JOINING THE MILE-HIGH (SOCIAL) CLUB
There’s no getting around it: Netflix has irreversibly entered the collective consciousness – and not just as a euphemism for casual hook-ups. With subscription models for reading, eating, drinking, exercising, fashion, beauty, hygiene, crafts – even sex toys (*cough* Netflix and chill *cough*) – ‘Netflixification’ is catering to our every want and need. And travel is no exception: just as you can spot a movie or music buff by their monthly direct debits (though why you have access to their banking information is a question best left for the lawsuit…), thanks to membership-based private airline, Surf Air, the same can also be said for regular jet setters.
“I think it just reflects the fact that everyone is craving, in a way, a simpler life”, says Louise O’Riordan, Surf Air’s VP Brand Partnerships and Events. The aeronaut’s answer to Netflix, Surf Air subscribers pay one monthly fee to fly as often as they like (currently just in and around California, on one of over 90 daily scheduled flights). “Convenience and seamless travel is something we’re certainly all about”, she goes on.
“Convenience is one of the many benefits of the subscription model: whether it’s movies and music or cross-state travel, subscribers pay for the privilege of constant access – whenever, wherever”
Convenience is one of the many benefits of the subscription model: whether it’s movies and music or cross-state travel, subscribers pay for the privilege of constant access – whenever, wherever. But, more than that, explains O’Riordan, Surf Air aims to make members’ lives easier by “giving them back some time.” Not only is the in-app booking “as easy, if not quicker” than Uber, the service also operates from private terminals and thus travellers need only arrive for their flight 15 minutes before take-off – a lifetime saved compared with the endless purgatory of airports. Plus, the short lead-time on booking (typically a day or two before a flight, but technically possible anywhere up to 15 minutes before take-off) and flexible cancellation policy is designed with real lives in mind. “We understand that, well, meetings change.”
For typical Surf Air customers – high-flying (excuse the pun) tech and entertainment execs zipping from Silicon Valley to Beach on VIB (Very Important Business) – time is money, so these perks represent a very real financial benefit. Of course, the $1,950 monthly fee (plus initiation fee of $1,000) isn’t cheap, but it’s surprisingly justifiable when you consider the average price of a flight across California and the man-hours saved in comparison – more so still if you account for the time the same journey would take by car.
Which brings us to another big win for Netflix-of-the-skies: suddenly a several-hundred-mile commute is no longer madness, but totally feasible – meaning that the catchment area for prospective employees gets a whole lot bigger. “We’re connecting people, first of all physically, around California. We’re making it possible for somebody, for example, to decide to live where they really want to live and commute into work”, says O’Riordan.
Throwing an unlimited flight subscription into an employment package won’t do your company image any harm, either. Initially, she tells me, the personal benefits weren’t that obvious to everyone – “Trying to get people over that mental block, that even though they got it through work or they bought it for work, trying to get them to start using it [for leisure] took a little time” – but as the line between work and leisure becomes ever more blurred and the concept of ‘home’ is increasingly fluid, the most forward-thinking employers offer better perks than just health insurance and a great pension scheme: they offer a lifestyle.
“It really is like a TED Talk in the sky. You might be sitting beside somebody who’s an engineer for SpaceX or somebody who’s doing a lot of work in the charity sector. I consistently meet innovators and entrepreneurs who are doing very cool things”
Indeed, more than just a means of getting from A to B, Surf Air is a sort of mile-high social club. “It really is like a TED Talk in the sky. You might be sitting beside somebody who’s an engineer for SpaceX… I consistently meet innovators and entrepreneurs who are doing very cool things”
And that’s no accident. Having the freedom to design their own planes, Surf Air has switched up the seating configuration so that passengers at the front of the plane face each other (though O’Riordan is quick to establish that there are more traditional spots at the back for those who “want the quiet seat”). “We’re trying, as a company, to encourage innovation”, she explains. “Some people, just by habit, end up taking the same time flights every week, so they do end up building up these relationships with people naturally.”
But in addition to chance meetings in transit, O’Riordan’s role involves organising events where members have the opportunity to meet other Surfers who might not be on their regular route. “I can only go on what people tell me, and that’s really that the whole community aspect is something that a lot of people didn’t even think of when they joined, but has turned out to be really important.” Especially so for some, it would seem: “We’ve had a marriage out of Surf Air!” (Fittingly, it transpires, the couple in question tied the knot on a Surf Air plane.)
Perhaps some of their clients didn’t initially consider the networking potential of Surf Air, but for O’Riordan and her team the community and membership side of the business has been an key value proposition from the word go. Previously Global Brand Director for Quintessentially, she’s well versed in the benefits of being part of an exclusive ‘club’, suggesting that what draws people to both brands is “the desire to feel instantly connected and tapped into the community when you travel somewhere… along with convenience and time-saving. Plus, you trust the choices. You’ve joined through a filter.”
Already boasting an impressive 3,300 members, O’Riordan has even bigger dreams for the future of Surf Air. “I really see this brand being global. There isn’t anywhere in the world that doesn’t have business travellers commuting from one destination to another.” And with an interstate licence recently approved, which means they can start travelling beyond California – first with a daily service to Vegas, “which will be a big market for us”, then repeating the business model within Texas – and a European launch coming up in June – starting with London-Cannes and London-Ibiza, followed by London-Geneva and London-Zurich or London-Paris – those dreams are far from fantasy.
When I ask whether O’Riordan considers Surf Air a travel industry ‘rebel’, she’s wary: “rebel seems strong to me because we haven’t really come up against that much resistance.” (They have, however, been banned from advertising in airports, which whiffs of a struggle with the establishment.) “I definitely think it’s been a disrupter, because we’re taking people off commercial travel. It’s not like most of our members are coming down from having their own planes”, she concedes. Despite her protestations, many of the brands O’Riordan does consider rebels – those she claims “paved the way” for SurfAir – are similarly engaged in democratising services once largely reserved only for the super-rich, such as private drivers, or second homes.
Though modesty prevents her from categorising Surf Air alongside the likes of Uber or Airbnb, O’Riordan does admit that they are united by an underdog spirit. “People don’t make it very easy for you when you’re doing something new. But at the end of the day, once the powers-that-be realise that this is working and that there is a demand, they just have to play ball.” Sounds like rebellious talk to me.