County asks federal transportation department to investigate Surf Air

Filing claims Surf Air is using deception to avoid regulation

Protesters gather at the San Carlos Airport on June 17 to express their frustration with Surf Air. (Photo by Ana Sofia Amieva-Wang/The Almanac)

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.

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


6 people like this
Posted by Pete
a resident of Woodside: Mountain Home Road
on Jul 17, 2017 at 12:31 pm

This is something that all airlines do, and it's perfectly legal. Lets hope that SurfAir countersues for a SLAP suit.

24 people like this
Posted by Mary Ann
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Jul 17, 2017 at 12:48 pm

As a resident living under Surf Air's flight path, I am heartened by the County addressing this issue.

Surf Air is exhibiting a clear avoidance of transparency about their expansion intentions. And, won't talk about it. Sorry, that is not good enough.

Allowing "shell" companies which have permissions and approvals that they do not possess (and refusing to talk about it) treats San Mateo County (at minimum) disrespectfully. This applies to County officials themselves and of course, to the residents below their flight paths, including Atherton, North Fair Oaks - and even Sunnyvale, when they fly over the bay approach.

If they wish to operate in this County, they must do so lawfully and honestly, as must any other business.

Thank you county lawyers for putting light on this issue. Please stay on it.

15 people like this
Posted by DJ
a resident of Woodside: other
on Jul 17, 2017 at 1:25 pm

Surf Air is turning San Carlos airport into a commercial facility, which is something that was never intended. Who cares if they have found a way to beat the regulatory system or not. That doesn't make it right. Furthermore, Surf Air hurts the many for the benefit of the few... the very rich few (customers like Pete). [Part removed.] I hope they eventually get shut down or go under. They offer nothing the greater community needs.

5 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 17, 2017 at 1:52 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

This is certainly an appropriate question for the County to address to the FAA.

The response will depend on the facts of the case and the relevant laws and regulation - not on someones opinion.

2 people like this
Posted by SteveC
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jul 17, 2017 at 2:16 pm

SteveC is a registered user.

LMAO, what a joke.

4 people like this
Posted by my Ears Hurt
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jul 17, 2017 at 2:47 pm

Which airport will SurfAir use when San Carlos Airport is closed?

12 people like this
Posted by GoAwaySurf
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jul 17, 2017 at 4:39 pm

@my Ears Hurt: The airport is not closing - yet. But this is a classic example of an escalating situation because many in the aviation community keep falling back on 'the laws are on our side' rather than being part of a community supported solution. Surf Air has shown bad behavior from day one. Lies, cocky attitude, bad management, indifference, lack of community support, etc, etc... If this situation isn't resolved amicably, constructively and orderly, the Sups (current or newly elected) will be reviewing a 20 year plan to close the airport. And that would be very sad for all airport users.

6 people like this
Posted by my Ears Hurt
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jul 17, 2017 at 4:56 pm

@GoAwaySurf: well said. Santa Monica Airport will be closing in 2028 due to community pressure over noise and pollution issues. Like most people, I do not object to San Carlos as a general aviation airport. It is the obtrusive nature of Surf Air I object to. Santa Monica Airport has been open for a century and dates back to the early days of aviation in Southern California. San Carlos does not share this longevity or history and could be closed if commercial users persist in ignoring the needs of the community it serves.

6 people like this
Posted by SQLpilot
a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jul 17, 2017 at 5:17 pm

While I do not fly for Surf Air, I fly as a corporate pilot out of Palo Alto and Hayward and fly for fun out of SQL. Personally this new angle is a waste of money by the county.

Newsflash everyone, Surf Air as an operation does not technically exist anymore. They were bought wholly by Encompass. This includes the Surf Air OPSPEC issued by the FAA and the callsign (they now call themselves "Roam"). While the airplanes are still painted as Surf Air and they use the branding, its is still Encompass Aviation. Go look at Wheels Up; their planes and selling front is "Wheels Up," but the aircraft are owned and operated by Gamma Aviation.

6 people like this
Posted by Menlo Voter.
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jul 17, 2017 at 6:17 pm

Menlo Voter. is a registered user.

"Personally this new angle is a waste of money by the county."

Agreed. Just more political theater. The county just took more FAA money and have no say about what aircraft can or cannot operate out of SQL.

4 people like this
Posted by pat
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Jul 17, 2017 at 7:48 pm

funny no one comments that they are supposed to be over 2000 ft within 3 miles. not even close you can see them smile as they go by. and the original flight path was basically approaching over bay front freeway and making the turn at 101

6 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jul 17, 2017 at 7:56 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"they are supposed to be over 2000 ft within 3 miles"


The IFR approach plate calls for planes being at 2000 ft at 6 miles from the runway threshold which would put the altitude at 3 miles at 1000 ft.

Web Link

4 people like this
Posted by Gb
a resident of Menlo Park: Fair Oaks
on Jul 17, 2017 at 9:50 pm

It's about time the county showed some muscle...appreciate their getting more involved.

22 people like this
Posted by Jetman
a resident of another community
on Jul 18, 2017 at 1:16 am

Pilots and aviation enthusiasts had a good thing going at San Carlos Airport before Surfair came in and pooped in the punch bowl.

10 people like this
Posted by TurboMx
a resident of another community
on Sep 18, 2017 at 6:14 pm

As a former employee of both SurfAir and Encompass, this is laughable. Nothing here is illegal, immoral, or otherwise wrong. SurfAir was unable to operate outside California due to restrictions based on foreign investor funding. Encompass came in, bought the operational side of the company, made the funding majority domestic, and filed for the interstate carrier permit. There is no front, the planes carry an Encompass logo, and y'all who live near an airport chose to live there. Planes are loud. Stop blaming pilots, airports, and operators for your poor choice of housing.

Like this comment
Posted by Belmont Resident
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Oct 6, 2017 at 1:42 pm

It is a well known fact that airports in heavily populated areas cause issues.
TurboMX : You misunderstand how capitalism works. If SurfAir Encompass does not like noise complaints they are free to buy up the land under their flight paths. When we bought the land Surf Air did not exist. So Surf air and their failure to buy the necessary land is the problem not the current land owners whose property value has been reduced. SurfAir is also costing the county Millions in lost property taxes as the land values go down. One can see a clear deterioration of values as we get into airport noise zone. Ultimately Santa Monica shows the way. All these little airports have been already shut down in Europe's populated areas and unless the FAA agrees to noise regulations for small planes this airport has to go.

4 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Oct 6, 2017 at 2:32 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

" One can see a clear deterioration of values as we get into airport noise zone"

Do you have any data to support this assertion?

Have any of these properties requested and received an assessment reduction from the County Assessor?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

Local Transit to the Rescue?
By Sherry Listgarten | 25 comments | 3,151 views

Morsey's Creamery brings buffalo-milk gelato to downtown Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 11 comments | 2,054 views

"You Gotta Have Balls [to do counseling] . . .
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,756 views

Eating Green on the Green – August 25
By Laura Stec | 5 comments | 1,091 views

Lessons from visiting great grandma
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 262 views


Register now!

On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

More info