22 Aug 2014
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Startup Airline Hits Turbulence at SMO

Surf Air, a membership-based but scheduled carrier, says the jobs and service it would bring to Santa Monica Airport seemed destined for some other regional airport.

Startup Airline Hits Turbulence at SMO

The head of a recently announced members-only California airline says he has all but ruled out making Santa Monica Airport the carrier's Los Angeles-area terminal, due in large part to significant anti-airport sentiment.

"It's a great airport," said Surf Air CEO Wade Eyerly. "It's got a lot of pluses, a lot of people who live nearby who fly quite a bit.

But we've already been subject to a lobbying campaign to keep us from flying here," he said, "and if the community doesn't want us here, we'll fly out of a different airport."

Equally important, Airport Director Bob Trimborn said currently can't provide accommodations, including ramp space and parking, for Surf Air's type of operation.

Surf Air plans to start flying this summer, with two eight-passenger, single-engine turboprop planes, between Palo Alto, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Monterey. The company offers three tiers of month-to-month membership, one for under $800 a month. Unlike air charters, Surf Air flights will be on regular schedules. Passenger-members will book seats on specific flights, traveling as many times as they wish each month.

"We would bring thirty to a hundred jobs to Santa Monica,'' Eyerly said. "But some really active folks would rather not have us here, so we're looking at a couple of other airports."

Eyerly said Surf Air's Swiss-made PC-12 turboprops are quieter than Santa Monica's jets. With eight or nine takeoffs a day, "the idea that we would create such a nuisance that we couldn't have these jobs here is kind of sad," he said.

He's not overly concerned with Santa Monica Airport's possible closure or modification in 2015 when the city's 1984 operating agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration expires. If Surf Air establishes itself by then, it could change airports in 2015, Eyerly said. (The FAA disputes the agreement's expiration date).

But Eyerly acknowledged that if Surf Air were successful, "the case becomes much more compelling to keep [Santa Monica Airport] there.''

"If you just look at pure statistics and metrics, [Santa Monica Airport] seems great,'' he said. "But...there's a pitched battle going on. We can pick a side and go to war or we can just go somewhere else."

Surf Air doesn't have FAA certification yet, meaning Eyerly can't publicly announce his airport choice or what schedules will be set. But he's confident he'll be able to start operations this summer.

When weighing Santa Monica Airport against other area airports, such as Hawthorne and Burbank, Eyerly talked with aviation businesses here, along with members of the community and Santa Monica Airport director Trimborn.

Trimborn says he was frank about the sometimes heated community discussions and the local airport's current "visioning process."

Regarding Surf Air, Trimborn said, "It's a concept. I'm not taking their proposal seriously until it's a proposal, and it's not a proposal yet."

And if Surf Air gets FAA certified, would Eyerly still want to use SMO?

"I would say if we're welcome here, we'll be here," Eyerly said. "SMO makes a lot of sense to us, but as long as there are folks who don't want us here...we'll go elsewhere, and other folks will be thrilled to have the jobs and to have the flights (be) close and convenient to them."

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