Surf Air brings on-demand business flights to Europe's jet set

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright February 22, 2017
About to launch in Europe, on-demand subscription airline Surf Air takes a novel approach to business travel that the 1970s jet set would approve of

Surf Air boarding 370px
There was a time when jet travel was so exclusive, the phrase 'jet set' was coined to describe those with the means to be frequent flyers.

Today, the notion of frequent flyer is associated with rather more miserable experiences. But a young company called Surf Air is offering its members an escape from all that pain, and its nascent service, already thriving in California, is about to land in Europe.

I suspect this is a club that James Bond, if he were a real person rather than a fictional British spy with a legendary expense account, would definitely want to be a member of. And Eve Moneypenny, his travel administrator, would certainly approve of its all-you-can-eat monthly subscription.

Surf Air is a modern, digitally connected, on-demand, mobile-first reinvention of air travel — for those whose jet-set lifestyle can justify a $1,950-per-month subscription (£1,750 in Europe), on top of a one-time joining fee. That subscription buys you and your guest as many on-demand flights as you like on Surf Air's local network, which when it launches services in Europe will fly between the banking and playboy destinations of London, Zurich, Luxembourg, and Cannes, plus weekend sorties to Ibiza. You can already feel 007's itinerary taking shape.

Avoiding the melée

The big selling point is avoiding all the melée and hassle of routine business air travel. Surf Air flies eight-seater executive jet and turboprop aircraft from private terminals, where passengers relax comfortably while their ID is checked and bags are stowed during the few minutes' wait before boarding. Members use a smartphone app to book their seats on timetabled services that average 75% occupancy (for obvious reasons, Fridays and Mondays are the busiest days, and the app lets you waitlist for a flight if it's full).

The service is designed to be as flexible as possible. It takes just 20 seconds to book a flight using the mobile or web app, and members can cancel or change their booking up to 30 minutes before departure. The aim is to save time and provide a stress-free experience, says Coen Van Niersen, Chief Membership Officer and head of European sales:

The whole stress piece of, 'Am I going to make my flight? How long is it going to take to get through security?' — the whole drama of commercial aviation is what we take away.

We save on average two hours per flight compared to commercial aviation.

In California, where Surf Air launched three years ago, there are now 90 flights a day between 11 destinations within the state, plus weekend trips to Las Vegas. Services to and from San Diego will be added this spring. Emphasizing the lifestyle impact of the service, Van Niersen tells me one member has been able to take up coaching his son's football team because the shorter transit time means he can now reliably get back in time for training sessions.

US subscribers are a mix of tech industry entrepreneurs, business executives, media and entertainment types and other wealthy people. The company expects business travelers will make up most of the target market in Europe.

Subscription billing

The airline uses subscription billing software provider Zuora to manage the accounts of its 3,000 US subscribers and its prospective members in Europe. The platform has helped it to rapidly experiment with pricing, tailor offers based on member insights, support a variety of electronic payments and automate high volumes of transactions. In a press statement today, Simon Talling-Smith, CEO of Surf Air Europe, comments:

Zuora is essential to the success of our subscriber-centric model as the agility we gain from their subscription management solution is critical to scaling our international operation effectively.

Neirsen, who spoke to diginomica at Zuora's London conference in November, says Surf Air's app allows it to assess demand for additional destinations in Europe:

It's almost like we're taking a crowdsourcing approach. We'll fly where we see there's enough demand in terms of subscriptions.

Additional destinations the company is investigating include Amsterdam, Paris and Geneva.

Chosen for its selection of private terminals, Surf Air's proposed London base, however, is as much of an anti-climax as Lorraine Chase's celebrated reply in the 1970s Campari TV ad, which concludes with the punchline:

Nah, Luton Airport.

My take

Zuora is promoting Surf Air as a distinctive example of how the subscription economy is upending traditional industries. It's certainly an impressive illustration of how streamlined automated processes can enable new business models in the most unexpected quarters.

I can think of quite a few examples where a service like this can deliver useful value to those for whom time is money. But since its selling point is exclusivity, it seems unlikely to entirely disrupt the global airline industry in quite the way that Zuora is trumpeting. The jet set always was a privileged minority, and I suspect Surf Air's subscribers are a similar bunch.

More choice, though, is always welcome. If I did live in California I personally would find a Surf Air subscription very tempting. And, all joking aside, I think its booking and boarding process is a great example of frictionless enterprise.

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