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Business travelers in Northwest Arkansas will soon have a new route to Texas.

California-based Surf Air will begin flying out of Bentonville to Texas destinations this fall. The company offers business passengers unlimited flights to scheduled cities for a $2,000 monthly fee. Customers also pay a one-time $1,000 startup fee. Flights are scheduled about six weeks ahead of departure, and passengers can book at any time until the day of the flight.

The airline will fly between Bentonville Municipal Airport and Dallas Love Field. It will also take Northwest Arkansas travelers to and from William P. Hobby Airport and David Wayne Hooks Memorial Airport, both in the Houston area, as well as San Antonio International Airport and Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

In July, Surf Air bought Rise, a Texas-based private carrier. Surf Air is using Rise's position in Texas to develop other markets throughout the country. Already, Surf Air flies passengers between cities in California, and travelers through destinations in Europe.

Texas and California have been prime testing ground for the company's business model because of their size and the distance between their major cities. This is the first time Surf Air has crossed state lines with scheduled trips, flying under a Federal Aviation Administration certification that makes Surf Air technically a commuter airline.

Nick Kennedy, now the president of Surf Air, started Rise and was its chief executive. Bentonville has always been in his scopes. He studied finance at Harding University in Searcy and has done business with Wal-Mart via two startups. He's experienced firsthand the slow trip from Texas to Northwest Arkansas.

Bentonville has a reputation among the folks at Surf Air as a trendy spot for entrepreneurs and young business people. The town's proximity to the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, where the student population is heavily Texan, opens a market for Surf Air to target homesick Razorbacks with parents who can afford the monthly fee.

"What we want to do is support entrepreneurs," Kennedy said. "We look to help grow the overall marketplace when we come in."

About a third of its customers are people who own a business, or who are venture capitalists or franchise owners.

Primarily, however, the company expects to be most successful among people doing frequent business with Wal-Mart, J.B. Hunt Transport and Tyson Foods. Surf Air says it has about 5,000 members worldwide.

Corporate memberships are available. Managers can decide who in the company has access to the planes.

Surf Air customers do not have to wade through security or have their bags checked. Surf Air says it takes about 15 minutes from the time passengers arrive for the ground crew to ready the plane to hit the runway.

Surf Air's fleet consists of 17 single-propeller Pilatus PC-12 Next Generation aircraft with eight seats per plane. As the scheduled flights are open for all members to book, oftentimes customers travel alongside people they do not know, much like flying with a legacy airline. Kennedy bills this as a networking opportunity.

"It's something you are going to be proud to be a part of, and you're going to get other business out of it," he said.

Surf Air is among the startups working to take business-class passengers from the major airlines. The company leverages the ease of traveling against the likes of United Airlines, which faced a public relations crisis earlier this year when crew dragged a passenger off a jet after he refused to give up his seat.

The episode renewed scrutiny of commercial air travel, and it served as a marketing opportunity for companies like Surf Air. Airlines make most of their money from business-class passengers, and according to the U.S. Travel Association, about $180 billion comes from these travelers domestically.

"Follow the progress of the airlines and how they've totally decimated the travel experience," New Jersey-based aviation analyst Brian Foley said. "Anyone who can afford it will look for a way to avoid that. It's just endless how miserable the travel experience has become over time. We are finding more and more ways to fly privately."

Surf Air will announce in the coming weeks a luncheon in Bentonville for anybody interested in flying with the company, communications director Angela Vargo said. This month, the company will hire its first Bentonville employee -- a membership representative tasked with concierge duties.

"They take care of our members, so they are really our most important employees," Kennedy said. "We don't think of it as a transaction, we think about long-term relationships."

Business on 08/16/2017

Print Headline: All-you-can-fly airline plans to offer Bentonville flights

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