Interview: Semi-Private Aviation with Aero CEO Uma Subramanian

In an exclusive interview, Aero CEO Uma Subramanian describes how the new operator is capturing growth opportunities.



August 3, 2022

DALLAS - The stark division between commercial airlines and exclusive private jet operators epitomizes the status quo of the travel industry—one that is being steadily disrupted by semi-private aviation, a concept promising to combine the exclusivity of private jet operators with the accessibility of commercial airliners.

As a flagship in the burgeoning sector, Aero promises passengers a seamless experience with all the efficiencies of a private jet operator with fares more akin to those of a premium cabin on a traditional commercial airline.

In an exclusive interview with Airways, Aero CEO Uma Subramanian describes how the relatively new operator is capturing growth opportunities before laying out her vision for the semi-private aviation sector as a whole.

Brent Foster (BF) As a semi-private operator, what is the greatest advantage that Aero provides passengers?

Uma Subramanian (UM) When we decided to start Aero, we looked at the world and the full range of air options for travelers. First and business class travel on commercial carriers is becoming pretty commoditized, you still have to go through the airport, and it is kind of still a slog. I was flying back from Lyon, France to London and we still had to queue for two and a half hours despite flying in a premium cabin.

The experience in the premium cabins is increasingly commoditized and private aviation is largely unaffordable except for a very small population of people.  When we set out to start Aero, we asked ourselves how do we bring back some of the magic of flying and make flying a really great experience again while giving people an option that is kind of in between?

In the hotel world, there is a full range of options for a full set of price points, and in the air travel world that is not really the case. You have the ultra-low-cost carriers, the low-cost carriers, the mainline carriers, and the private with very little in between. That was the gap that we were trying to bridge.

For customers who are traveling with Aero, there are a lot of advantages but the main advantage is that you have a private-like experience. You fly through a private terminal and get the time savings that you get from private for a fraction of the cost. It is a very unique experience and it feels private-like.

Aero CEO Uma Subramanian is optimistic about Aero and the semi-private aviation sector as a whole. Photo: Aero.

BF Where does Aero fall between traditional commercial airlines and private jet operators in terms of ticket prices and passenger experience?

UM We are kind of in that sweet spot between commercial first and business and private. Our average fare across our network is about US$1,695 one-way. 

It is a premium product and so as such, we understand that our customers have very high expectations of the product, so we aim to deliver a really premium experience. It is a very high-touch service, concierge service, and it is a premium air travel experience. We have 16-seat jets in a one-by-one seating configuration so it feels like a premium offering.

BF How many destinations does Aero currently fly to? What does it offer in terms of route frequency?

[wlm_private "Airways Premium"]

UM From Los Angeles we fly to Cabo San Lucas, Sun Valley, and Aspen. Out of San Francisco, we fly to Aspen and Cabo San Lucas. In London, we have a U.K. operating certificate as well, we fly from London to Ibiza and Nice and also between Ibiza and Mykonos. I think that’s nine destinations and three origin markets.

We offer frequencies and try to serve destinations two to three times a week.

BF What criteria does Aero consider in selecting destinations in the route network?

UM Aero is really focused on delivering a radically better premium leisure experience. We know that business travelers are really well served with commercial offerings and so we believe that time is really precious when you travel for leisure. We also know that if you really want to have this elevated experience, your trip should start when you fly.

We focus on premium leisure destinations and that represents our route strategy. You can imagine other places like New York-Aspen, Miami-Aspen, Dallas-Aspen, and then increasing the connectivity to other markets like that. It is deliberately designed as a point-to-point service.

Aero focuses operations primarily on leisure destinations. Photo: Aero.

BF Across all operators, which aircraft types comprise the company fleet, and how many aircraft are at Aero’s disposal?

UM We fly Embraer regional jets which we have configured to be semi-private aircraft so they are aircraft types that are also in service with the airlines. We fly regional jets, it’s entirely a fleet of Embraer regional jets. We have seven aircraft in service at the moment.

BF What specific Embraer regional jets does Aero operate?

UM We operate Embraer ERJ-135s, ERJ-135LRs, and some business jets.

BF Can passengers expect consistent interiors and inflight experiences across all companies operating flights on behalf of Aero?

UM Aero subsidiaries are the operator so we are the operator. We have subsidiary operators in the U.S. and Europe. We were lucky enough to be able to meet the citizenship requirements in both so we have our operation. We control all of our quality standards.

An Aero interior. Photo: Aero (Photo by Philip Cheung).

BF As a semi-private operator, how does Aero accommodate passengers in the case of delays or cancellations due to mechanical issues or poor weather?

UM We really do our best to make it right by the passenger. Our passengers are really discerning, high-value customers, and I truly believe that loyalty is built when things go wrong as much as it is built when things go right. We go out of our way to make it right for our customers. 

If time is of the essence to them, we will make sure that they get to where they need to go commercially.  If time is a little bit more of a flexible variable, we will make sure that they have all that they need to make themselves comfortable while we sort ourselves out.

BF Does Aero occasionally offer charter services?

UM We have had a ton of demand for our aircraft, people have really wanted to use charter. Charter is not our business but opportunistically we will offer it.

BF Why did Aero decide to initially inaugurate operations in Europe back in 2020?

UM The flight space in Europe is huge.  Commercial, business class in Europe really on most carries involves a covered seat in the middle of business class with a table.  It’s a pretty suboptimal experience.  At least in the U.S. there are some differentiated products. Some of the mainline carriers have lie-flat seats in business and that doesn’t happen in Europe.

In Europe, there is this big opportunity where the experience is really commoditized in business.  We started with Europe because it was a garb space.  And we would have stayed only in Europe if would have not been for COVID-19 and Brexit and all the borders closing.  And then we came back to North America and we realized that our product really resonates with customers in the U.S., particularly post-COVID.  We were really excited about the traction of the business in the U.S. and the U.S. is a market that we will focus on for the long term.

An Aero Embraer ERJ-135LR registered as N402AT. Photo: Aero.

BF Did the COVID-19 pandemic force a change in strategy as Aero launched in 2020?

UM One of the joys of being in this space is that we hit a market segment at exactly the right moment.  It’s a time when people want to avoid main airports, they want to avoid coming into contact with a lot of other people.  We offered a product that was kind of perfect for a COVID world so we have built on that COVID momentum ever since.

BF Does Aero see more passengers booking flights in the European or North American markets?

UM The Europe summer has been really strong but we only have one aircraft at the moment in the U.K. and then we have another aircraft on our Guernsey AOC so we’re capacity constrained at the moment in Europe.  The opportunity is enormous.

Just by the fact that we have more airplanes in service, we have more routes and frequencies and passengers in the U.S. but the opportunity in Europe is amazing.

BF Aero routes in the U.S. are centered on the West Coast, will the company expand operations across the East Coast and into the Caribbean?

UM We definitely have expansion ambitions; it is just a matter of doing things sequentially. One of the greatest risks of an airline is to spread your assets too far and too wide and not be able to actually get economies of scale from operating in the same form.  So, we will pursue expansion in a really measured sort of slow and steady way.

BF Many of the destinations in the Aero network are traditionally leisure-oriented, will the company move to capture more of the business travel market?

UM Business travelers have fundamentally different needs than leisure travelers.  Business travelers need loyalty points and frequency. That’s why people become very loyal to a mainline carrier. Our customers have different priorities, they want to make sure they get where they’re going. The requirement is to be reliable and make sure the passenger ends up at their final destination. That is really what is driving the leisure traveler.

We don’t have any plans in the short term to offer business routes but that could change at some point. Not yet and not anytime in the foreseeable future.

An Embraer ERJ-135LR registered as 2-AERO operating Aero flights in Europe. Photo: Aero.

BF Where does Aero see the greatest opportunities for long-term growth?

UM We’re really excited about the U.S. and Europe; I think they’re both really great opportunities and we are very lucky that we have got operations in both and I think that we will continue to expand.

BF How do you see Aero and the concept of semi-private operations as a whole impacting the airline industry, particularly with regard to business and first-class fares on traditional passenger airlines?

UM I think scale is really the big driver here. In the same way that there is a place in the market for, I come back to the hotel analogy, there will always be market demand for Courtyard, there will always be market demand for Marriot, there will always be market demand for J.W., and then there will always be market demand for the really high-end hotels. There is demand across the spectrum.

I think there will always be demand for these products at different prices. Our fares are higher than business class, so it’s a different kind of customer and there will always be those people who just need to have the flexibility to go where they want.  Aero is 80% of the value of private, but the thing you don’t control is the time you leave, and for the people whose time is of the essence, they are going to go when they need to go. They will continue to charter. I think there will always be demand.

When we were a startup, it was really hard to imagine cannibalizing two huge portions of non-major airline traffic. Maybe someday, but that is not really our goal, our goal is to build a healthy, robust business with the product and the offering that we’ve got.

Excellent. Thank you, Ms. Subramanian, for sharing your time and insights with Airways.


Featured image: Aero bridges the gap between private and commercial aviation, utilizing a fleet of Embraer aircraft in the process. Photo: Aero.