Meet The Female CEO Pioneering Semi-Private Aviation

“Aviation used to be this amazing thing. Now, it’s a terrible, commoditized experience,” Uma Subramanian, CEO of Aero Technologies says, reflecting on the ‘golden age’ of travel. “In the seventies, when it first came to the States, people would dress in suits and fancy clothes as flying was a big deal; now you’ll perhaps wear a clean pair of sweatpants.”

Subramanian – who has an impressive resume inked with stints at leading manufacturers including Airbus and Rolls-Royce, and forward-thinking programs such as the Mars Project – has been vocal with her opinion that whole industry is in need of a serious shake-up.

Through Aero, a semi-private aviation company which offers flyers the experience private jet travel at a fraction of the cost of a private charter, she’s try to pioneer a shift back to a time when flying was an experience in itself and customers were valued. And, she’s not alone in her dream. Recently, Aero secured $65M in Series B financing, giving the young company a total post-money valuation of $300M.

Subramanian talks to Forbes about her journey into aerospace and aviation, her ambitions for Aero, and her experiences of being a woman of colour in a male-dominated industry.

Going back to the beginning, where did your passions for aviation and aerospace stem from?

Aviation and aerospace are my first and truest loves. I went to space camp when I was nine and got the aero-space bug. I have an undergrad in aero-space engineering, and I love thinking about helping people move through the sky.

I’ve worked in the manufacturing space for a lot of different manufacturers – the Airbus and Rolls-Royce years were particularly formative. When I started out in aero-space, it became clear early on that hardcore engineering was not for me – my brain is not wired that way. So, I started thinking about business development and sustainability, and how you make programs viable long-term. I went to business school and loved it. Being able to marry aviation and business is really cool.

How does Aero differ from private jet services?

Aero is deliberately not a private jet service – it is a scheduled carrier. We offer 80% of the experience of flying private at 20% of the prices, so you get the benefits without the associated costs. It’s radically better experience – we fly from private terminals which have much lower volumes, we know you by name and we know your drink preferences if you’ve flown with us before. It’s a bespoke silver service. Our customers value that interpersonal, more intimate experience. We’re still an airline at the core but we’re focused on doing things differently and building a premium brand.

How did you end up joining the company?

Just before Aero, I was at Airbus where I built its first urban air mobility network – a company called Boom Flights, which is about operating helicopters in urban markets. We hit the electric air mobility wave at just the right moment but, given the existing technology, that business was tough to make work. In 2018, I left and met the founder of Expa (Uber co-founder Garrett Camp’s startup studio). He had an interesting market insight and said: ‘I believe commercial first and business is really broken, and private is unaffordable, and there’s an opportunity to offer a radically better product that people would be willing to pay for’. I agreed.

What’s the current status of Aero?

We’re hoping to grow 400% year-over-year this year. We’re live in the UK, we’re live in the US, and this summer we served a lot of really fun routes focused on the premium leisure travel such as London to Nice, London to Mykonos, and LA to Cabo. We have really interesting customers who come from very diverse backgrounds – we’re even doing some rock concert tours. We’re at the point that we realise this works, both financially and from a product market fit point of view. Now, it’s about scale and growing in a way that is viable for the long-term.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

What I’ve really enjoyed in the last five years is building a business in the intersection of aviation and consumer tech. Aviation is a fabulously interesting industry, but the pace of change is really slow, so it takes 15 years to bring a new product to market. What’s exciting about consumer is things move really fast.

Aero didn’t exist three years ago and now it’s a viable business with real customers. Meanwhile, a space station program I worked on at my very first job at Northrop Gruman is just getting launched now (10 years later than initially planned). I love the real-time feedback, interacting with customers and seeing something you’ve built from scratch grow.

What’s been your experience of being a woman of color rising through a male-dominated industry?

Sometimes it’s really helpful to be different. That is particularly true here. I don’t think that it’s been disproportionally beneficial but, at the least, being different can be advantageous if you’re building something that is different.

When you are a female leader, you can bring the spotlight to ensuing there’s diversity across the company. We have a very diverse flight crew at Aero – some of our more senior captains in the UK are women, so we’re really focused. I’d love to see more women thinking about a career path in air travel. Aviation is a sexy industry but there’s not enough women in it. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to push more in regard to gender diversity, but also other areas of diversity, particularly in the pilot world.

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