Zander Futernick is the founder of AURA, a new luxury private airline planning to serve major U.S. cities including Miami, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Denver beginning in 2019. Operating from private airports with a fleet of 29-seat CRJ-700 aircraft configured with two premium cabins, AURA passengers only have to arrive at the airport 20 minutes before departure.
I was privileged enough to sit down with Zander, who is just 21 years old, for an in-depth discussion on AURA, his passion for aviation, and the challenges of starting an airline in an industry best known for its failures. Extremely poised and determined for his age, Zander brings a unique perspective and energy to the airline industry.
The interview below was lightly edited for length and clarity.
Theo: You are 21 years old and launching an airline in an industry that rarely sees startups. What is the inspiration behind AURA and how did you get started in the industry?
Zander: I’ve loved aviation my entire life. This is the most natural thing I could possibly do. You know what it really comes down to for me? I want people to love flying as much as I do. Just like when you take someone to your favorite restaurant, you want them to love it as much as you do; I feel the same way about aviation. It’s been sincerely disheartening to watch people detest the flying experience. They don’t like the idea of going to the airport and getting onto a plane. I love it. You’re stepping foot into a pressurized tube of aluminum that whizzes through the air at 500mph and will get you safely between any two destinations in the world within 24 hours. There’s an element of grandeur in aviation and it’s something I share from the bottom of my heart.
T: Was there a specific flying experience or moment that made you want to disrupt the industry?
Z: I think it had to do with traveling abroad. I flew all the legacy US airlines growing up and they’re all pretty much the same. It’s totally different with foreign carriers: they care about you. They take pride in serving their passengers. You fly to Japan and ANA cares very much about providing an excellent experience to everyone aboard, not just those who are able to pay upfront. A truly great airline is one that excels in economy. Everybody is treated with dignity. AURA is an airline Americans will be proud to have fly their skies.
T: On that theme of service, one of the most interesting things you say in your letter on the AURA website is that you want to be a flight attendant. What inspired that decision?
Z: I want nothing more than to serve you a glass of champagne. It puts a smile on my face to put a smile on your face. I want to know our customers. I want to know how you feel when you’re unhappy, what we’re doing right, what we’re doing wrong, and there’s no better way to do that than being in the air every day with you. So every morning I plan on waking up and getting to know our passengers and, you know, making sure we give you the best possible flying experience every time.
“Aviation used to be great, but we’re not going back to that–AURA’s making it even better than it’s ever been before.”
T: Diving right into the operation, AURA is planning to serve major metropolitan cities in the U.S. mainly on the east coast. Why such a focus on the east coast instead of the West?
Z: No, I wouldn’t say we have a focus on the east coast, we pick large markets. We’re starting with our main corridors: Miami, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Denver. Most markets can suit AURA. We need to offer frequency. Like New York to Chicago, we’ll start with four flights a day, every single day. Seasonally we’ll do routes like Miami to Vail which we might fly only a few times a week–that’s part of our KeyHolder program: we want to know where you want to go. We ask you, and that’s very different from traditional airlines in operation today.
T: What about transcontinental routes? Right now there is no indication that you will serve the New York to LA market and those are very lucrative markets.
Z: We have some really interesting plans for trans-con we will be revealing at the end of this year. It will be the most refined coast-to-coast service in the United States. And extraordinary affordable. Everything about AURA is affordable.
T: AURA is starting with at least four Bombardier CRJ700 aircraft. Why did you pick that plane?
Z: The CRJ is the perfect aircraft for AURA. We look at the CRJ700 as a blank canvas to develop our masterpiece. What we do is we go out and buy used aircraft that have been in operation for just a few years with commercial airlines and we completely gut them out and make them beautiful. The AURA fleet will have the same new-car smell you’d expect. They’re gorgeous!
T: When you talk about the art, what are some specific elements that a passenger will see and say, ‘wow, that is a work of art’?
Z: Art for me is technology. My favorite piece of technology we showcase on board is the OLED ceiling. OLED stands for Organic Light Emitting Diode–it allows us to display deep colors, perfect blacks, having a spectral distribution similar to that of natural sunlight. It creates a really magical experience on board. It’s not distracting and that’s really important to know. You’re not watching movies on the ceiling, we give you iPads for that. The OLED ceiling and window are very passive, it’s to uplift the experience aboard. It looks like a larger window above you. The other piece of art is our seat, the AÏANNAWAVE seat, an iconic development from YASAVA. They’ve gone to researchers, scientists, psychologists, and they’ve done an incredible amount of studies to determine the optimum in-flight comfort. The answer for two-to-four hour flights is a zero gravity recline. The seat is perfect for sleeping, relaxing, and working. You will leave the aircraft very well rested. Developing a new seat for aircraft takes a lot of work and YASAVA totally did it right.
T: Much of this technology that you talk about now has not been implemented on aircraft today. What is the regulatory process for implementing new technologies on board?
Z: We’re working on getting STCs, Special Type Certificates, and that allows us to introduce our new technologies aboard aircraft today. It’s definitely not an easy process, but that’s what makes us really innovative.
T: What about the food on-board, anything special there?
Z: Our food is incredible. I’m a foodie so I wouldn’t allow us not to have great food. Dining on AURA is an experience in itself. We have something called a “MeatLocker,” where you can select your cut of meat 24hrs before departure. One of our new technologies is a sous-vide galley insert, which allows us to cook the meat for you on-board. Our food is never frozen. It’s all locally sourced and, of course, grass-fed and organic. We really excel in desserts. I’m a chocoholic. You can expect about 20 varieties of Lindt chocolate aboard every flight. On morning flights, our chocolate and wine service is replaced with croissants and mimosas. You can brunch aboard, too, every Sunday. It’s all about the experience.
T: Any specific timeline for launch?
Z: We’ll be launching our first four aircraft in 2019. It’s a tight timeline. I’m so excited for the first flight. I will, of course, be a flight attendant from day one.
“Nothing deserves to be half-assed… anything worth doing is worth doing right.”
T: One thing that is immediately striking when you go on your website are the fares — they’re very competitive. For example, New York City to Miami starts at $380. A lot of people are wondering how you are able to offer such low prices with so many amenities onboard?
Z: Yeah. I think the first thing you should know is that those numbers work very well for us. This is not a tactic for us to get initial passengers. We’re sustainable at those numbers and that’s really important for everybody to know. AURA is a very deliberate model. What we’ve done is we’ve put two classes of service into an aircraft that’s quite small. That’s not something that’s ever been done before. And because we’re doing that, it allows us to achieve really incredible price points that open up a five-star flying experience to those who never before could afford such luxury in private aviation. AURA is priced to be very affordable.
T: On the airport side, you list a number of private airports AURA might serve — sometimes three or four per metropolitan area. Which airports are you planning to actually operate and how does that impact your operation and route planning?
Z: We want to serve multiple airports in the same city to be able to consider traffic patterns and habits of our passengers. In Miami, if you live in Bal Harbour, Opa Locka is very convenient for you. But if you live Pinecrest, an airport like Tamiami is more convenient for you. AURA will fly from many small airports to tailor the experience. Getting to AURA will be very convenient. Eventually we’ll offer Tesla ground transportation options and helicopter service in big cities like New York.
T: Expanding on that, are you going to create your own private airport experience?
Z: We’re going to be creating our own experience. We will have our own hangar space and attached we will have our own lounge, business center, nap pods, shower rooms, etc. As great as the ground experience is, we don’t want you to spend time there. AURA saves you time. We don’t want you to come to the airport an hour in advance, we want you to get to the airport and hop right aboard. If you’re spending time on the ground, we’re not doing our job. AURA adds days, if not weeks, worth of time back to the lives of frequent fliers.
T: We have seen all you can fly airlines, such as SurfAir, recently launch offering unlimited flights for a monthly fee. But AURA takes a different route offering fixed-price fares for those who pay a monthly fee. What is the rationale behind this unique model?
Z: All you can fly models work nicely for some, but they’re unaffordable for most. We wanted to create a program that anyone could afford–a program that I could afford myself–$100 a month for AURA allows us to introduce private aviation to individuals who could never before have imagined such luxury and convenience. As a KeyHolder, we’re able to then provide you fixed pricing on all of our routes across the entire network. You only pay for what you fly.
“What really sets AURA apart, other than our incredibly low prices, is our superior brand identity. AURA is a luxury brand. What defines a luxury brand? Consistency.“
T: Are there any plans to allow people who aren’t members [KeyHolders] buy tickets on AURA?
Z: Absolutely. You can be a guest of AURA and we’re happy to welcome you aboard. Unfortunately, it will be more expensive, but that’s why we’ve created a very approachable price point for our Keys: $100 a month. If you fly only three times a year, it’s definitely worth being a KeyHolder.
T: There’ve been many, many attempts to launch all-premium seating configured airlines, but many don’t succeed. Why? What makes AURA different?
Z: AURA is deliberate. We didn’t go out and find an aircraft that worked for us, we designed an aircraft from scratch. The goal from day-one was to offer a private experience from Miami to New York under $400, no gimmicks. But what makes AURA different? I think it’s that we operate very similarly to an airline; we don’t involve ourselves in expensive private jet charters. AURA is focused on scheduled and frequent service, just like an airline. You buy a seat on AURA. If you want to charter a jet, there are a lot of really fantastic providers who will do that. AURA is focused on affordability.
T: In the private jet space, BlackJet, ImagineAir, all these companies have gone bankrupt. Rumors continue to swirl around the financial viability of JetSmarter, and AirChicago has delayed their launch flight over three times with no start in sight. Even with major financial backing, these startups have struggled. What is the number one obstacle? Why do these young aviation companies always hit a brick wall?
Z: It’s a very tough industry and there have been many attempts to come at it from different angles. AURA does one thing and does it well. As I mentioned before, we stay very focused: we sell individual seats on our aircraft. Many other startups try to do it all. I have great respect [for CEO] Sergey [Petrossov] at JetSmarter–he’s done a brilliant job disrupting private aviation–but it’s a very different approach than AURA. It’s sad to see companies like ImagineAir, BlackJet, AirChicago, and ZettaJet take big sums of money from the public and not follow through on their grand promises. What really sets AURA apart, other than our incredibly low prices, is our superior brand identity. AURA is a luxury brand. What defines a luxury brand? Consistency. Every flight offers the same phenomenal experience. AURA is very unique in that we own every aircraft, allowing us to completely control the experience from ground to air.
T: But you don’t operate the aircraft?
Z: Correct. We have a really fantastic partnership with Presidential Aviation, a very reputable and respected private jet operator for over 20 years based in South Florida. It’s AURA developed by ZED Aerospace, and operated by Presidential Aviation.
T: JetSuiteX is another semi-private airline that operates on the West Coast. They recently received a major investment from Qatar Airways. Do you think a traditional airline would be interested in partnering with AURA?
Z: I think it’s possible. JetsuiteX is really fantastic. I’m very familiar with the brand and I think they’re doing an awesome job. Alex [Wilcox, CEO of JetSuite] has the right vision. JetSuiteX is like AURA in that we both complement commercial airlines, not replace. We’re both here to give you the choice. AURA offers something better if you want something better. Today you don’t have the choice, and AURA is here to put it on the menu.
T: It’s interesting you say that AURA is complementary to the airlines because startups in this space are never received well by the established carriers, you can even go all the way back to Virgin Atlantic and the whole British Airways feud. Who do you think is your biggest threat?
Z: We are unique in this market. We go after a middle-of-the-market price point that fits very nicely between other private jet companies and what commercial airlines are offering today. AURA attracts flyers from both ends of the market and we’ll be working with both.
T: What is your ultimate vision?
Z: Supersonic. I made a promise to myself in the plans for AURA, which is that we won’t cross the Atlantic until we can do so supersonically. So when we fly from New York to London, it’s because AURA can do it in only three hours. Until then, we’re going to focus on bringing AURA across the United States and providing a beautiful domestic experience.
T: Going back to your inspiration for AURA. How does a 21 year old start an airline at this age?
Z: You build a team. That’s the most important thing I needed to do because I alone can’t do anything. But I sure can build a team that can accomplish anything. And I have. I’ve created the most incredible team of notable individuals worldwide. We have come together with a resolve to build the most refined flight experience. AURA is the most revealing thing I’ve ever done I hope people love it as much as we do. I thought my age would be the greatest hurdle, but it’s actually been so well received by seasoned airline executives I’ve met that I still can’t believe I have such strong support. Aviation is such an addictive industry, I think they feel my aura.
T: What is your favorite aspect of the AURA experience?
Z: A flight attendant who knows your name. Our flight attendants are on the same weekly schedule, same flight, same routes every week. I will lead flight-attendant training myself. Business travelers fly consistently. If you fly from New York to Chicago every Monday at 8:00 AM, you’re going to see the same flight attendant and he or she is going to get to know you. We’ll know how you like your coffee and never get it wrong.
T: In your letter on the AURA website you write “AURA leads a new category in aviation where being fair and doing good are never compromised.” Is this a realistic goal in a commoditized industry where passengers say they want better service but vote oppositely with their wallets?
Z: I think the driving force behind that will come from within AURA. We are showing a genuine desire to serve. You’re not being nickeled and dimed onboard. I hope you see how excited we are to welcome you aboard and exceed every expectation you may have. Our policies are driven by logic. We give our representatives the latitude to make the right decision. You know, we have policies, but we know that those rules don’t always make sense, and in those situations we need to do right by you because you won’t ever forget it. We’ll surprise you in how very welcoming AURA is. And at the end of the day, if we can get you to fly more that’s a good thing.
T: AURA is already offering founding memberships [Keys]. Why now?
Z: First off, we don’t call them “members,” AURA has KeyHolders. After over two years of development, the AURA team is very eager for your feedback and input. I think we’ve developed a magnificent program, and we can always make it better. AURA is the most invigorating flying experience since the iconic days of Pan Am and we have a real opportunity to shift the paradigm in private-commercial aviation. In just one week of offering Founding Keys to AURA, we’ve had people register from cities that aren’t even listed on our website! I’m so excited to talk to our Founding KeyHolders I’ve actually been calling them for feedback. It’s funny, some people don’t believe it’s me calling. It really is, and I really care!
T: Have you heard any interesting comments?
Z: People absolutely love our aircraft design. One look at AURA and you know we’re different. AURA is game changing. AURA is where art meets air, and that philosophy has resonated quite strongly.
T: Air travel used to be glamorous and luxurious, but now it mainly features long security lines, cramped seats and the customary passenger crying at the gate. Is the past glory of air travel a driving force?
Z: No. I don’t look back. I tell my team to never look back. We are strictly forward-looking. AURA is about an exciting future, not about invoking a nostalgic past. AURA goes well beyond the glamorous times of the past. Aviation used to be great, but we’re not going back to that–AURA’s making it even better than it’s ever been before.
T: Why do you think you, Zander, can make this work in a space where virtually nobody has succeeded?
Z: Because I’m crazy enough to think I can. No one loves aviation more than I do, and at the end of the day, if I can get you to love it as much as I do, then I’ve done my job.
T: You keep on coming back to this love for aviation. Where did this come from?
Z: I think it has to do a lot with my father. As a young kid, he would take me to Tamiami airport and fly Cessnas with me. We would wait in line at midnight to buy the next release of Microsoft Flight Simulator. After every flight growing up, he would take me to meet the pilot and I would receive my wings and those little experiences impressed upon a little kid over time. I’m not at all surprised that this is what I’m doing today.
T: I’m aware that you have left college at NYU Stern to pursue this dream to launch AURA. What drove you to make that decision?
Z: Nothing deserves to be half-assed. I subscribe to the Japanese philosophy: anything worth doing is worth doing right. I have a duty to my investors and my team to put every single minute of every single day into building AURA. I had to decide to excel in my studies or build AURA for you. There’s nothing more I’d rather do than wake up every morning and continue to follow my dream.
T: Thank you for your time and best of luck.
Z: Thank you, it was my pleasure.