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Aviation Blog

Scared of flying commercial? Private flights and short-range jets are skyrocketing during the pandemic – San Francisco Chronicle

Challenger 604

SurfAir passenger Darwin leads Marty and Anne Putnam off the plane after landing in San Carlos.
SurfAir pilot Eldar Sela (left) and First Officer Mortimer Howard in flight from San Carlos to Truckee Tahoe Airport.
A SurfAir passenger looks out at the bay after takeoff at the regional airport in San Carlos.
SurfAir concierge Karen Schindler retrieves luggage from a SurfAir Pilatus PC-12 single-engine turboprop aircraft at Truckee Tahoe Airport.
SurfAir concierge Karen Schindler checks reservations at the Truckee Tahoe Airport.
SurfAir passenger Marty Putnam points out a Bay Area landmark to his wife, Anne, before landing at San Carlos.
SurfAir concierge Will Descalso escorts a passenger to the terminal as he deplanes from a SurfAir Pilatus PC-12 single-engine turboprop aircraft at San Carlos Airport.
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On a Monday morning earlier this summer, Sandra Smith and her teenage daughter sat in the passenger lounge at San Carlos Airport, waiting for a quick flight on an eight-seat turboprop plane to a municipal airport in Los Angeles. They were visiting a prospective college and would be back the next day.
Before the pandemic, they might have flown commercial out of San Francisco International Airport to Los Angeles International Airport. But times have changed.
“I’m not comfortable with bigger airports, because you don’t know what people’s philosophy is about health and safety,” Smith said. “I just feel it’s better to be around less people as often as possible.”
The other travelers in the lounge that day weren’t flying across state lines, either. On the tarmac outside, three turboprops belonging to the private membership carrier Surf Air Mobility lined up for jaunts to L.A., Santa Barbara and Truckee.
Long-distance flights out of major airports were an early casualty of the pandemic and are slowly rebounding this summer as international travel restrictions relax and fliers regain their comfort levels. But many California airport managers and private aviation companies say interest in short-range flights is skyrocketing.
The change is twofold.
Regional airports across California are expanding routes and scheduling more regular short-haul flights to places like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Arizona, Texas and the Pacific Northwest. Airports near Northern California leisure destinations — Wine Country, Tahoe, Monterey and Yosemite — are seeing record volumes of planes and passengers.
At the same time, affluent fliers are increasingly opting for boutique experiences without body scanners, security checks or the fear of sharing air with hundreds of cabinmates on large jets. Flexible remote-work policies inspired many of the Bay Area’s white-collar workers to relocate to more desirable settings, and many of them now air-commute to their offices as needed.
Private flying has been on the rise for several years, propped up by an assortment of nascent and burgeoning aviation services that offer both on-demand and scheduled flights: personalized air travel marketplaces like Surf Air ($200 fee per month, plus flight costs), luxury charters like VistaJet ($10,000 membership fee) and fractional ownership companies like Flexjet ($187,000 initiation fee), to name a few. Since the onset of the pandemic, there’s been a surge of sign-ups at these companies from people who want a new mode of transportation that matches their lifestyle.
“It’s really opened up options for people like me who can commute,” said Miguel Mendoza, seated inside Surf Air’s private terminal at Truckee Tahoe Airport while waiting for a flight to San Carlos. He recently moved from the Peninsula to the mountains and now commutes weekly to Milpitas via Surf Air.
“The quality of life is better here, but the pay is better in the Bay Area. So how do you get the best of both? You fly.”
 
California has 27 commercial airports — the facilities that handle the vast majority of air travel to and from the state. They include the international hubs like SFO and LAX that accommodate hundreds of thousands of flights per year, as well as regional airports in destinations like Sonoma County, Mammoth Lakes (Mono County) and Palm Springs, which each handle one or two dozen scheduled passenger flights per day.
Scattered across the state are hundreds of relatively unadorned public airstrips and airfields, including San Carlos, primarily used by private fliers and hobbyist aviators.
Increasingly, the state’s runways are providing critical infrastructure for higher volumes of smaller crafts. The total number of California fliers has plummeted since the pandemic — from 19.5 million in March 2019 to 8.5 million in March 2020 to 6.8 million in March 2021, according to Visit California. But interest in short-range flights — trips under 700 miles — is funneling record numbers of passengers through many of California’s smaller airports.
“In some of these smaller, regional markets, it’s not really a period of recovery; it’s ongoing growth that started before the pandemic and is carrying through,” said Kevin Meikle, director of aviation at Fresno Yosemite International Airport. “That’s not the story for large hub airports that depend on international travel.”
Since 2010, when about 1.2 million passengers flew in and out of Fresno Yosemite, traffic has risen about 70% to north of 2 million fliers in the year between March 2019 and February 2020. Traffic through the airport stalled at the start of the pandemic last year but picked up again quickly. A rise in domestic tourists flying in to visit the national parks in the mountains east of the airport — Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon — has more than compensated for a drop in business travelers, Meikle said.
“We’re on pace for another record year of passenger activity,” he said.
Airports in Napa and Sonoma counties are similarly serving their highest numbers of fliers, half of whom are estimated to be leisure travelers coming in, presumably, for wine tastings and tours. But the other half are local air commuters, airport managers say.
Many of these regional airports are expanding commercial routes, building out airport services and bringing in new carriers, too.
Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, which is in the midst of renovations that will nearly triple the size of its terminal, added new service to Burbank in April and will offer flights to Las Vegas starting next month. Napa County Airport plans to hire a second operator to help with fueling and other aircraft operations as more and more planes pass through.
Budget carriers like Avelo Airlines are expanding their slates of milk-run flights that may prompt casual travelers to ask themselves, why drive when I can fly?
For example, a new 300-mile flight from Monterey to Burbank, running twice weekly via Avelo, costs $39 one-way. In an interview with the Monterey Herald, the executive director of the Monterey Regional Airport touted it as “a leisure-based, family-friendly and affordable alternative to driving or flying other airlines.”
 
Companies pushing into the aviation sector envision a future in which short-haul air travel becomes a greener, more affordable and more convenient option for the average traveler.
“We see a vision here of creating a mass transit infrastructure for 50- to 500-mile trips,” said Sudhin Shahani, CEO of Surf Air. “If you can reduce the costs of operating these aircraft, we want it to be cheaper to buy a ticket in an electrified airplane than it would be to take an Uber X.”
Surf Air has recently acquired aviation startups including online flight marketplace Blackbird Air and electric-aircraft maker Ampaire, and plans to go public later this year.
A new crop of innovative companies, like Surf Air, are betting on a revolution in flight technology built on personalized, battery-powered planes. Such craft may one day be capable of taking off and landing vertically, a game-changing turn that could make air transportation a viable option for anyone with a driveway or backyard helipad. The technology that would fuel such a science-fiction transformation is already in development at hundreds of companies worldwide, including Boeing, Airbus, Google and Uber.
“In the U.S. there are like 20,000 airports, and the airlines only regularly use 300 of them. So there are a lot of opportunities if you can make the cost of flying cheaper,” Shahani said.
California, with its mix of desirable destinations, is a hot market for Surf Air.
“Through the year, we definitely intend to scale up the scheduled flights to various weekend destinations in California,” Shahani said.
Northern California has become one of the most popular destinations for customers of Flexjet, an upscale fractional-ownership jet company based in Ohio, according to Flexjet COO Megan Wolf. Monterey is especially attractive.
A SurfAir flight to Truckee from San Carlos over Lake Tahoe.
“Our clients tend to follow where the golf courses are,” she said.
The company’s 160 jets fly all over the world. Flexjet plans to add 22 more to its fleet by the end of the year.
“Even in a vaccinated world, I think people being on their own jet — with people they know, with pilots they know — will make them feel safer,” Wolf said. “Based on the sales and commitments we’re seeing from our clients, this is going to be with us for a while.”
Regional airport managers here don’t expect traffic to slow even when the bigger hubs get back on track. Fresno Yosemite is expanding its terminals, laying asphalt for bigger parking lots and building a new parking garage — all of which should be open next year.
“You can’t plan for short, negative impacts to the industry,” Meikle said. “You have to look at the big picture, decades ahead. We have a road map of what the future looks like, and we’re full steam ahead.”
Gregory Thomas is the Chronicle’s editor of lifestyle & outdoors. Email: gthomas@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @GregRThomas
 
Gregory Thomas is The Chronicle’s Editor of Lifestyle and Outdoors, focusing on California activities and destinations. He also hosts the Wild West podcast, which features interviews with environmental thought leaders and adventure athletes (subscribe here). Before that, he served as Senior Editor at Outside Magazine in New Mexico where he edited news, enterprise stories, and features in print and online. He’s worked at a tech-media startup, reported for major metro newspapers, written features for national magazines, and done his share of internships. He holds a Master’s degree in journalism from UC Berkeley and he’s on Twitter at @GregRThomas.

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