Who the Heck is Aero?

Who the F*&@ Is

It’s been a long time since I’ve written up an entry in this illustrious series profiling newer and little-known airlines, and you may notice the name has changed a bit. It turns out that it’s a lot harder to find things when you use random characters like F&*$ or whatever it was in the previous version. So… a softer “heck” it is from now on.

I have an interesting one for you today. Though this time, it’s not technically an airline. It’s Aero, a company that can probably most easily be described as a more luxurious and much smaller version of JSX. It’s semi-private flying at its best. I sat down with CEO Ben Klein — who has a background both as a pilot and in aviation law — to talk about the evolution of Aero at its Van Nuys home.

Let’s start with the basics. Aero uses five aircraft today — four Embraer 135s and one Embraer Legacy. The Legacy is dedicated to charter, but the Embraer 135s do a mix of charter and scheduled public charter (like JSX).

The difference here is that instead of putting 30 seats on the airplane the way JSX does — which is the maximum allowed under Part 380/135 rules — Aero has a mere 16 seats onboard in a 1-1 configuration. This is a luxury experience from start to finish. Here’s a look inside one of the aircraft that was on the ground in Van Nuys when I visited.

The company was started by Garrett Camp, one of the founders of Uber, to be an Uber in the sky. It pivoted away from that plan closer to what it is today in 2019 when it started in Europe. Fun fact: it used to do good business flying between Ibiza and Mykonos. Who flew on that niche route? Why, DJs, of course. In 2021, Aero came to the US, and that’s when Ben joined the company. In 2023, it shuttered the European operation entirely.

Today it flies scheduled operations to only three cities from Van Nuys (in the San Fernando Valley north of LAX): Aspen, Los Cabos, and Sun Valley. During the holidays, it adds frequencies, with some going to nearby airports in Rifle (Colorado) and Cabo San Lucas (the in-town airport, not the primarily airport).

As you can imagine, with only 16 seats on the airplane, this airline has to charge a premium over First Class on a regular scheduled airline. A quick search of prices show them starting just shy of $2,000 one way per person, but the experience is obviously vastly different as well.

The pricing strategy involves the company targeting a certain level of revenue per hour. It knows pretty well what demand will look like, but it has to think about both directions of a trip. There might be a lot of demand heading to Aspen on a Friday, but very few people are coming back that day. So all of that gets baked into the fares to reach that revenue target.

If that sounds like too much money to you, then you aren’t the target market. These routes were chosen because they are locations where people in the LA area tend to have second homes. Many of the airline’s customers may have fractional ownership of private jets, but they opt to fly Aero on these routes because it’s just as good of an experience* that’s also less expensive.

*Ok, sure, if you happen to have your own BBJ, maybe it’s not just as good, but for most people who fly private, it is

As you can imagine, Aero doesn’t have enormous growth ambitions. It tried Jackson Hole but pulled back. Ben said the company had “only so many resources to devote to growing new routes.” It may try that one again later. For now, it is focusing on trying to make what it has become successful. I asked, but Ben would not comment on profitability. And since it is private, it doesn’t have to report.

Ben does believe there are other markets around the US that can support this type of service at some point. Aero flew from the Bay Area for a time, but the only airport that made sense for the operation was SFO, and that’s just too expensive. The landscape in the Bay is tough. For example, you could capture Silicon Valley by doing San Jose, but then you lose out on the customer in Marin. SFO gets both, but it’s pricey and congested. In the end, the company opted to leave the market.

This doesn’t mean there will be no growth at all, just slow and measured. There is an increasing focus on special event flights like to Coachella or the Super Bowl. And the charter business has been particularly strong. Apparently the ERJ-135s are very popular with touring bands, because those airplanes have great cargo capacity compared to other similarly-sized options. The split in 2023 was about 70 percent scheduled and 30 percent charter, but it will likely get closer to 50/50 this year as the charter business continues to grow.

The Part 380 Issue

I had to ask Ben to weigh in on the whole public charter issue. Technically, Aero charters flights from wholly-owned USAC Airways 695 (what a catchy name) to operate under Part 380. That’s what allows it to have more than 9 seats on the airplane. He didn’t seem overly concerned about the pending rulemaking that could make life more difficult for the company. He had praise for FAA Administrator Whitaker, saying “I think he’s stepped into this situation and tried to make the best of it.”

Ben also noted that rulemaking takes a really long time, and we just don’t know much about where this is going yet. He does say, however, “I don’t think the FAA is trying to kill this kind of operation.” But even if that did happen, Ben says…

[Part] 380 is a valid existing regulation that I think was written very clearly. That’s how we choose to operate now. If we were denied that and there wasn’t a reasonable alternative, we would find other ways to operate and provide the service that we do.

The (Non) Flying Experience

What’s it like to take a ride on Aero? Well, come along with me and I whisk you away on a trip to… absolutely nowhere. That’s right, I did not fly with Aero, but I did get on one of the airplanes in Van Nuys, so we’ll say that’s close enough.

When you pull into the unassuming parking lot next to a small two-story structure at the southern end of Van Nuys airport, you don’t get any sense of super rich luxury.

Once you walk in the door, however, you enter into the airline’s waiting lounge. There is, of course, champagne to be had.

I just had a cup of tea. There were plenty of snacks available there as well. Since it’s very rare for more than one flight to go at a time, this room is almost never crowded.

Out on the tarmac, well, I think we can all agree that this is one good-looking airplane:

That little Aero logo in the window up front is inside the closet, so it always stays down like that.

The first row had been set up with the snack basket full of goodies from the fancy LA supermarket Erewhon on one side:

On the other side was a look at the drink setup they serve with some olives and goodies.

There is a full bar including both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks onboard. They also have a dental kit, earplugs, hand sanitizer, and phone charger onboard in case you forgot yours.

The seats are big, comfy, and have an absurdly deep recline. I decided to take a quick nap.

I particularly liked the little storage area between the seat and the wall.

And speaking of the wall, doesn’t it look kind of funny? That’s because it’s suede. Yeah it looks cool — and must be impossible to keep clean — but it’s really there because of its sound-dampening qualities. A lot of thought has gone into this design.

Once inflight, there is Starlink wifi available, so you can stay connected the whole time. And on landing… well I don’t know what happens on landing. I just walked off and back into the office. But I can see this being a very pleasant way to travel.

How this translates into commercial success remains to be seen, but I can see a path here. With the charter market bolstering the operation, it does seem like there’s a niche opportunity for a small company like this to provide something less expensive than traditional private jet flying. It’s a creative coupling of business segments to try to create something sustainable.

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20 comments on “Who the Heck is Aero?

  1. Remember, this is LA & there’s a unique market for a service like this. I could see a similar type of operation at HPN as there are more private & corporate jets there than anywhere else in the country.

    1. Yes. I was thinking HPN, Teterboro, and possibly even something in the greater DC, Miami, and/or Boston metro areas as other places where this might be worth trying.

      1. I had Teterboro on my mind as well. Florida has lots of little airports where this could work especially near Naples, Orlando & as you said Miami as they are the locations in the state where the wealthy tend to congregate.

        1. Just looked up the 2023 busiest private airports based on aircraft movements per year & they are…

          1. Teterboro, 2. PBI, 3. DAL, 4. Van Nies executive, 5. LAS, 6. HPN, 7. IAD, 8. Miami Opalaca Executive, 9. HOU & 10. Scottsdale Airport.

          All of them exceed 50,000 aircraft movements, but Teterboro is at over 121,000 & is more than twice that of second place PBI.

          1. Thanks for the info. I’m sure there are other nuances, but in terms of spending only a few minutes to get an idea of potential markets, your idea of looking at the busiest private airports seems like a very reasonable approach.

  2. Is there any alternative in the SF Bay are like San Carlos? Thats close enough to SFO without the SFO tax.

    1. I thought the same, but San Carlos ‘s runway is 2,600 ft. Palo Alto, to the south, is just 2,400 ft. Have to keep the runways short to keep those pesky noisy jets away!

    2. San – As others mentioned, those runways are too short. It’s kind of surprising, actually. But there isn’t anything on the peninsula that works with jets between SFO and San Jose.

        1. NUQ is likely a no go. A very complex situation. For years NASA directly operated the airfield after it was BRAC’d as a Navy base. My understanding is that originally there was lots of interest from UPS/FedEx at operating into NUQ, but it’s the usual story that the local residents were opposed, while for completely unrelated reasons most of the NASA research aircraft were relocated down to EDW. This left just the Air National Guard unit, County Sheriff and some Army R&D flying for the most part. Under Sean O’Keafe NASA implemented “full cost accounting” (it’s as bad as it sounds). Ames management had to find an alternative way to fund the infrastructure they inherited from the Navy. Ultimately they realized they were sitting on a real estate gold mine, and conveniently the neighbor was Google who was looking to expand. Google ended up building an additional campus towards the Bay side on NASA property. That relationship also highlighted that the Google founders had a B757 and B767 they wanted to keep close at hand. Someone figured out if they put air data collection units on them and sampled the atmosphere when they flew, there was a “science” mission and NASA could sign a Space Act agreement with the aircraft holding company to help pay for the airfield operations. Over time that’s grown and now a Google founders related shell company manages the airfield complex sort of as a private “Google” airfield. There is a airship startup funded by one of the Google Founder operating out of Hanger 2.

          Thus it ends up being in lots of people interest because it gives the Google boys a very nice private airfield, keeps the total traffic count down (which pleases the surrounding communities) and fixes that part of Ames’ budget challenges. It’s sort of a goldlocks situation, because, as I understand the BRAC law, IF NASA was to relinquish control of the airfield, Santa Clara county would be next in line to claim it; and there was some desired to do that in the past because then they could consolidate GA operations at NUQ, remove them from SJC, potentially close PAO (which some Palo Alto residents want) and RHV, which is also desired by some factions. Remember RHV is leading the charge on unleaded avgas partially because the areas under the pattern are historically disadvantaged neighborhoods; so there is that whole angle at play here too.

  3. Very interesting and thorough report. My interest is piqued! The interior is nice, and I love the comfort available to someone willing to pay such high prices. I’m curious about the “little storage area between the seat and the wall” you showed. It looks like a “wing” from the outboard side of the seat that fills the gap to the wall, so things don’t fall to the floor? Can this area be used to stow items for takeoff/landing, or is it just a place to set a small item while your hands are busy?

    1. Honestly I don’t know. I imagine it can’t be used for stowage for takeoff and landing, but you really don’t need anything for stowage anyway. There is the seat in front of you if you need something close but there is also a closet up front if needed.

  4. Interesting concept. But I wonder why they chose Van Nuys instead of Santa Monica?

      1. I’ve heard a certain wood-respecting Santa Monica resident is scheming to date a Santa Monica city council member to influence law. Among other campaign issues: no saying “Happy new year”after January 7th, eliminating handshaking, and getting rid of the penny.

  5. Always funny to read someone try to make something the “Uber of XYZ” when Uber’s main claim to fame is being horrifically unprofitable without tens of billions of donor cash. Taking Uber into a third dimension sounds…uh…problematic. See also: EVTOL taxis.

    1. People are always looking to try to bridge the gap between first class commercial service and bizjets, and decades of attempts have ended in only one success – NetJets. And that’s kind of the exception that proves the rule. Only finally got to economic results after bazillions of Berkshire Hathaway-funded losses. Probably not replicable and, if you do the accounting right, probably uneconomic over its life.

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