Robert Silk
Robert Silk

A few weeks ago, I met with Zander Futernick, a 21-year-old from Miami who plans to launch an upscale scheduled charter air service called Aura next year.

As we sat amid the airport-like hustle and bustle of Denver's Union Station, Futernick laid out his plan for a glamorous air service connecting major U.S. markets. The 29-seat Bombardier CRJ-700s, which Aura will own, are to be operated by Fort Lauderdale's Presidential Aviation.

They would offer a two-class service, with the 21 seats in the back of the plane having 44 inches of pitch, more than a flyer gets in domestic first class, save for the lie-flat offerings of JetBlue, United, American and Delta on certain transcontinental routes.

The eight seats in the front of the plane, which Aura will call its Wave cabin, are to offer a robust 63 inches of pitch and will go approximately 80% flat.

Adding to what Futernick hopes will be Aura's cachet will be made-to-order entrees in the Wave cabin using the sous vide cooking technique. For example, Futernick said, the cooking of a vacuum-sealed filet mignon will continue via hot water right onto the aircraft, allowing for it to be served without any reheating.

"We need to be competitive with the likes of JetSmarter," Futernick said, referencing the mostly membership air provider that facilitates shared charters on private jets.

Take away some bells and whistles and Futernick's concept for Aura is also reminiscent of other scheduled charter operations, including Ultimate Air Shuttle, Tradewind Aviation, JetSuiteX and Surf Air.

Like each of those airlines and air services (the distinction being whether they operate their own flights), Aura's plan is to draw high-end customers from the mainstream commercial carriers by offering the convenience of operating with 30-seat or smaller aircraft out of private terminals.

The essential pitch of all those air services is that commercial flight is a hassle. But if you fly from a fixed-base operator (FBO) terminal you don't have to arrive 90 minutes early to navigate TSA security and the long walks or train rides to your gate.

Like flyers on the other scheduled charters, Futernick said, Aura passengers won't need to arrive more than 15 minutes before departure.

Prices on scheduled charter operators vary. Fares on JetSuiteX, for example, can be competitive with airline economy-class seats. Other such operators tend to charge prices that compete with domestic first-class prices. Alternatively, they sell memberships instead of flight-by-flight fares.

Those who join Aura's Keyholder membership program for a monthly fee of $250 (a reduced Keyholder fee of $100 per month is offered until July 31) are being promised one-way fares in the 21-seat, first-class cabin during the company's first year of service at locked-in prices.

Miami to New York, for example, would cost $380 one-way. Los Angeles to Chicago would cost $580. Public pricing would be double those figures and sometimes more.

Offering high-comfort flights that save upscale travelers time, and at competitive fares, should be a sound business model, particularly if you can provide multiple frequencies per day, as Futernick said he'll do on every route. After all, U.S. airlines aren't especially popular with the traveling public.

Still, the history of the scheduled business model suggests that it's not an easy sell.

"I don't know that anyone has proven the model," said Doug Gollan, editor of the website Private Jet Card Comparisons.

Some scheduled charter operators have been able to carve out what appears to be a successful niche. For example, since 2009, Ultimate Air has slowly grown its flights out of Cincinnati's Lunken Field, from which it flies employees of Procter & Gamble, as well as other Cincinnati businesses, to FBO terminals in five markets.

In May, Pittsburgh-based air service OneJet acquired Ultimate's parent, Ultimate JetCharters. However, the Ultimate Air brand is to remain independent.

Since 2002, Tradewind Aviation has also succeeded with a model of using private airports and small jets to fly customers from San Juan and New York to high-end leisure destinations in the Caribbean and Northeast. St. Barts, for example, is a focus of Tradewind's Caribbean network, and Northeast destinations include Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.

JetSuiteX, with its network of flights in California and Nevada, is a more recent entrant into the scheduled charter marketplace, having been launched two years ago by former JetBlue executive Alex Wilcox. JetSuiteX drew investment earlier this year from Qatar Airways. JetBlue is also an investor and, as of recently, a codeshare partner.

But there have also been losers in the scheduled charter market. Beacon Air, for example, launched service between New York and Boston in 2015, only to cease operations in early 2016. Surf Air, which has been one of the sector's biggest stars, is also in distress.

Surf launched a network of intra-California flights in 2013 under a model whereby members paid $1,950 per month for unlimited flying on eight-seat aircraft. Last year, the company began a Europe network and also bought Rise, which had offered a network of scheduled charters in Texas.

But though it continues operating, Surf Air now faces IRS liens of more than $2.3 million for unpaid taxes, and last month Encompass Aviation, which operated Surf-branded flights, sued Surf for $3.1 million in allegedly unpaid bills. Surf has since filed a $10 million counterclaim against Encompass, according to Private Jet Card Comparisons.

Private Jet Card also reported that Air Chicago, a nascent operator that plans to fly scheduled charters at first-class prices from Chicago Executive Airport, recently delayed its launch date from June until September.

JetSmarter, too, shows signs that it is still looking for an optimum model. Last month, the company began offering seats on its charters to people who haven't paid the $3,000 initiation fee and individual annual membership dues of $4,950.

Air Chicago and Aura aren't the only players attempting to join the scheduled charter fray. Former Surf Air CEO Jeff Potter only recently announced plans to launch Tuxedo Air to compete against Surf Air.

Still, the Aura concept differs from all other scheduled charter operators in a key way: It will focus its operations on flights between the largest U.S. markets. In our discussion last month, Futernick stressed this difference, saying that on a route such as Chicago-New York, there is no other reasonably affordable option for flying from private airport to private airport.

On the flip side, that model would put Aura even more directly in competition with U.S. commercial carriers than with other scheduled chartered operators.

Joe Brancatelli, editor of JoeSentMe, a subscription website for business travelers, expressed skepticism when we talked last month, saying there was nothing that would give Aura an advantage.

"I'm all for competition," Brancatelli said. "But I can't find anybody who says to me, 'If you give me a better meal on New York to Chicago, then I'll pay twice the price, give up my [loyalty] status and fly on somebody I've never heard of.'"

I've got questions, too. For one thing, Futernick isn't saying how Aura has been capitalized and by whom, just that it's tens of millions of dollars from global investors.

Beyond that, the fact remains that, thus far, not a single scheduled charter service has become anything close to a household name. Indeed, for the most part, these operations remain little known, even among high-end travelers.

I'd like to see one or more such services make a major breakthrough, because competition of any sort is a positive for flyers, and the model of flying more or less commercially from private terminals for a reasonable premium makes a lot of sense.

Futernick told me that Aura's greatest advantage will be starting with a clean reputation.

"I don't think any of the carriers in the U.S. can bring themselves out of the hole they're in," he said.

But there's an adage in politics to explain why congressional incumbents are so overwhelmingly re-elected: "Hate Congress. Love your congressman."

Americans don't especially love their airlines -- or the conventional airport experience either, for that matter. The question is, are enough of them ready to try something different?


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