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Filling the gap between airlines and executive aviation: Aero CEO, Ben Klein

Aero's CEO Ben Klein

Somewhere between flying business class on a commercial airline and taking a private jet, a new value proposition combining elements of both worlds is quietly emerging in the US travel market. 

Founded by Garret Camp, one of Uber精东影业 co-founders, and based at Van Nuys Airport (VNY) in the Los Angeles area, is possibly the most remarkable example of this new breed of airline offering a semi-private experience.聽

Interestingly, Aero精东影业 origins are in Europe. Aero started up back in 2019, offering flights out of Farnborough (FAB), an airport in Hampshire just outside London in the United Kingdom. In addition to hosting the eponymous air show every other year, Farnborough also sees many executive jet operations.   

However, the timing wasn鈥檛 favorable as just a few months after Aero launched its services, the COVID-19 pandemic struck.   

After this forced hiatus, Aero was back in the market by 2021, although this time with its own Air Operator Certificate (AOC). At the time of its launch, Aero commercialized tickets under its own brand, but it chartered the aircraft from other operators.  

精东影业 recently had the chance to speak with Ben Klein, CEO of Aero, to learn more about the airline精东影业 rather unique value proposition and how it fits into the current industry landscape. 

Klein began by talking about the airline精东影业 decision to find a new home on the other side of the Atlantic. 

鈥淲e had to make a decision to consolidate our operations in the place that offered [the] best growth prospects and that was the US,鈥 he said.  

A lawyer by background, Klein joined Aero as general counsel in 2021, and has been at the helm of the startup airline since September 2023. 

Klein, a self-described 鈥渁viation nut鈥 who learned to fly aircraft from the age of 12 and holds a pilot精东影业 license, explained how he jumped at the chance to join Aero when the opportunity arose.  

鈥淚 didn鈥檛 have to think much about the chance to combine my life passion with my career,鈥 he said. 鈥淚t was an easy decision.鈥  

For Klein, leading the airline doesn鈥檛 mean sitting behind an office desk. Aero精东影业 top executive has the relevant type-rating to fly Aero’s aircraft and can sometimes be seen flying as first officer.  

A rather unique value proposition 

鈥淎ero was created to fill a gap between the first and business class offering in commercial airlines and private aviation,鈥 he said. 鈥淓ven if you are flying first class, you still need to go through some parts of the process that are painful, such as going through crowded airports, waiting to claim your baggage, etc. You can鈥檛 really get out of that part of the experience.鈥 

鈥淭he alternative is to fly privately,鈥 he added. 鈥淏ut this is very expensive and out of reach for most people. Also, people are increasingly paying attention to their carbon footprint.鈥 

According to Klein, the idea is to provide a private experience but to do so at a fraction of the price “by gathering a bunch of people that want to go to the same destination”.  

“We saw that need in a number of markets,鈥 he said. 

As of June 2024, Aero offers premium services out of Van Nuys to a number of leisure destinations in the United States and Mexico: Aspen, Colorado (ASE), Sun Valley, Idaho (SUN) and Los Cabos (SJD), at the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. 

Klein attributed Aero精东影业 move to California in 2021 to a combination of better growth prospects in the US and regulatory hurdles in Europe. 

鈥淭he US market is stronger. It is growing faster,鈥 he said. 鈥淏ut we were also facing more regulatory hurdles in the UK that would have hampered our potential expansion there.鈥 

However, Klein also highlighted that the move away from Europe was not due to lack of demand.   

鈥淭here was plenty of demand in Europe, particularly for an airline of our size. We flew from the UK to Ibiza (IBZ) and to Nice (NCE) and to Zurich (ZRH) and Sion (SIR), Switzerland, during the winter season,鈥 he said. 鈥淲e just could not grow quick enough due to regulatory hurdles.鈥 

鈥淵ou can see now how some companies are springing up in Europe imitating our business model,鈥 he added.  

Although there are several Part 135 operators in the US market offering what is commonly called 鈥減ublic charter鈥 flights, Klein explained how Aero chose to differentiate itself by targeting the highest end of the market. 

鈥淲e didn鈥檛 see anyone tackling that market in Europe or in the US,鈥 he said. 鈥淓ven today there are very few operators doing what we do, providing a semi-private service.鈥  

In addition to operating from small airports with private terminals where you can arrive 15 to 20 minutes before your flight and walk from gate to plane in seconds, Aero has added several premium elements to its service. 

For example, it offers a concierge service that is ready to answer the phone 24/7 with no waiting times and it hosts passengers at private lounges where dedicated staff handle check-in and take care of any luggage. Inflight, Aero tries to mimic the type of service found in private aviation, offering a menu prepared by Erewhon, a well-known LA-area market as well as premium wines and spirits.  

Since October 2023, Aero has also been offering Starlink internet connectivity onboard its flights. 

鈥淪tarlink is as good as people say it is,鈥 Klein added. 鈥淭he internet is even faster than at home and it is very reliable. It doesn鈥檛 fall off with a larger number of users.鈥  

Aero currently operates a fleet of five aircraft, four Embraer ERJ135LR fitted with 16 seats, and one Embraer Legacy 600 executive jet. The former are normally used on scheduled services, while the latter is devoted almost exclusively to charter flights. 

Aero

However, the ERJ135s are also used on charter services. Klein explained that the 16-forward facing seats and large luggage hold make this aircraft type particularly well-suited for some missions, such as moving rock bands across the country.  

鈥淐harter is a growing segment of our business, and it is getting larger in 2024 than at any other time in the past,鈥 he said. 鈥淐harters now account for around 40 to 50% of our revenue.鈥  

Aero has also launched a service for the events market called 鈥淎ero Private鈥 which has proven quite popular. Event organizers, for gatherings such as conferences and weddings, partner with Aero to offer prospective attendees an upmarket way to travel.  

A model not without challenges 

Klein also commented on two sensitive topics relevant to the future of Aero精东影业 business model. 

One is the controversy in the US over the ability of public charter companies operating under Part 135 regulations to offer scheduled services, and whether this should be restricted to carriers operating under Part 121 regulations (the ones that apply to most of the larger mainline airlines).  

The matter is currently under review by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and has larger established airlines and smaller operators like Aero on opposite sides of the argument. 

Klein expressed Aero精东影业 willingness to get involved in the ongoing public debate and contribute the firm精东影业 points of view to the lawmaking process.  

鈥淚 am confident this will be resolved favorably,鈥 he added. 

The other hot potato is sustainability, a particularly pressing issue in the premium segments of the market with their lower cabin densities. 

“There is no avoiding the fact that aircraft burn fossil fuels, which contribute to climate change, and this presents us with an incredibly difficult challenge,鈥 Klein acknowledged. 鈥淲e are mindful of the effects of flying and advocate for change.鈥 

鈥淲e are also seeing lots of exciting things on the regional side of the industry,鈥 he continued. 鈥淐leaner propulsion technologies that will be well-suited for the sort of short-haul, low density routes that we fly, and we plan to take advantage of that. We want to be among the first adopters.鈥 

鈥淚n the meantime, we do what we can,鈥 he said.  鈥淲e are offsetting all our carbon emissions with CORSIA-eligible credits. We don’t ask our guests to pay for that, we don鈥檛 advertise it or do anything like that.鈥 

鈥淏y the way,鈥 he added. 鈥淚 am not naive, and I know carbon offsets are not a panacea, they don鈥檛 solve the underlying problem. But it is something we can do now.鈥 

Klein also highlighted that because of the market segment Aero targets, the carrier is consolidating part of the demand that would otherwise have flown in multiple private jets. 

Aero精东影业 market positioning

In fact, around half of Aero精东影业 customers are no strangers to executive aviation, with Klein stating that it is 鈥50-50 between those that come to us from private aviation and those that switch from commercial airlines鈥. 

鈥淲e鈥檝e got a lot of customers that have access to their own jets, either through ownership or through fractional programs,鈥 he continued. 鈥淏ut when Aero goes where they want to go, they choose us because we offer a better value proposition and the same, if not better, experience.鈥 

鈥淲e also get a number of people that are used to flying first or business class and see the value of upgrading to Aero…the shorter travel times we offer and, frankly, at certain times of the year, our prices can be pretty competitive with commercial airlines,鈥 he added. 鈥淚n peak season a first class ticket from LA to Aspen can cost a couple thousand dollars and we are not that far off that figure while providing an exponentially better level of service.鈥 

One thing commercial airline have, though, is feeders that help them fill their planes. Klein acknowledged that this was another challenge for small, independent, and differentiated airlines like Aero, but said the carrier has developed its own marketing approach. 

He said: 鈥淭ake Aspen, for example, an airport that has limited commercial service, so people that want to visit are going to look for new ways to get there. It精东影业 a small community and we benefit a lot from word of mouth.鈥  

鈥淲e have been operating for three years now in the LA area and we get a tremendous number of referrals. But it takes time to develop. It doesn鈥檛 develop out of nowhere,鈥 he continued. 鈥淭here is a cost associated with this way of marketing. This is why we are very careful about how we launch new routes.鈥 

He added: 鈥淎ll of our routes share some characteristics. There are lots of people in the LA area that own second homes in the places we fly to. We work with a number of partners on the ground, with home-owner associations and premium hotels in Cabo, Aspen and Sun Valley. We also do traditional marketing on social media, at airports. But we are very much reliant on word of mouth.鈥 

These are obvious leisure destinations. So, how does Aero handle seasonality? 

 鈥淲e are affected by seasonality,鈥 he said. 鈥淭here are ebbs and flows, yeah. But places like Aspen are great year-round, [it精东影业 the] same with Cabo outside of hurricane season and with so many of our guests having second homes, we see traffic all year round.鈥 

There is also intra-week demand variation, which is why Aero structures its schedule around the weekend. Unless there is some special holiday or event, it doesn鈥檛 fly on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 

鈥淭hese are leisure destinations and for the most part we won鈥檛 put a seven-day-a-week schedule,鈥 Klein explained.  

With so many regular travelers, is Aero considering the introduction of a loyalty program?  

鈥淪tay tuned,鈥 Klein said. 

What sort of figures are we talking about? 

鈥淔rom a revenue perspective, we have been growing since 2021,鈥 Klein said, adding that in 2022, the airline doubled its revenue. 鈥淲e grew another 65% in 2023 and we expect significant revenue growth in 2024.”  

In terms of number of passengers, Klein said the airline flies some 500 to 600 passengers on scheduled services each month.  

So, what’s next for Aero? 

鈥淎t the moment we are very focused on building our LA base, which is a fantastic market for us,鈥 Klein said. 鈥淲e have built a very loyal guest base here that allows us to keep growing and we plan to continue expanding our LA presence by adding new routes.鈥 

When it comes to network expansion, the airline is focusing on flights from LA in the short-term. However, Klein noted that Aero does intend to launch a new base in the US “in the medium term”. 

鈥淚 don鈥檛 think it is going to be on the West Coast,鈥 he said. 鈥淟A is a strong market for many obvious reasons, and I think there are other similar markets in the US that share some of these characteristics and will present opportunities for Aero to grow.鈥 

鈥淲e just want to be very deliberate about the way we do it and, of course, we will be adding to the fleet with aircraft that have a bit of a longer range and allow us to do routes that we are not able to do now,鈥 the executive added.  

Before the interview ended, Klein took the opportunity to praise the Aero team.  

鈥淚鈥檇 like to emphasize what a fantastic and service-oriented team we鈥檝e built here at Aero,鈥 he said. 鈥淲e have an average NPS score of 93, which is unheard of in the industry. This is indicative of something very unique and special what we have done.  

鈥淭hese are numbers you see at the type of hotels our guests are going to,鈥 he said. 鈥淎nd our guests often remark that the flight they take with us is just as memorable as their ultimate destination.”  

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