LONDON’s Luton airport is not renowned for its quick boarding. But now it is possible to show up there and in 15 minutes be on a plane bound for Zurich. That is thanks to the recent expansion of Surf Air, a small carrier. Though its name may be unfamiliar, its business model is, in fits and starts, catching on.
Surf Air claims to be the world’s first all-you-can-fly airline. For a monthly fee, members can travel on as many flights as they want among the airline’s growing list of destinations. The airline was founded in 2013 in California, where it serves 12 cities. This summer it launched a service in Europe, where it flies from London, Cannes, Ibiza and Zurich. Milan, Munich, and Luxembourg are scheduled to join the roster later this year.
This flexibility comes with a hefty price tag, however. A membership for the airline’s American network starts at $1,950 a month for a limited plan, rising to $2,950 for the highest tier, which allows unlimited flying in the network and includes periodic free hotel stays. In Europe, the price is £3,150 ($4,155) a month, or about half that to fly only on routes under 600km.
Though this can make flying cheaper for frequent business travellers, the most attractive part may be the amount of time it saves. Because it is a private airline using private terminals, it does not require passengers to go through the full check-in, security, and boarding process. Surf Air reckons that flyers save up to two hours per flight.
Many of its 5,000 customers are business travellers who fly two or three times a month, says Angela Vargo, Surf Air’s director of communications. Though it counts a number of corporations among its members, most are individuals, such as entrepreneurs and consultants, who cherish the extra hours they gain.
Other companies are toying with the same business model. Last month La Compagnie, an all-business-class transatlantic airline that launched in 2014, announced that it was selling all-you-can-fly one-year passes for its route from Newark to Paris. That costs $40,000 (€35,000), or $769 per week. One Mile at a Time, a travel blog, points out that it is a great deal if you fly across the Atlantic every week, a decent one if you fly every other week and a so-so deal if you fly every three weeks. Still, the airline apparently did not anticipate a huge swell of demand, since it only offered ten passes.
Take Air, another all-you-can-fly airline, offers flights between Zurich and Antwerp. Last year, OneGo launched across America with a slightly different model. For a monthly fee, users could fly on a number of major commercial airlines for free. But that venture does not seem to have gone well. The airline soon cancelled at least one user’s subscription and now its website is down.
Major airlines have experimented with this model in the past, but with little success. In the 1980s American Airlines offered unlimited first-class flying for life to anyone who paid an upfront $250,000 fee. In 2004 it upped the cost to $3m. But those who signed up flew enough to make it a money-losing scheme. In 2009 JetBlue offered an “All You Can Jet” deal, which started at $599 a month for unlimited flights on the airline’s routes. That was a boon for some travellers. One used a one-month pass to book 15 flights around America, Colombia, and Costa Rica. However, it was less good for JetBlue, which halted the programme shortly after it launched.
So is there a future for all-you-can-fly airlines? The bosses of Surf Air certainly seem to think so. In June it bought Rise, a Dallas-based outfit with a similar model, adding six Texas airports and 1,000 members to its books. It plans to add a service to several new airports, including Seattle, New Orleans, and Cabo San Lucas in Mexico, and it recently launched a scheme for leisure passengers who fly on weekends. Transatlantic flights may be in the offing at some point in the future too.
But such grand plans will only come to fruition if Surf Air can turn a profit. On that topic Ms Vargo is tight-lipped. Whether the carrier can succeed where others have failed remains to be seen.
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