Are shared private jets the future of business travel? I take Surf Air’s Zurich launch flight

If you follow us on Instagram (handle: headforpoints, link here) you might have seen some pictures and videos in our Instastory of my day trip to Zurich.  I have decided that Instastories are my new ‘thing’ so if you want to know what we’re up to that’s where you can find it.

It might seem a bit odd that we’re running another article about a shared private jet company.  You wait five years for a private jet review on Head for Points and then two come along at once.

However, I happened to receive an email after Rob’s JetSmarter article was published with an invitation from Surf Air to check out their new ‘shared private jet’ service.  It would have been rude to say no and, more seriously, it was a chance to see how a different company is trying to crack the same business problem.

What is Surf Air?

Surf Air is an American membership based private jet company.  It launched Surf Air Europe this Summer with flights from London to Ibiza and Cannes. Members had voted for Zurich to be the next destination added to the network and I was invited to join their CEO Simon Talling-Smith – who some of you might know from his time at British Airways – on the company’s inaugural flight from London Luton to Zurich.

How does it work?

Currently Surf Air Europe flies from London, Zurich, Cannes and Ibiza with the latter two being Summer-only bases.

The European membership is currently £1,750 plus a £1,000 sign up fee for unlimited flights within Europe up to 600 km. Unfortunately, from London, there are no flights up to 600 km.  You are therefore looking at the higher rate of £3,150 per month which covers Zurich, Ibiza and all other future European destinations as well as flights within their US network.

Members can have two open bookings at a time or pay an additional fee to have more open bookings.  This is an important point – you cannot book yourself on every scheduled service to your favourite city and then cancel the ones you don’t need at short notice.

Looking at the new Zurich route and the target demographic, the most realistic comparison is a fully flexible return flight from London to Zurich in Club Europe.  These cost about £900 per return flight, so Surf Air only begins to look interesting if you are flying this route three times or more per month.  Add in the odd flight to Ibiza or Cannes and you can see how, for some people, the maths works.

The main caveat, of course, is that there are currently only three flights per week on the Zurich route.  This is a lot less than the 10 British Airways London – Zurich flights per day.

Surf Air also offers a pay-as-you-fly membership.  This has an annual fee of £2,500 and members pay £1,300 per seat each way.

The experience

I had to set my alarm for 4:30 am which is in my opinion a very inhuman thing to do. Luckily I had a driver picking me up so I could snooze in the car. The early start was also partly my fault as I wanted to spend some time in the Signature Flight Support lounge (which Rob reviewed here) before the flight. As there is no risk of security delays you can arrive as late as 15 minutes before the flight, which would have been 7:10 am.

Signature lounge lutonHow was the plane?

First of all the plane, a Phenom 300, was gorgeous – I think I’ve never said that about a plane before.

Phenom 300 Surf Air Simon

The Phenom 300 is also fairly small. The hold only has room for one bag of 15kg per passenger and you are encouraged not to bring larger handbags on board. There is the option of having more luggage delivered to the final destination, though.

You can see from the pictures that the aircraft is branded Surf Air and is being used exclusively by the company.  This is a major difference between Surf Air and JetSmarter, with the latter randomly chartering whatever aircraft are available to meet its schedule.

The Phenom 300 has room for eight passengers, but only six of the seats are ‘proper’ seats. According to Simon Surf Air aims to have just six passengers per flight although the other two are available for last minute booking.

The interior was elegant and the seats very comfortable with a good amount of leg room.  Four seats faced each other with a second row of two behind.

Phenom 300 Surf Air

Each seat had a small pillow and hangover pills. Yes, you read that correctly. According to Simon these were supposed to be distributed on the Ibiza flights only. My pack is now living in our kitchen cabinet in case of emergency.

As this was a special service to promote the launch of the route, I didn’t get a feel for how the atmosphere between the passengers would be on a normal flight.  When Rob flew JetSmarter, he found the best part of the trip to be conversations he had with his two paying fellow passengers.

Phenom 300 Surf AirWhere is the loo?

I’m glad that I can give a different answer to this question than Rob when he flew to Geneva.

The Phenom 300 actually does have a bathroom at the far back of the plane with a sink and most importantly a door!

Phenom 300 Surf AirHow was the service?

There was no cabin crew.  In between the cabin and the cockpit was a cabinet with drinks and two baskets with snacks.

Phenom 300 Surf Air

There was no real meal but a good selection of gluten free and vegan snacks. Gummybears and crisps for breakfast anyone?

I was sent a brochure with different meal options that can be booked in advance but need to be paid for.  Drinks on the other hand are included and there was plenty in the cabinet.

There were three of us who were up for an early morning drink to accompany the gummybears and we opened a bottle of red.

Phenom 300 Surf Air

The flight was very short, or at least it felt that way.  Upon arrival we were welcomed with a water arch. As I was inside the plane, here is a press image.

Phenom 300 Surf Air

The last stop on the schedule was a champagne reception in Zurich to celebrate the route launch with a short speech by Simon about Surf Air and his plans.

Simon Talling-Smith Surf Air

They also had a käseigel (cheese hedgehog) which was definitely a highlight of the day!

My verdict

I personally enjoyed the experience. After all it’s pretty cool telling people that you’ve jetted to Zurich for the day on a private jet.

But does the Surf Air business model work?

Surf Air appears to be succesful in the US with 4,000 members and over 85 flights per day within California and Texas. With the US public transport system poor to non existent, traffic in California’s cities terrible and long lines at run-down airports, taking a private jet can make sense.

As a member you book your flight on the app and turn up at the airport 15 minutes before departure.  This can save between two to four hours per flight, valuable time that can be spent on other things instead.

But what about Europe?

Let’s put it this way. So far no private jet company, including JetSmarter, has proven that the sharing model works in Europe.  Simon Talling-Smith and Surf Air are very determined to give it a go.

With the flights being on a schedule it takes away the spontaneity of a private jet which, in Europe, would seem to be the main selling point.  Whether sharing a small private jet with up to five other people is more private than sitting in Row 1 in BA Club Europe is up to you.  On top of that Luton is not the most accessible London airport unless you live along the Thameslink line or north of Zone 2.

If you travel to Zurich every week it could work for you.  However, as you can only have two open bookings at a time, someone else might snatch away your seat before you can book.

At a total cost of just under £40,000 per year you are moving into NetJets territory (€115,000 per year for 25 hours of flying time).  The NetJets model gets you an entire plane for yourself at 10 hours notice to go wherever and whenever you want.  This is clearly superior and, if you always fly with family or a group of colleagues, not a lot more expensive per seat than Surf Air.

Surf Air does have the opportunity to serve less well connected but still well heeled places in Europe like Cannes.  Another option could be focusing on London as an inbound market rather than outbound market – there are already plans to expand the Zurich operation to other cities.

So far Surf Air Europe Europe claims to have signed up 200 members which appears to show that there is interest in a private jet airline that operates with a set schedule.  There is a list of potential future destinations that will be added including Berlin, Munich, Barcelona and Luxembourg.

It will be interesting to see how Surf Air Europe develops over the next couple of years.  I can imagine how, with a network of 10-15 cities available for a £3,150 monthly fee, it will become more interesting to the high net worth community.

Here is a short video about my Zurich trip if you want to get a better feel for what it is like onboard.  If it is not visible, click here to visit our YouTube page. You can also subscribe to our channel via that link.

The Surf Air website is here if you want to find out more. Thank you to Simon and the team for inviting me – it was fun!

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Comments

  1. I was meant to comment on Insta but the photo has now been deleted. I’m sure I saw Anika had to return from Zurich in BA Economy. What happened to the all J staff travel policy? 🙂

    • Surf Air paid for her return flight, so you get what you get 🙂

    • BA economy seems a better option now that the food in CE is getting worse, at least you can order food on board without having to worry what your CE offering will be.

  2. William Avery says:

    Think I’m glad I’m not in this category of traveller. Looks unbelievably claustrophobic. Not great for GM’d CEO who are 6ft +.

  3. One for Private Eye:
    … the high net worth community.

    • That is the standard phrase – pick up a copy of Spears magazine at your local newsagent (in West London). I think you’ll find that the Private Eye editor also falls into this group these days …..

    • Also, this might come handy in the future:
      UHNWI = Ultra High Net Worth Individual

  4. Aeronaut says:

    Hmm… on the whole I remain unconvinced this isn’t just status-driven willy waving, for want of a better expression.

    • That will be my phrase of the day!

      • Michael Jennings says:

        To be fair, a significant portion of the human race spend a significant portion of their time doing status-driven willy waving.

    • some would argue that paying for BA club europe falls into that category too 😉

      • No, BA (or any major airline) business class gives you options.

        A team on the ground and first dibs on seats on another plane if something goes wrong. Cattle class can wait in line.

        If this airline has a malfunction, you’re stuck on the tarmac with a spanner.

        I also think this will crash and burn as I don’t see people going to Luton or even wanting this relatively huge expense when it fails to accompany the flexibility of private jet travel.

  5. Concerto says:

    It’s simply posing. For those who can afford it.

    • the real harry1 says:

      read The Wolf of Wall St? (a hilarious & v entertaining book, I recommend!)?

      there are other ways the well-heeled take advantage of the privacy inherent in private jets…

  6. Further proof of Betteridge’s Law in today’s headline 🙂

  7. I’m not too proud to decline a free flight, but I do think it is more style than substance.

  8. It would appear that with the reduction in Manufactured Spending opportunities & other tricks of accumulating points that Head for Points is “Jumping the Shark”. I’m sure normal service will resume.

    • We cover what comes in. I just turned down a free trip to San Francisco in Business Class if that makes you feel better, because it has to be on a specific day in October and neither of us can do it.

      It is quiet at the moment though, I admit. I was expecting a bit of a surge for the first week of October. Never going to win “Business Travel Editor of the Year” tomorrow night at this rate 🙂

      The good news is that there is a pile of good review stuff in the pipeline. I may even get some spare time to deal with the various IT issues we’ve been facing ….

      • Head for Points is a free to take as many freebies as it desires and doesn’t need to justify that to anyone. I too, given the opportunity, would enjoy these experiences and I would say that you can justify these trips as a reward for putting the hours & your money in. What did attract me to Head for Points though was earning points and getting advice on how to maximise the potential. Perhaps this is still the best blog for getting that information. Thanks, Peter

      • I’m available if required 😉

  9. IslandDweller says:

    Fascinating review, thanks for accepting the freebie on our behalf.
    Much as I enjoyed the review, I just can’t see the market for this. Who will pay more for a limited schedule than commercial carriers to fly from a gawd-awful airport. Wonder why they don’t use LCY, which is much more central.

    • If you’re arriving half an hour before takeoff in a separate terminal, what does it matter whether Luton airport is, supposedly, God awful?

      Isn’t LCY pretty congested?

  10. Roger Wilco says:

    You seem to forget Lufthansa private jet and the range of destinations it offers

    “Lufthansa Private Jet’s fleet of individually bookable private jets is available on demand to fly you to over 1,000 destinations in Europe and the Russian Federation.

    With Lufthansa Private Jet, Lufthansa offers you all the exclusive advantages of a private jet. Travel with the maximum flexibility, shorten your travel time and benefit from seamless connections with Lufthansa and SWISS long-haul flights from Frankfurt, Düsseldorf, Munich and Zurich.”

  11. Well, I’m booked on the free offer to Zurich next month,. Can’t wait!

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