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Spotlight on: Surf Air

Surf Air CEO Wade Eyerly
Surf Air CEO Wade Eyerly

Considering I’ve been doing a lot of traveling and flying lately, shuffling through airports, waiting in security lines and racking up frequent flyer miles, it seemed appropriate to profile a fellow jetsetter. Wade Eyerly, however, is of a much different class of travelers. He is CEO and founder of Surf Air, a one-of-a-kind airline that’s turning traditional air travel on its head.

The all-you-can-fly membership “works like Netflix used to,” says Eyerly, explaining that for $1,650 a month members can take as many flights as they like but are limited to booking four at any given time. Flights are on fixed schedules to and from various California regional airports, and like any airline, the plane flies whether or not it’s full.

“We have our own pilots and fly our own planes,” Eyerly says. One of the pilots is his brother and Surf Air co-founder David, who had been a commercial airline pilot before Eyerly approached him with the idea to start Surf Air.

For a long time, it was just that: an idea. Back in 2005 Eyerly had been spending nearly 27 days a month on the road, and so he learned firsthand where the airline industry was lacking. Naturally he took the idea to his pilot brother, and then in July 2011, they decided to take it a step further. They set up a placeholder website and asked people to leave comments on what they thought about the idea of a private airline with executive aircraft and a membership model. Within six weeks more than 12,000 people signed up for their yet-to-launch service. “That validated it on the demand side,” Eyerly says, “but we weren’t ready for the level of interest. We still had our day jobs.”

In November of that year they brought together 25 friends, family members and experts to talk through all aspects of the idea and answer the critical questions. From that group, five people signed on right away; today Surf Air has more than 80 employees. Says Eyerly, “Our takeaway [from the summit] was that not only are we on to something, but we also have their votes of confidence.”

Although the brothers initially planned to launch on the East Coast, serving cities like Philadelphia and Washington, DC, time at business incubator Mucker Labs in Santa Monica shifted their sights to the West Coast. “Demand is consistent around the country, but it just made sense to do it on the West Coast,” Eyerly says. “And we looked hard at locating in Silicon Valley, but it just felt right here. There’s a more competitive dynamic in Silicon Valley. Whereas [Silicon Beach] has a more collaborative feel. In LA, if you tell someone you earned seed funding they’ll pick you up in a big bear hug. We’re very grateful to the community because we wouldn’t be where we are without them.”

Of the greater Los Angeles startup ecosystem, particularly Silicon Beach, Everly says, “We wouldn’t find the same ecosystem [back in DC]. It’s a Petri dish of different things going on here. There are a lot of startups that are doing really well, and that’s a sign of stability. If you can move from one startup to another without moving your house, that says a lot about the ecosystem. Movement in the ecosystem is important.”

Although the Santa Monica-based startup isn’t a “tech company” in the traditional sense of most startups on the West Coast, its service is made possible by easy internet reservations on the member side and an innovative business model based on advanced calculations that ensure Surf Air isn’t flying more than is profitable. Currently, the airline has 18 daily departures between Burbank, San Carlos, Santa Barbara and Hawthorne. Other destinations under consideration include Palm Springs, Monterey, San Diego, Sacramento, Lake Tahoe, Napa Valley and Las Vegas. “Anywhere you can get in a two- to six-hour drive or anywhere high-speed rail works, that’s probably where we’d go,” explains Eyerly, “anywhere you have a lot of wealth movement and demographics that can afford [the service].”

Despite the obvious demand and numerous West Coast destinations where their service would make sense, the founders and their team are careful not to grow too fast. “We’ve been supply strained from the beginning; the day we launched we had an e-mail waitlist of more than 6,000 people,” Eyerly says. “But we can’t be everything to everyone on the first day, so we set out to prove we could do this with a small subset of people.”

To expand its network and customer base and help build its brand, Surf Air has secured various rounds of venture capital – $11 million as of June 2013, according to the Wall Street Journal. Very little of that has gone to marketing efforts, though, says Eyerly. Aside from the standard promotional T-shirts and stickers, Surf Air prefers to “promote” its brand via word of mouth and involvement in the Silicon Beach startup space, the community Eyerly speaks so fondly of. The company sponsored the closing party for Social Media Week at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica last September and partnered with TechWeek LA in November.

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