Silicon Valley Gets Its Own Airline, SurfAir

By Kym McNicholas , written on April 5, 2012

From The News Desk

Just eight weeks after being accepted into Southern California incubator Mucker Labs, a new airline SurfAir has emerged to serve entrepreneurs, executives, and Venture Capitalists, who travel frequently throughout the state of California. Founder Wade Eyerly is a first-time entrepreneur. Prior to this, he had worked was an intelligence office for the CIA, and on the White House Advance Team for Vice-President Dick Cheney. He got the idea to start a small commuter airline, after his brother struggled to find a job as a pilot in the current economic climate.

I found out about this new airline through Michael Flint, who is also working to help create SurfAir. I’d met him last summer through a mutual friend when my family was stranded in New Castle, Pennsylvania. My mom had collapsed from blood clots in her lungs and doctors had said it would be fatal for her to fly commercial, take a train, or even to drive.

I had posted a desperate plea for help on my Facebook page, and 15Five CEO David Hassell had introduced me to Flint, a former pilot for Warren Buffett and former co-pilot for Air Force One, during the George W. Bush and Bill Clinton Presidencies. He was now based in the San Francisco Bay Area, having most recently worked at NetJets. He called and said he’d take care of it. He also used to fly medical flights in the military, so he offered to fly my family at low-altitude in a six-seater Piper Saratoga across the country to get my mom back safely.

It was during that trip that I realized the US infrastructure has billions of dollars that is hardly used, so much infrastructure that Flint said he could have us landing on a runway within 20 minutes, in case of an emergency with my mom. I later learned that about half of America’s airports operate at less than 10% capacity, and those are mainly the municipal airports, such as Palo Alto Airport in Silicon Valley.

Turns out that Flint has been secretly working with an entrepreneur in Southern California to take advantage of all of these small airports throughout the Western Region. Eyerly was tapping into Flint’s flying experience, as he pondered the idea to create a new airline. It wasn’t until February, when SurfAir truly started taking shape. It became the first non-tech company accepted into Southern California incubator, Mucker Labs. Eyerly wasn’t sure it would be the right fit or how they could help him build his airline. But when a mutual friend introduced him to the founders of Mucker Labs, he entertained a meeting.

“I said, why would I want to build my company at a place that only houses tech companies,” explains Eyerly. “They told me that one, we know you could use some investment to get you started, and two, we’ve built enough businesses that we know what to do.”

SurfAir grew quickly and is already launching its beta this month. It’s starting with six destinations. 500 people were selected to participate. It’s a subscription model, just like Netflix. For less than $1000 per month, members can fly multiple trips between California destinations on a private Pilatus 8-seater aircraft. Passengers drive right up to the aircraft, where a valet parks their car and takes their luggage. They’re all pre-screened, so all they have to do is board the aircraft, and they’re at their destination within an hour with a car waiting for them as they exit the plane.

Who’s the target audience? It’s targeting high-level entrepreneurs, executives, and venture capitalists. SurfAir wants to give first-priority to the who’s who, in order to create an environment prime for networking and relationship-building. People who travel four-to-five times per month would benefit the most from this service.

If you’re an ultra frequent traveler, though, meaning those of you who travel to Los Angeles three times per week, this isn’t a good service for you. Passengers can’t book their next trip until they're already back from the last one, and chances are the next flight they would want that week would already be booked up. It’s also not right for corporations to buy seats, yet. The tickets are non-transferable. SurfAir will consider plans to meet corporate needs in the future.

“We just have to prove one model at a time,” says Eyerly.

So, will this model work? That’s a big question. They had originally planned to launch it on the East Coast but quickly realized, with the train service there, it wasn’t a great market. Here in California, where 15% of domestic flights out of the Bay Area's SFO commute between San Francisco and Los Angeles, with more than 500 flights per week, it seemed more realistic that they would have enough interest from frequent travelers to be successful. But despite its potential popularity, with 500 people already to fly in its scheduled preview period, SurfAir will still struggle to cover costs in the beginning.

“Starting an airline is capital intensive,” explains Eyerly.

So they’re planning to look for up to a few million dollars in venture capital funding to help get this startup off the ground. In the Valley, where investors are mainly sinking their money into tech and consumer apps, an airline may be a tough sell. And being a first-time entrepreneur doesn’t help Eyerly’s case.

However, he has proven he’s open to guidance and is ready to pivot at a moment’s notice in order to survive. Already in just the past six weeks, the model has shifted multiple times, from East Coast to West Coast, and a $500 subscription to a $1000 subscription model.

Eyerly says, “Everything from modeling our financial elasticity curve to figuring out some operational dynamics, we have mentors who’ve done it all before and we’re listening to them and acting on their advice to make this a successful venture that benefits particularly the tech community.”