Fly all you want for a monthly fee
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS) -- The basic model for commercial air travel has stayed pretty much the same for almost 100 years: you buy a ticket for a flight, board the plane and take off.
Then in the early 2000s, the rising cost of fuel, airline mergers, consolidations and outright failures drove the industry into a tailspin, costing it $55 billion through 2008, reports CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg. It was during this time, while working for the Bush White House, that Wade Eyerly had an idea.
"I was flying as much as 27 days a month, and I think I developed an acute understanding for the pain point that frequent fliers go through," he recalls.
His solution for long airport lines, cancelled flights and bad service: Surf Air.
"We're a subscription airline, so instead of being a transaction and a ticket, it's a relationship, and it continues," Eyerly says.
Once you become a member, you can fly as much as you want.
"People have described it as a country club with planes instead of golf courses," the airline's founder tells CBS News.
For $1,600 a month -- the equivalent of three last-minute roundtrip flights between Los Angeles and San Francisco -- the difference is obvious, starting at check in.
"Ramon, how you doing? Welcome back to Surf Air!" a flight attendant greets a passenger. "What I'm going to do is take your photo, that way you don't have to present your ID next time you fly with us."
"So next time, I don't need an ID?" the passenger asks.
"No, you just show up! As long as you're here before the flight, we ask 15 minutes beforehand," replies the Surf Air employee. Since Surf Air flies less than 10 passengers at a time, the TSA doesn't get involved.
"What people like about us is they bought two hours back in their life," says Eyerly.
Members can hold up to four reservations at a time and make those reservations up to 15 minutes before a flight -- no change fees, no added costs for last minute travel plans.
"No one, until Surf Air came along, actually combined a membership club model with travel, so in that sense, it's been clearly disruptive," explains Surf Air CEO Jeff Potter.
But it's not for everyone. Only frequent travelers between regular sets of cities can benefit from membership, and the airline still has a limited route map. It currently only flies to five cities in California, but the small, under-utilized airports it serves, like those just outside San Francisco and Los Angeles, are cheaper to fly into and make the whole model cost-effective.
"There are 19,820 places to land an aircraft in the United States, right? We're orders of magnitude over-built. Half of our infrastructure -- half of America's airports -- operate at less than 10 percent of capacity," Eyerly explains. "We have these great airports that are completely under utilized, and so we get to leverage that in ways that an airline flying a 737 can't."
Surf Air's small seven-seat turboprop planes are just fine for entrepreneur Ramon Castillon, who makes the most of his membership, flying between his home in LA and startup company in San Francisco on average four times a week.
"I don't know if I would consider this my own private plane, but it definitely makes the flying so much easier," Castillon says.
"Many other charter operators or private air travel folks consider us a gateway drug," jokes Eyerly. "We teach people for the very first time that it's affordable to travel in private aircraft."
Surf Air is awaiting FAA approval to expand its idea -- and flights -- outside of California. The first city on the list: Las Vegas. If this new model pays off here, expect it to be copied by other entrepreneurs all over America.
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