As Surf Air Struggles In Europe, What's The Future For Private Jet Seat Sharing?

Surf Air’s growth in Europe has been tepid so far, however, it and others continue to pursue a by the seat private aviation model against a backdrop of mixed results.

By Doug Gollan, March 13, 2018

Surf Air’s growth in Europe has been tepid so far, however, it and others continue to pursue a by the seat private aviation model against a backdrop of mixed results


Seat sharing, where travelers buy single seats on private aircraft, either via memberships or on individual flights, is considered a growth area for business aviation getting plenty of play in consumer media. The major benefit is saving time at airports by using private aviation facilities while paying prices at or near what the commercial airlines charge. For short hops, it can cut total travel time significantly. However, the model may be in trouble once again. Two sources tell Private Jet Card Comparisons that upstart Surf Air Europe has recently pared back its marketing and sales team there. 


The company is currently operating an eight-seat Embraer Phenom 300 flying from London City Airport (LCY) to Zurich and Swiss ski resort Sion. The offshoot of Surf Air in the United States, it launched operations last summer flying first from London Luton Airport to Ibiza, then adding the private airport in Cannes. In the Fall, it launched flights from Luton to Zurich before switching to LCY. While Luton is one of the busiest airports in Europe for private aviation, City Airport, not even in the top 20, is more convenient to London’s bankers and finance industry.


Surf Air Europe CEO Simon Talling-Smith, who brought over 20 years experience in executive positions at British Airways and other travel companies, tells Private Jet Card Comparisons, “We did make some changes to our team in Europe as a result of the amount of work we can now centralize in London and Los Angeles.”


Last year, Aviation International News reported Encompass Aviation had subleased all 12 of Surf Air’s PC-12NGs and assumed the company’s aircraft operations and management in California. “As part of the move, Surf Air surrendered its Part 135 certificate and is now solely using third-party charter operators for all of its bases, which include Las Vegas, Dallas and the U.K.,” according to the B2B publication. Surf also changed executives with principal investor Sudhin Shahani replacing aviation veteran Jeff Potter. Flexjet, which is operating the P300 for Surf Air via its UK subsidiary, confirmed: “no changes from our end” regarding flights.


Original plans in Europe called for Surf Air to add the Pilatus PC-12 to its fleet, the same aircraft that is the backbone of its California operation. A map currently on its website indicates flights to Luxembourg and Munich, although those routes were never started. It also shows Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels, Dusseldorf, Paris, Geneva and Milan as future destinations. A report last November in an Irish newspaper which referred to the airline as “Netflix of the skies” said it would soon start flights to Dublin.

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Talling-Smith adds, “We are shortly to swap our winter leisure schedule…to the summer equivalent…We are working on some additional cities, but not ready to announce these yet.”


While Surf Air sells all you can fly memberships for several thousand dollars per month, it has also been offering “leisure” flights for GBP 650 each way. By using private jet terminals (FBOs) and only requiring passengers to show up 15 minutes before flight time, the carrier says users can save up to two hours per flight while not having to hassle with the busy commercial airline terminals.


One person who says he would like to see Surf Air succeed believes they don’t have the right routes. “London City Airport is a pretty easy airport and so is Zurich, so on both ends, you have two of the most convenient airports around. I wish they had chosen places like Paris where Le Bourget is not only closer than Orly or (Charles) de Gaulle or Rome, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Brussels, Stockholm and Milan where the airports are either huge and overcrowded, too far from the city or just a mess.”


In trying to promote its service, Surf Air last year offered top-level frequent fliers of select commercial airlines such as British Airways and Swiss free flights. A check of Google Flights reveals plenty of competition with over 30 nonstop flights between London and Zurich in each direction on a Monday in March, some leaving as early as 6 am and as late as 8:15 pm. By contrast, Surf Air is operating one flight a day in each way on weekdays. What’s more, economy class seats on the route are offered for under $50 and business class is priced between $334 and $502, according to Google.


At the same time, Vienna-based JetClass has been trying to make a private aviation by the seat approach work in Europe selling single seats on chartered private jets but without any membership requirements. It’s model features even less frequency than Surf Air. From LCY, it shows four flights scheduled through the end of March to Brussels with all flights fully booked. There is availability in April for Euros 490 one-way with a schedule of Monday and Friday flights. From Zurich, JetClass offers flights to Brussels, Vienna, Milan, Munich and Luxembourg with between one and three round trips weekly. It also flies nonstop from Milan to Nice and Geneva. In January it said it was adding seven new routes, and a spokesperson says, “In February JetClass had 40% increase of flights. That shows that our service is developing and gaining into momentum,” pointing out the company “distributes seats through OTAs and GDS, so a passenger may book (private) flights at Skyscanner, Expedia, Kayak, etc.” The company said in its first six months of operations if completed 90 flights.

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JetSmarter, which claims a Unicorn status and has celebrity investors such as Shawn Carter, also offers shuttle flights in Europe in addition to the U.S., where members can reserve seats on scheduled private jet flights. On its app, it lists over a dozen routes within Europe, however, a quick check shows many of them with no future flights posted. It is trying to add frequency on popular routes with member originated shared flights. The JetSmarter member books his or her charter flight, then designates how many seats they want to sell thereby reducing total cost.


It expected Wheels Up, which raised over $200 million last year, may open a European operation this year. It is not known if it will offer a by the seat option to the public. It currently allows members who book charters to sell unused seats to other members as does JetSmarter and Luna Jets, a Europe-based broker, although the latter’s website states, “At the moment there are no Jet Sharing Flights available.”


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The by the seat model has seen traction with JetSuiteX and Surf Air in California, Tradewind Aviation in the Northeast U.S., Blade, which flies during the Winter between New York and Miami, and JetSmarter domestically. It has also been marked by failures such as BeaconBlackJet, DayJet and Pogo Jet, a startup backed by former American Airlines chairman Robert Crandall that never got off the ground after ordering 75 Very Light Jets from two manufacturers that also failed. Meanwhile, Texas-based RISE was thought to be struggling before being acquired by Surf Air last year.

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