBITE OF TERMINAL TO WALKING INTO PLANE)
EYERLY: Only one person at a time on the stairs, please.
KAUFMAN: The total amt of time - from parking your car to ducking inside the plane could be less than five minutes. The Swiss-made eight passenger turbo prop has a single engine and two pilots. The longest flight between San Francisco and Los Angles would be just over an hour.
The airline originally suggested the monthly subscription price would be about $1,000. But late last week, Surf Air said the first group of subscribers would pay a lot more - $1650 a month for an unlimited number of flights.
EYERLY: We are all you can fly the way old Netflix worked.
KAUFMAN: Wade Eyerly recalls that with Netflix you used to be able to order all the DVD's you wanted but could hold only a few of them at a time. With Surf Air, you can have just four boarding passes at once.
EYERLY: It keeps any one member from sort of boxing everybody else out from every flight - and makes sure that there's enough sort of capacity for everyone to be able to book regularly.
KAUFMAN: Analyst Wayne Plucker who's with the firm Frost and Sullivan has been following the airline's progress.
WAYNE PLUCKER: If they can get enough subscribers and keep them happy for long enough, it's a reasonable business model.
KAUFMAN: But he cautions that the economics of any airline are tricky, and says Surf Air will need enough cushion to cover mechanical or other problems.
When Surf Air first emerged as a concept, it drew thousands of people to its list of potential subscribers. But with the substantial increase in price; it's hard to know how many will actually sign up.
Evan Owens, the founder of a startup called Pogo Seat, isn't joining right now, but remains intrigued by the potential for making new business contacts in-flight.
EVAN OWENS: It's really the network connections I think, you know, if I sit down and meet an awesome startup founder or an investor who ends up, you know, investing in Pogo Seat that makes Surf Air completely worth it.
KAUFMAN: Another entrepreneur Francis Pedraza of a startup called Everest also notes the potential for networking, but adds the promise of faster door-to-door travel that's hassle-free is also appealing.
FRANCIS PEDRAZA: If they know that they understand me and they get me and they care about every little detail of the user experience, I'm far more likely to go with them than some airline that I just don't think gets it or cares about me or has any clue what customer service means.
KAUFMAN: Surf Air CEO Wade Eyerly says he knows if passengers aren't happy they won't renew their subscriptions and the airline will fail. But Eyerly, who's new to the airline industry, doesn't seem worried.
EYERLY: This is a market desperate for disruption. Airlines are literally the only industry that ranked below cable companies for what people think of them - dead last out of 47 industries surveyed. No one likes flying.
KAUFMAN: Eyerly hopes that will change when Surf Air takes to the skies. The first flight is expected in a couple of weeks.
Wendy Kaufman, NPR News
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