day in the life
Commercial vs Surf Air
I Flew Commercial and Then I Flew Surf Air
Here’s what happened
FLYING COMMERCIAL: ARRIVING AT THE AIRPORT
LAX → SFO
ARRIVE AT LAX – 11:45AM
FLIGHT DEPARTS AT 1:45PM
Like most people who travel these days, flying commercial always fills me with a sense of dread. Getting on a plane in the 21st century equates with various amounts of panic and discomfort. Delays, lost items, and unpleasant interactions are de rigueur at airports across the country. What was once a glamorous way to get from A to B is now an exercise in tolerance. Something will go wrong; it’s just a matter of how badly.
Today, as I plan to board a plane from Los Angeles to San Francisco, my anxiety begins before even stepping out of my ride to the airport. A windowless van nearly sideswipes my Lyft driver as I exit his car to my terminal. The aggression begins curbside.
FLYING SURF AIR: ARRIVING AT THE AIRPORT
HAWTHORNE → OAK
ARRIVE AT HAWTHORNE AIRPORT – 10:15am
FLIGHT DEPARTS AT 10:45am
Surf Air is attempting to eliminate all the stressful burdens of air travel starting at the very beginning of the journey: I’m told I can arrive 15 minutes before takeoff. Amazing. However, that seems crazy. So I’m 30 minutes early.
I drove here, and after I pull up to the valet line and tell them I’m flying Surf Air, it’s as if I’ve flashed my exclusive travel club badge. They show me where to go and take my keys. They’ll valet the car for me and have it ready and waiting when I get back, which if all goes as planned, will be at 5:45PM tonight.**
COMMERCIAL: CHECKING IN
The check-in line is packed, wrapping around the foyer in a maze of confusion that seems to never end. A woman with a double stroller is shouting at an airport attendee in a red jacket. Other passengers step around them as if they’ve seen it all before. Glancing around, it feels more like a crisis center — crying babies, panicked parents, exhausted people sleeping in chairs — than the entryway to a trip or vacation.
I’m glad I arrived 2 hours early for my domestic flight, which is pretty much obligatory with modern day air travel. That is, if you don’t want to feel rushed.
After waiting in line for about 35 minutes, I make it to the counter and check my bag for $25 because the attendant insisted it would not fit in the overhead.
SURF AIR: CHECKING IN
I walk into what appears to be a hotel lobby. Is this right? It’s all beautifully designed and spacious. In a far corner I see stacks of snacks and a fridge fully stocked with drinks. There are no lines anywhere. Instead, there’s a friendly woman standing behind a podium who greets me and takes my bag.
“This is it?” she asks, seeing I only have one small suitcase (same one I took on the commercial flight) and a purse. Other Surf Air Members arrive and are all greeted by name, exchanging pleasantries with the club hosts and other waiting members.
I consider asking if I can take a later flight so I can stay in this relaxing space and work for a few hours.
My relief from jumping one hurdle (the check-in line) quickly dissipates at the sight of this insane security line, which is really all the check-in lines combined into one.
I finally make it through the ID checkpoint and immediately wonder if I took that 8-ounce bottle of perfume out of my makeup bag. Because if not, I will either need to throw it in the trash or be exiled back to the check-in line.
After frantically digging in my bag, I don’t see any offensive liquids over 3 ounces. I’m about 15 people away from the bins and X-ray machine, so I start prepping myself as if going into battle. Shoes, belt, jewelry, quarters, watch, all go into a bin. My laptop, I’m told repeatedly, has to go in its own bin.
A group of us wait not-so-patiently as a man a few people in front of me, who seems to have never flown before, looks baffled by these bizarre rules of entry. After what seems like a long time, the passenger makes it through the X-ray machine only to be stopped and patted down in his ankle socks. I feel bad for him; but these are the rules.
SURF AIR: SECURITY
Security screenings are taken care of before flying, so much to my relief, this circus is nowhere to be found.
When I did hand over my bag to the aforementioned club host, she never once asked me to pull out my laptop or remove anything I was wearing.
COMMERCIAL: WAITING TO BOARD
Making it through security does come with a major sense of relief, as I am now home free to roam around this airport, buy overpriced reading materials, and drink all of the iced coffee drinks available to me.
Then I see the line for Starbucks, which seems far from worth it, and settle for a bottle of Dasani and a seat next to a man in cargo shorts who’s sleeping, sprawled across two chairs.
After attempting to decipher the monotone loudspeaker announcements, a couple of nearby passengers and I put our heads together and figure out that our flight is delayed an hour and a half because the plane hasn’t arrived yet. Great.
I witness one of the first gestures of hospitality I’ve seen since arriving when the gate attendant thanks us for our patience.
SURF AIR: WAITING TO BOARD
The Club Host points me to the coffee maker, where I brew a cup. I also grab a Perrier, a bag of chips, and The New York Times.
My flight will be ready to board in just a few minutes, she tells me, but she’ll come and get me when it’s time.
Our plane has finally arrived, and after sitting around for an extra hour, this actually feels like a huge victory. We will get to our destination today.
Now let the cattle herding begin. Hovering passengers, otherwise known as “gate lice” according to this NY Times piece on the wretchedness of commercial flying, have been lingering by the gate for awhile now. I go stand in my designated group’s area—designated based on an inscrutable system of membership, points, and check-in times—and wait to be called aboard.
The excitement of having your group called is immediately stifled by yet another line to board the plane. I’m actually relieved I don’t have my bag since, once I get on board, I see passengers wrestling with their suitcases and even trying to remove other people’s bags from the overhead bins to fit their own. The flight attendants seem at once flustered and resigned.
SURF AIR: BOARDING
About 20 minutes after arriving at the lounge, the Club Host comes over to tell me the plane’s here and ready to board. She walks me out onto the tarmac where the pilot is standing by to say hello to all 6 of us flying today. We walk up the stairs and take a seat.
I get a middle seat, perhaps because I’m not aggressive enough, but also because by the time my group is called, there is nothing left but middle seats to choose from.
I guess I dozed off when they came around with the drink cart, so when I wake up, I ding the flight attendant and she’s visibly perturbed when she arrives. I ask for a sparkling water and some pretzels. She comes back 15 minutes later with my drink, but, she says, ‘we’re out of pretzels.’
By the time we’re half-way through the flight, I’m starving. I haven’t eaten since before arriving at the airport. I make my way to the back of the plane and find a friendlier flight attendant who offers me a few bags of peanuts.
SURF AIR: IN-FLIGHT
Every seat is a window and an aisle — no middles. So we’re all free to stretch our elbows out as wide as they’ll go. I still have my beverages from the lounge, but there’s a fully stocked cooler with more if I run out.
The chairs are all captain’s chairs made of soft, comfortable leather that recline.
The flight goes by seamlessly. Everyone is busy working or reading and since bags are stowed elsewhere, there are no skirmishes with the overhead bins.
COMMERCIAL: ARRIVING AT SFO
We land at 4:48pm, relatively close to the second ETA, which feels celebratory. A handful of people clap. After taxiing and sitting on the runway for another 15 minutes, we finally pull up and the seat belt sign dings off around 5:05pm.
Everyone immediately rises and starts elbowing to get their bags. It takes another 5 minutes or so for them to open the front door, so we all hunch awkwardly under the overhead bins waiting. Eventually, the doors open, and each passenger takes a few moments to retrieve their belongings and file off the plane.
The baggage claim is about a mile away from this gate, so I begin my walking tour of SFO to go claim the bag I wasn’t allowed to bring on board.
SURF AIR ARRIVAL
We land at the appropriate arrival time, smooth landing and again a couple people clap. This actually does seem celebratory.
We get off the plane in just a few minutes, walk into the empty lounge area, save for a few other Members and the Club Host, and by the time I emerge from the restroom, my bag’s waiting on a luggage cart.
COMMERCIAL: BAGGAGE CLAIM
I rue the day that attendant made me check my bag, especially because before taking off, I saw the mountain of precariously stacked bags going onto the plane.
A wave of panic washes over me as one after another I see each passenger from my flight gather their things and head for the exit. My stuff is nowhere to be found. I’m being punished for even entertaining the idea that my bag could fit on the plane. Seconds before going to hunt for help, the bag appears. Sweet victory.
SURF AIR: BAGGAGE CLAIM
COMMERCIAL: GETTING A TAXI
Getting any kind of car service to find me in this mess seems like an exercise in futility so I opt for the taxi line, which, much like check-in and security, snakes wildly beyond my field of vision.
By the time I get to my hotel downtown, I’m exhausted and hungry, and the day is more-or-less spent.
SURF AIR: GETTING A TAXI
They asked me the day before flying if I needed a car service when I landed, so my ride is waiting when I exit the lounge.
IN-AIR TIME: 1 hour 34 minutes
TOTAL TRAVEL TIME*: 6 hours 08 minutes
IN AIR TIME: 1h 45min
TOTAL TRAVEL TIME*: 2h 30min
*Does not include car rides to and from the airport.
**All goes as planned. I fly back the same day, my car is waiting; and I’m home by 6:30pm.