by Barbara Wood / Almanac
July 17, 2017
Filing claims Surf Air is using deception to avoid regulation
The gloves appear to be off in San Mateo County’s fight against Surf Air, just as the airline prepares for a major expansion.
On July 6 the attorneys hired by the county to consult on aviation matters filed a legal document with the federal Department of Transportation, claiming Surf Air is deceptively using another company as a front, and asking for an investigation.
The county, which owns and operates the San Carlos Airport, has been trying to figure out how to deal with the noise complaints that began pouring in soon after Surf Air began using San Carlos for scheduled flights in June 2013.
The airline flies Pilatus PC-12 turboprops and offers unlimited flights for a monthly fee. Surf Air says it currently has 40 flights (20 round trips) a day using the San Carlos Airport.
The county has been frustrated in its attempts to address the noise complaints, which now number in the thousands each month. Because Surf Air’s planes carry fewer than nine passengers, under Federal Aviation Administration regulations they may operate out of the general aviation airport. The airport is considered a “reliever airport,” keeping small planes out of busy regional airports.
The law firm of Kaplan Kirsch Rockwell filed the document opposing a June 15 application made by Encompass Aviation for authority to operate flights between states as a commuter air carrier. Encompass, which in mid-May took over Surf Air’s flight operations, currently can only fly within California.
But Surf Air, which recently acquired a similar Texas-based airline, RISE, has announced it plans to have five-day-a-week flights between California and Texas within the year and to be flying to nine states and Mexico within 18 months.
The county’s claim says that Surf Air is using Encompass as a front, and that Surf Air is actually the air carrier, not Encompass, and should apply for its own permission to make the interstate flights.
When asked for a response to the filing, a Surf Air spokesperson said there is “no comment from us at this time.”
In its document, the county says it “feels strongly that Surf Air and Encompass must secure appropriate regulatory approvals to operate. Surf Air’s operations have been highly controversial at (the San Carlos Airport) because of noise from its aircraft, because of the operational complexity that Surf Air imposes on a small general aviation airport, and because its operations are effectively transforming (the airport) into a scheduled passenger service facility.”
The document says Surf Air’s recent change in its legal structure, which involved leasing all its planes to Encompass and turning over flight operations to that company, “seems carefully designed to avoid (Department of Transportation) regulation of Surf Air.”
The document claims Surf Air knew it would need permission from the federal government for interstate flights and that Encompass has applied for the federal approval “only to facilitate Surf Air’s plans.”
The document lays out an argument for why Surf Air should be considered to be an air carrier, not Encompass, and asks to have Surf Air investigated by the Department of Transportation “for operating without the proper economic authority” from the department.
Approving the Encompass applications “would facilitate the unauthorized operations of Surf Air,” the document says.
“No matter how Surf Air may try to obscure what is going on, Encompass flies Surf Air customers on Surf Air owned and (branded) aircraft according to a schedule set by Surf Air. For all intents and purposes, Surf Air operates and controls the operation even though it lacks any economic authority to provide flight air transportation, directly or indirectly,” the document says.
The document does not ask the Department of Transportation to stop Surf Air from using the San Carlos Airport.
The filing also asks the Department of Transportation to investigate another company, Advanced Air, that is currently operating flights for Surf Air to Nevada. That company does not operate out of San Mateo County.