San Diego’s newest airline made its maiden flight into town on November 17. Arriving at Carlsbad’s Palomar-McClellan airport exactly at sundown, with Frank Sinatra’s “Come Fly with Me” playing in the background, Surfair officially began service to the San Diego area.
According to company officials, Surfair, is posed to set the airline industry on its ear. As the company’s new plane was on approach from the east, Justin Hart, vice president of the airline, said, “Ticketed air travel is broken. Most air travelers know the system needs some renovation.”
Surfair is a concierge membership airline, a new business model in the decades-long, stagnant air-travel industry. Starting in the L.A. area last year, for a membership fee of $1750 a month, members have unlimited travel to any of the seven cities served.
When stepping off the 35-minute first flight from L.A., Surfair’s CEO and chairman of the board, Jeff Porter, said his passengers will be company founders, presidents, CEOs, and entrepreneurs that like to get things done. “Time is a commodity to these people,” he said. “They can get to where they need to go, do their business, and get back home,” he said.
He then invited onlookers to look around the vista from the tarmac at the hundreds of Carlsbad’s corporate office buildings within view of the runway. “There are tons of people that will use our service within a mile radius,” he added. Porter was former CEO of Frontier Airlines. He went on to run Exclusive Resorts, a membership vacation firm, before joining Surfair.
By using smaller airports in major metro areas, Surfair claims to cut hours off of the round-trip traveling hassles of driving, parking, checking in, and those security lines. Using a mobile app, a reservation can be made in 30 seconds, according to the company. Upon joining, members are pre-screened by TSA, so there is no security checkpoint when boarding.
Hubbed at L.A.’s smaller Hawthorne airport (six minutes east of LAX), the airline currently serves Burbank, Las Vegas, San Carlos (Bay Area), and Truckee/Lake Tahoe areas. Surfair will soon be the only airline offering direct service from the San Diego area to Santa Barbara. On December 15, service to Oakland is scheduled to begin.
One of the plane’s pilots, Dan Phamy, said he would take off at 6:00 a.m. the next morning, November 18, which will officially begin Surfair’s two-a-day round-trip flights from Carlsbad to the Bay Area.
With a recently received investment of $65 million, the company is said to have made commitments to purchase 15 new, Swiss-made, Pilatus PC-12’s, adding one plane each month as it opens up destinations in 11 new cities, including Bakersfield, Mammoth Lakes, Palm Springs, Sacramento, Scottsdale, and San Luis Obispo. The fleet’s planes are a single prop, eight-passenger aircraft with luxury-designed cabins.
Potential member Lauran Tanney brought her family to the inaugural landing. “Airlines are losers,” she said. “We look forward to getting there, but not making the trip.” Tanney has a company in San Jose and recently moved to North County. She says she travels to San Jose up to four times a month. She says if she joins, Surfair will even have a rental car waiting for her when she arrives.
The company claims to currently have 1100 members. There is already a waiting list of potential members from the San Diego area, as membership has been limited while the airline expands. At Palomar, the firm will use the charter service and jet maintenance terminal of Premier Air, rather than the airport’s public terminal. Currently, only United uses the public terminal, with flights to LAX four times a day.
Surfair’s arrival to Carlsbad probably doesn’t help the future plans of California Pacific Airlines, which tried for three years to receive FAA certification to hub at Palomar Airport in order to serve five destinations similar to those of Surfair. Rancho Santa Fe millionaire Ted Vallas spent around $12 million trying to get CP Air off the ground, eventually having to return the planes to the leaseholder and furloughing the employees. Reportedly, the 94-year-old Vallas is still looking to purchasing an existing commuter airline and move it into Carlsbad. CP Air’s signage and graphics are still posted at the terminal’s never-used ticketing and check-in counter.