Surf Air: Will this Californian flying club take off in the UK?

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New private jet option for ‘an all-you-can-fly aviation buffet’ – at £3,150 per month

From the public entrance at London City airport, it’s an eight-minute walk along the airfield perimeter to the private jet terminal opposite the Travelodge. When I went to check it out early on Friday morning, the main point of interest en route was a group of five young men sharing a joint. Fortunately they did not appear to be pilots.

I wanted to take a look at the business aviation terminal because it is about to become a hub for an intriguing new enterprise: Surf Air.

The premise of this Californian start-up is that travellers don’t much like busy airports and crowds, and the way that time is devoured at either end of the journey. Surf Air offers the well-heeled (or generously expensed) the chance to join a handful of other elite passengers at an executive aviation terminal, depart speedily and, on arrival, leave the airport while those of us on normal commercial flights are still waiting for the person blocking the aisle to sort out their implausible expansive cabin baggage from the overhead locker.

With a maximum of eight passengers flying from London City to Zurich (and incurring £76 each in Air Passenger Duty), it sounds expensive. But that all depends how much you use it. Because Surf Air isn’t so much an airline as a club, which offers unlimited flights to members: an all-you-can-fly aviation buffet.

Surf Air began in California in 2013, and now operates in Europe as well. The idea is you pay a subscription of £3,150 a month, and can then fly as often as you like. You book flights on the Surf Air app, a process the firm says takes only 30 seconds.

A few catches. The only UK flights at present are to Zurich (from Luton currently, switching to the London City private jet centre next month). Surf Air says that’s the route that most of its members have asked for. The sort of cash-rich, time-poor travellers who would be tempted by Surf Air are also, in my observation, people who relish plenty of choice. At present members have just one flight a day, from Monday to Friday only, between Luton and Switzerland’s largest city. In comparison, there are dozens of flights each way between London’s assorted airports and Zurich.

Next, there could be other people ahead of you. Each plane has only eight seats on it. With a membership of 4,000 (albeit most of them in the US), demand could outstrip supply.

Simon Talling-Smith, chief executive of Surf Air Europe, tackles that issue head-on: “We aim in our business model for five or six people on average. There are a small number of services which are full. But what is important to us is that our subscribers keep subscribing, and the inability to make bookings switches people off very quickly.

“So it’s more important to have availability than to fill every day.”

Subscribers can hold only two forward reservations at any one time, which constrains a lot of booking until two or three days out.

The typical passenger, says Mr Talling-Smith, makes one return flight a week. The each-way fare on that basis works out at around £400 per one-way trip. For comparison, British Airways typically wants £439 for a short-notice, one-way business-class flight from London City to Zurich. And, says the Surf Air boss, a subscription can pay dividends: “You sit there with four or five other people, business contacts are made. Our members have found new customers and funding on our flights.”

The concept may work for the passengers, but it won’t do much for the environment. The pressure on the skies over London means that many flights must fly awkward, circuitous routes, with the extra environmental damage involved. Surf Air will be adding to the impact with a per-passenger footprint far in excess of the travellers on normal commercial flights.

An uncharitable traveller might speculate what the Californians were smoking when they decided to export Surf Air to the Docklands airport. But Simon Tolling-Smith says it is all about the most precious commodity of all: “Surf Air gives them back more time to enjoy their lives instead of queuing and waiting around in airport terminals.”

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