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Sunday, November 17 Travel

9 under-the-radar airlines you should know about

Lesser known carriers might offer more convenience, value

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In addition to the big commercial carriers that dominate the travel headlines, there is a diverse group of smaller, lesser known airline operators every traveler should know about.

Sure, these smaller companies don't have the robust flight schedules, deep lists of destinations and huge fleets at the likes of American, Delta, United, Southwest or Alaska, but their regulars swear by them.

Some are boutique operators that offer semi-private flights around California and/or to leisure destinations that are popular with Bay Area residents like Las Vegas or Lake Tahoe. Others are foreign airlines that do a great job marketing in their home countries — but may not pay as much attention to potential customers in Northern California.

In any case, as the busy summer season approaches, each one is worth a look for a variety of reasons.

JetSuiteX

Many fliers who have been on JetSuiteX's semi-private flights tell us they find it hard to go back and fly commercial. This West Coast-based company operates a network of flights out of Oakland Airport and Concord's Buchanan Field to Burbank, Orange County, and Las Vegas on 30-seat, all-business-class Embraer ERJ-135 jets. During this month's Coachella Music Festival, it is operating special flights between Oakland and the airport in Thermal, Calif., which is not too far from Coachella Valley.

Occasionally, deals can be found for as low as $89 one-way, and those fares include checked bags, spacious seating, free seat assignments, power ports at every seat, and free drinks and snacks.

But the best part about JetSuiteX is this: these flights operate out of private terminals at airports allowing fliers to bypass crowds and interminable security screening lines. "You just walk out to the plane, get on and go," said one recent flier who contacted us.

It's linked to JetBlue's frequent flyer program, and backed by the owners or Qatar Airways, too. More about that here. 

The company is teasing new destinations that will launch in time for summer so stay tuned. More information about JetSuiteX here. 

Surf Air

This membership-based Southern California airline fell on some hard times in recent years which we've detailed pretty comprehensively in the past. It's planning a big comeback after confidentially settling a lawsuit with its previous air operator, and regaining access to its fleet of Pilatus PC-12 turbo-props that are equipped with wide leather seats and decent legroom. It has also folded a short-lived European operation.

Surf Air said it intends to increase flights out of Oakland and San Carlos to Hawthorne (which is near LAX), Santa Barbara and Truckee. Flights require a membership to the airline, which can be a high barrier for entry for bargain hunters since costs range in the thousands of dollars per month. For example, with its new less expensive option, members pay $2,500 a year and then purchase single seats starting at $500 per flight on a pay-as-you-go basis.

Read Full Article 

What's it really like to fly Surf Air? We found out and wrote about it here. 

For regular commuters between the Bay Area and Southern California — these "semi-private" flights might be a worthwhile option to look at. Surf Air said depending on new members, it may launch flights to Palm Springs, Las Vegas, and Monterey. More info on Surf Air here. 

Kaiser Air

Oakland-based KaiserAir has been in operation since 1946,  founded by East Bay industrialist Henry J. Kaiser. The carrier is best known for maintaining a private air terminal at Oakland Airport's North Field and its charter aircraft operation.

It also operates exclusive all-first class flights between Oakland and the Hawaiian Islands using its Boeing 737s (it has three in the fleet). All are configured with all-business-class style recliners and the VIP service you'd expect from a private jet. Take a brief look inside in this YouTube video.

Getting onboard these VIP flights requires membership in this Oakland-Hawaii flight program, and from what we hear, it's not cheap. To get in on these exclusive flights, fliers need to own property in one of several very high end residential communities on the Kona Coast of Hawaii. Kona Shuttle, a private members only-airline available only to residents of these ritzy communities and their guests, charters a KaiserAir Boeing 737 to fly between Oakland and Kona twice a week. More information about Kaiser Air  here. 

Boutique Air

Another carrier to offer intra-California flying on a fleet of cushy PC-12s with extra-wide seats is Boutique Air. It operates flights out of Oakland to Merced (making a 30 minute stop) and onwards to Los Angeles LAX. Merced, located in the central valley, is known as the "gateway to Yosemite."

At OAK, daily flights operate out of Terminal 1. Round-trip fares start at $238, and fliers can earn United MileagePlus miles on these flights. More info on Boutique Air here. 

See the slideshow at the top of this post for a look at these airlines' planes!

Blackbird

This company launched three years ago with the "Uber-for-planes" concept in mind by pairing private pilots with those wanting to hitch a flight from a select number of cities in Northern California. The company explicitly says it is not an air operator, but rather an agent that arranges your travel.

Its app "matches" you with a private pilot who might be headed in the direction you want to go — say from San Carlos to Sacramento or Truckee. It also famously offers flights from Sausalito to Lake Tahoe via a seaplane.

Flights might be on a single-engine Cessna or Cirrus, and costs vary. Be forewarned: you can't get up in a tiny Cessna, and there isn't a lavatory to use!

Fliers can also charter a plane that is flown by one of Blackbird's approved pilots, but you can expect the per-seat cost to be higher since you have more control over the flight. More information about Blackbird here. 

Contour Airlines

The drives up and down Highway 101 are scenic but also painstakingly long, and that's exactly the crowd Tennessee-based Contour Airlines wants to draw. It operates daily flights from Oakland to Crescent City near the Oregon border and to Santa Barbara on its fleet of Embraer ERJ-135s.

Since Contour is a full-fledged airline, and not a semi-private charter carrier, you'll be flying out of OAK's Terminal 1. The airline does allow customers to check one bag for free in addition to bringing a carry-on bag.

We found round-trip flights to Crescent City as low as $238 and to Santa Barbara as low as $258 for a weekend in mid-May. Flight times are about an hour one-way, which is much faster than taking a road trip. More information about Contour Airlines here. 

Azores Airlines

Did you know you can fly non-stop between the Bay Area and the Azores? Do you even know where the Azores are?

Portuguese-carrier Azores Airlines operates a unique once-weekly non-stop flight between Oakland and the autonomous archipelago of the Azores in the North Atlantic off the coast of Portugal. The flight between Oakland and Terceira, one of the nine major islands, operates Wednesdays (to Oakland), and Tuesdays (to Terceira) during the summer. Since Azores Airlines retired its fleet of wide body jets recently, it will lease a Hi Fly Airlines Airbus A340 on the route this summer.

We found round-trip fares starting at around $900 for a one-week trip to the explore the dramatic landscapes of the Azores. More about Azores Airlines here.

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Women's only lavatory in an Interjet A320  Photo: Ed Walsh
Photo: Ed Walsh

Women's only lavatory in an Interjet A320 

Thomas Cook Airlines

United Kingdom-based Thomas Cook has made a name for itself selling all-inclusive vacation packages to Brits, but Northern California fliers might be able to lock in a deal for a summer trip to Great Britain.

We wrote about Thomas Cook Airlines when it cranked up SFO flights in 2017.

The carrier operates a three-times weekly summer seasonal non-stop between Manchester, UK and San Francisco on an Airbus A330 wide body jet. According to Seatguru.com, premium economy in Thomas Cook Airlines' two-class A330-200s has 49 "recliner seats" (seven across) that are 19.7 inches wide, with 35-inch pitch; and 273 regular economy seats (eight across) that are 18.2 inches wide with 31-inch pitch (pretty much the industry standard for economy class these days).

Round-trip flights start at around $1,100 between SFO and the less touristy Greater Manchester area, which can be a great launching point to explore the Britain's picturesque Lake District not far away. More info on Thomas Cook Airlines here.

Interjet

Mexico's low-cost carrier Interjet started flying out of San Francisco SFO in March 2018 offering non-stop flights to Cancun and Guadalajara on its Airbus A320 jets. Service to Guadalajara operates daily whereas flights to the resort-filled Cancun region operate three times a week. Round-trip summer fares hover in the $500 category.

Interjet is a family-owned airline, and it thought of itself as the JetBlue of Mexico when it was founded in 2005 (hence the blue livery and logo). As we found out, the legroom was generous, but the snack selection left much to be desired. More information about Interjet here. 

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Chris McGinnis is the founder of TravelSkills.com. The author is solely responsible for the content above, and it is used here by permission.  You can reach Chris at chris@travelskills.com or on Twitter @cjmcginnis.

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