WLITF: Private Jets for the Masses -- A Surf Air Review

Surf Air uses the Swiss-made Pilatus PC-12 for its flights [ photo courtesy of Pilatus Aircraft ].

As part of my ‘we live in the future’ series, here’s a review of an unlimited private jet service for everyone.*

*And by jet I mean turboprop, and by everyone I mean upper-middle-class people.

Also, I talk about the 'instant economy' and the concept of 'implied odds' (from poker) as it relates to taking on big challenges like Surf Air is doing (the 'what if it works' section).  

Took a Surf Air flight today (gratis), as I'm considering a membership to the 'all you can fly' service.

It's day 16 of Surf Air's 'beta.' I’m writing this on my Blackberry Q10. Yeah, the new Blackberry with the keyboard. It’s awesome. Not kidding, I love having a keyboard.

Surf Air currently operates between the tiny San Carlos airport in the Bay Area and Burbank in the Los Angeles area. They're going to add a bunch of cities to the membership including Santa Barbara (July 10), San Diego and Lake Tahoe.

It's $1,650 a month for unlimited travel between their cities, plus a $500 one-time initiation fee.

My four to six monthly Southwest flights to the Valley make it almost a 'push' for me, as I pay $199 to $250 each way on average. If I do five flights, 2.5 round trips, I would nearly break even.

Now, as a disclaimer, I don't like small planes. I can handle a small jet, but puddle jumpers and turboprop/regional airlines are not my thing.

Statistically, folks die a whole lot more in small/private planes when compared to the bigger, commercial ones. In 2011 in the United States, 444 people died in general aviation accidents versus zero for commercial, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Let's put aside that debate, as some could argue it's illogical when you compare it to the risk of driving.

Surf Air uses the Pilatus PC-12, which costs around $3M. It's a Swiss-made plane with a super-safe track record. If one had the means, I could see buying it as a nice option for the southwest lifestyle.

You see, here in SoCal, you can make a ton of awesome trips on a 300 mph plane from Los Angeles: San Diego, Vegas, Monterey, Arizona and California's Central Coast. Two jumps/hours and you get to even more cool places.

And the fuel and maintenance costs of prop planes are a fraction of jets.

Surf Air, if successful, could be a revolution in travel. It could, literally, change everything. Or not.

Here's the experience I had:

1. Amazing value. Surf Air, as I said, is a push if you do four flights, and you're in the black if you do more. Many folks commute weekly between regions, so for them this is a no-brainer even if they elect to take a Southwest flight now and again.

One person on my flight was a court reporter who said it was low stress for her, and that she already got one more job because of it. Since the price is similar to flying Southwest, she used it to take a day trip to see her sister, a trip she would otherwise not have done.


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2. Super-friendly staff, and the pilots seem qualified. My first pilot told me he flew Falcon private jets prior to his Pilatus training. The second pilot told me she was a flight instructor and liked flying faster and faster planes -- thus the desire to get into the Pilatus (it’s fast).

Also, my understanding is a Pilatus is super easy to fly (correct me if I'm wrong here). Both pilots were in the 50-year-old range -- which is what I look for. People who have 20 or 30 years experience and who want to get back to their kids and/or grandkids safely. People who are not out burning the candle in three places like Denzel in ‘Flight,’ which is a solid film.

3. Quick boarding. I got to the airport at 8:05am for an 8:15am takeoff. We took off at 8:43am, as the blistering heat led to some slightly concerning discussions about our weight that took an extra 15 minutes.

4. Safety/weight. We got an email asking us to drop down to 25 pounds of  total checked baggage instead of 35 pounds a couple of hours before our flight. If we didn't make the weight, our bags would be sent to us on the next flight.  

This skyrocketed my anxiety, because I remember reading about a jackass pilot who packed a Pilatus and killed everyone on board -- including a bunch of kids.

Yeah, I researched the Pilatus PC-12 safety record before I took this flight. For over an hour. Am I the only maniac who does that?

Too much weight + small planes + pilots trying to accommodate rich customers + short runways + heat or snow or rain = death.

Then they took our weights, put the data in an iPad and gave us specific seats to 'balance the plane.'

This made me think of the cargo jet that just fell from the sky because packages moved during takeoff. The video is really disturbing.

Now, San Carlos is a short runway, so having all six passenger and two pilot seats filed, combined with the bag discussion, made me more than a little nervous.

I actually thought about getting off the plane. I texted my wife telling her how much I loved her. Yeah, you'd do that, too. Right?

5. Smooth sailing. I'm writing this almost an hour into our 75-minute flight and the Pilatus has been disturbingly smooth. Like literally feels like a perfect jet flight. I'm told we will hit bumps on the way into the wickedly hot 100-degree-plus San Fernando Valley. Will update this then.

Update: we are landing and the first bumps happened well into our descent. Maybe at 500 feet. Now it feels more like a small plane, but not much different than a jet. My heart rate did not change due to the modest bumps on landing.

6. Speed. We landed at 10:02am, exactly 1:18 from take-off. Burbank to San Jose or LA to SFO  is typically an hour -- or 15 fewer minutes of flying time.  We took off 40 minutes after I arrived. That's 10 to 20 minutes better than commercial, with no annoying security check.

In terms of leaving the airport, my time from plane to curb was less than 3 minutes. Southwest takes at least 15 minutes to leave the plane and terminal -- and I always get the premium option to board first so I can get into the first three rows. Back of the plane takes at least 10 minutes more.

Surf Air saves you 20-30 minutes on exit and boarding, but eats 20 minutes in flight. Actual saving 30-40 minutes, which doesn’t seem like a lot.

However, round trip it’s an hour to and hour and 20 minutes in time saved. Not bad, and certainly much nicer.

7. Cabin: the cabin has six captain's chairs that are like coach seats except everyone gets a window and an aisle seat, so it feels better. The four seats facing each other were filled with four full-sized men, which meant our feet were zig-zagged between each other and our knees were a foot apart.

People sitting in the back two seats can stretch their legs. So, Southwest seats are similar to the first four seats on Surf Air, but much worse then Surf Air's spacious last two seats.  

8. Bathroom. it's such a joke that the pilot said it’s for contortionists. There is no way you're getting in there except maybe to do a #1 (sorry to be crass). Don’t drink too much coffee and be sure to use the restroom before you leave.

9. Wifi. There is no wifi on Surf Air, but since the flight times are so short it really doesn’t matter. And considering you can use your devices during takeoff and landing, it’s -- again -- kind of a push in terms of value. If these were two-hour flights, the lack of wifi would be a much bigger issue. Wifi systems are like $100k to put on private jets (according to a couple of friends I know without it), so I’m doubting if Surf Air will ever add it (also, they take up space).

Now, since Surf Air is in competition with regional airlines like Southwest, it’s important to note that Southwest has the worst wifi on the planet. It’s a complete joke that SW was the last to get wifi, and when they did it was from the worst provider, Row44. I get wifi for free from SW since I’ve got elite status, and half the time I don’t even bother! It is that bad.

Gogo uses ground antennas and is much faster.

10. Drink service. There is no formal drink service on Surf Air since there is no flight attendant. If someone gets drunk on a Surf Air flight, it’s going to be up to everyone else on the plane to take care of business!

However, Surfair has premium snacks and drinks at the airport lounge and in cabinets accessible in the cabin during flight. This includes hot coffee.

At the San Carlos airport there is an awesome greasy spoon diner where I got some eggs, and in Burbank they let out at Atlantic Aviation -- which is where all the celebs fly in and out. So, you just might run into some while you’re waiting for your Uber. At Atlantic Aviation they have plenty of free coffee, swank bathrooms, couches and everything you think people with private jets would expect in a lounge.  

What if it works?

As an angel investor, gambler and entrepreneur I'm programmed to think, 'What if it works?'

In poker this has served me well at times -- and been costly at others. I will take a risk of a 15% chance of winning if I know the player or players I'm against will ship all their chips to me on the off chance I do hit.

In fact, my second nickname at the table is 'j-call' because of this habit. That’s a play on my primary nickname JCal ( which is the abbreviated version of my actual name).

Anyway, the 'implied odds' of crazy hands -- sorry startups -- working is what I like to focus on in life. Sure, a human-powered search engine only has a 10% chance of working -- but what if it does?!

If Surf Air can figure out how to provide unlimited travel at these kinds of prices it could result in the free movement of talented people. So, the best SEO expert in San Diego could start servicing clients in the 10 cities within a one- to two-hour flight without ever packing a bag or booking a hotel room.

And since you can book a seat on Surf Air 15 minutes before takeoff (if seats are available), we’re moving to a world where I could be at breakfast and get a call to take a meeting in Palo Alto. With the help of Uber (full disclosure, I’m an investor in Uber), I could have a car pick me up in five minutes, take off in 20 minutes, have the lunch meeting and be back in time to have dinner AND put my daughter to bed.

And never worry about the cost of the flight since it’s flat rate.

Oh yeah, if there’s bad weather and the flight is cancelled, I can take out Hotel Tonight and get a last-minute room for $139 -- like I did at the Ace Hotel when in NYC two weeks ago.

A software developer on the flight told me this was for fun. He had two trips a month to do for business, but he was most excited to get the hell out of the Bay Area and go to Vegas, Santa Barbara, LA and San Diego for fun trips.

If you’ve ever spent a weekend in Palo Alto you can understand his position. It’s horribly boring there.

If Surf Air makes this work with the Pilatus, they could start putting Phenom 100 or 300s into service -- actual jets -- and start really doing damage by taking folks to Colorado, Seattle and Cabo.

And what happens if these planes get 30% more efficient in their fuel usage in the coming years? What if the price of the planes comes down 50%? What if they have autopilot and can land themselves -- only requiring one pilot?

Surf Air was an awesome experience and a real peek into the future of transportation. Sure, it’s only for upper-middle-class/professionals right now, but there is no reason these kinds of services couldn’t offer single tickets for the same price as Southwest (or 20% more).

I’m really rooting for them, and I’m seriously considering signing up for a membership.

best @jason

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