Meet the 21-Year-Old CEO Revolutionizing Luxury Air Travel
- 3 months ago
As a boy, Zander Futernick always dreamed of becoming a pilot. For his eighth birthday, his father built him a little airport with a concourse, replete with model airplanes—and when they traveled, he would venture into the cockpit at the end of each flight. “I’d sit in the seat and they’d give me my wings,” he recalls.
Later he developed an obsession with flight simulators—and as a teen he joined the Young Eagles, a program that teaches aspiring aviators how to fly small Cessnas. But the hobby became difficult to sustain as he got older. “Flying a plane isn’t like riding a bike—you can’t just put it down,” Futernick asserts. “You have to do it consistently, all year long, and as I grew up it became complicated for me to do that.”
Eventually he started working in the family business, a three-generational firm dealing in real estate and logistics management. He studied marketing, psychology and corporate finance at NYU’s Stern School of Business, priming himself to follow in his father’s footsteps. But in the end, his fascination with planes propelled him down an entirely different path—one that combined his entrepreneurial spirit with his passion for aviation.
21-year-old Zander Futernick is the CEO and founder of ZED Aerospace.
In 2016, at just 20 years old, Futernick founded ZED Aerospace: a Miami-based startup dedicated to developing innovative in-flight technologies, funded by investors from the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. The company’s first product, AURA, aims to bridge the gap between commercial transport and private jet charter services, promising to deliver ultra-luxurious air travel at relatively affordable rates. “Critically, what makes AURA so different—and really, where the concept began—is getting rid of commercial airports,” he says.
Each AURA plane contains 29 seats.
Slated to begin in 2019, the service—which will exclusively depart from and arrive at private airports and terminals—will initially serve Miami, New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Denver. Phase Two cities—including Las Vegas, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and Houston—are set to launch the following year. Flights to popular ski, holiday, and event destinations will also be available, with a new booking schedule to be released every 90 days.
The FIRST cabin boasts the most leg room and widest seats of any commercial first-class in the United States.
Operated by Presidential Aviation, each AURA plane has two cabins: FIRST, which accommodates 21 passengers and boasts the most leg room and widest seats of any commercial first-class in the United States—and WAVE, the company’s signature offering. Featuring only eight seats, “WAVE is supposed to resemble the experience of a private jet at a fraction of the cost of any other similar type of service out there today,” Futernick explains.
The WAVE cabin, AURA's signature space, is modeled on a private jet and contains only eight seats.
AURA members, or “KeyHolders,” can book unlimited flights and enjoy fixed fares on all routes, along with preferred seating and a flexible cancelation policy. KeyHolders, Futernick says, play an important role in fine-tuning the service. “I take time every day to ask them how they discovered AURA and what they’d like to see in our program,” he says. “In the two weeks since we launched, we’ve had an immense outpour of support.”
Joining requires paying a one-time initiation fee of $700 and a monthly fee of $250 (though those who sign up before July 31 are entitled to a $100-per-month key for life and an initiation fee waiver). By comparison, JetSmarter—AURA’s largest competitor—has a $3,000 initiation fee and a $4,950 annual fee for individual memberships.
One-way ticket prices for KeyHolders range from $280 to $580 for FIRST and $600 to $1,180 for WAVE, with unfixed fares for non-members (who don’t have to pay a monthly fee) starting at $560 and $1,200, respectively.
“Our greatest value proposition is time savings,” Futernick says, noting that clients have to arrive at the airport only 20 minutes before takeoff. “For frequent business travelers, that translates to days, if not weeks of time added back to their lives.”
To create AURA, ZED Aerospace collaborated with Swiss interior design firm YASAVA Solutions to formulate a flight experience like no other, outfitting a fleet of CRJ700 Bombardier aircraft with a suite of high-tech features, such as augmented reality displays on OLED side panels and the ceiling. “When you’re flying over a mountain range, we can show you which mountain you’re flying over,” Futernick explains. “It’s the next generation of cabin mood.”
AURA aircraft showcase augmented reality displays on OLED side panels and the ceiling.
The planes will also be “the most hygienic aircraft in the sky,” with lavatories that will self-clean after each use. (Every surface is coated with a layer of sanitizer and ultraviolet light, killing 99% of germs, then quickly scented for the next guest—all in 20 seconds.) And they will be carbon-neutral, with all fares including a full carbon footprint offset. “We’re not just paying a company [for carbon credits],” Futernick says, adding that the company has established partnerships with different NGOs around the world—among them, the CLEO Institute in Miami.
As for dining, FIRST flyers will be treated to an array of seasonal small plates, from Chinese dim sum to Mediterranean meze. And WAVE guests will be able to “Book the Cook,” where they can choose a cut of chicken, duck, lamb, beef or fish to be prepared to their standards using sous vide thermal techniques. “That allows us to keep our food very fresh—never frozen,” Futernick says. “We cook it on board, to order—our flight attendants are professionally trained in that division.” All guests will also be offered a daily selection of fresh sushi and sashimi, along with a colorful assortment of desserts, from Lindt chocolates to artisanal sweets. And there will be a free-flowing open bar stocked with a rotating collection of four curated wines, Champagne, and other top-shelf spirits.
Service is slated to begin next year, though an official launch date has yet to be announced.
Other amenities include complimentary use of an iPad Pro and a cinematic VR headset by SkyLights, which allows travelers to view an extensive selection of movies and shows on a full-HD, IMAX-style screen. The headset is also connected to a 360-degree virtual reality camera on the tail of the craft, so that at any point during the flight, “you can feel like you’re sitting on top of the plane,” Futernick says. “That’s what we call the 'Special Seat.’”
Every flyer can sit on the virtual throne, but only WAVE passengers will experience the specially designed, zero-gravity “AÏANAWAVE” seats. Developed by AURA’s chief design officer, YASAVA Solutions CEO Christopher Mbanefo, the ergonomic design was created following years of research to determine the optimum in-flight sleep position for short trips. (The company’s longest route, Chicago to Los Angeles, takes only about three hours.) The seat is currently being marketed for private jet use in Europe, though is exclusive to AURA in the United States.
WAVE passengers will experience zero-gravity AÏANAWAVE seats, designed to offer the optimum in-flight sleep position for short trips.
For now, Futernick wants to focus on growing the company domestically. But his long-term vision is far more ambitious. “I have something called the ZED Aerospace promise, which is that we’re not going to cross the ocean until we can do so supersonically,” he says. “That’s where I see the future of AURA—when the time is right, we will do it faster than anybody else and expand to be exclusively supersonic.”