Kenny Dichter, founder of jet-card innovator Marquis Jet, is re-entering the private aviation market with the launch of Wheels Up, a new private members club. The new company is set to place an $800 million order for 105 Beechcraft King Air 350i twin turboprops, with deliveries of the eight-passenger aircraft due to begin in the fourth quarter of this year, running through 2018.
According to Dichter, the choice of the latest King Air model will “redefine the entry point” for private aviation service offered through a closed-fleet model. The company is also working with Beechcraft to develop customized versions of the 350i to include Wi-Fi connectivity in the cabin. Dichter said the King Air is an ideal choice, providing superior storage and range/payload compared with other aircraft.
“In partnership with Beechcraft, Wheels Up will offer the King Air 350i for the first time to consumers in a national fleet format,” said Beechcraft CEO Bill Boisture. “When Kenny first informed us about his plans for Wheels Up we knew we wanted to be an anchor part of the program.”
“Based on mission requirements and the need for a highly reliable platform, the King Air 350i is ideally suited to ensure the success of the business,” continued Boisture. “This is a winning combination working with Kenny, who knows the front end and back end of this business. He has a feel for the experiences that his members desire, and he delivers.”
Wheels Up intends to spread its fleet across seven or eight “regional clusters” in the U.S. and is in the final stages of selecting an operating partner from a short list of companies. Dichter told AIN that he is in advanced discussions with several closed-fleet jet operators with a view to a partnership that would allow its members to have access to larger, longer-range aircraft.
Dichter says he envisions a real 8,760-hour culture (referencing the number of hours in a year) for the private members club, and is also launching Wheels Down, a corresponding lifestyle concierge service arm to reach members when they aren’t flying. Wheels Down members will have access to exclusive offerings such as special programs around major sporting events (for example, The Masters golf tournament and the Super Bowl), intimate concerts with top performers, culinary experiences with some of the world’s top chefs, meet-and-greet opportunities with entertainers, politicians and business luminaries, among others.
Dichter predicts that within seven years Wheels Up will have a membership base of 10,000 to 15,000 individuals and corporations, flying an average of 20 to 30 hours annually. In the process, the new company anticipates that members will each spend between $100,000 and $125,000 per year, generating annual revenues of between $1 billion and $2 billion and logging at least 200,000 flight hours. The company just opened an 8,500-sq-ft headquarters in New York City’s Times Square.
Dichter envisions that Wheels Up will be a “high-tech and high-touch” operation to cater to its members, modeled on the personalized service that he says became synonymous with Marquis Jet during his tenure with the company. Its services will be delivered through advanced IT infrastructure connecting with mobile devices. The new venture is developing several new applications so members can book flights, share flights and manage accounts online.
Dichter formed Marquis Jet in February 2001 when he and his team made a deal to remarket small packages of hours with Berkshire Hathaway’s NetJets fractional ownership program. In November 2010, NetJets acquired Marquis Jet, which at the time had grown to include approximately 4,000 active cardholders. According to Dichter, the jet card concept revolutionized access to private aviation and he predicts that Wheels Up also will transform the marketplace.
“Twelve years on [from the launch of Marquis Jet] there is an ever-growing base of prospective customers who want the benefits of closed-fleet flying through an understandable and flexible product,” concluded Dichter. “Wheels Up will seize this opportunity.”
As of press time, Wheels Up had yet to publish detailed terms and conditions for the new membership program. Also still to be announced are details of what Dichter said will be a “prestigious” management team that “aims to transform the private aviation industry again.”
Watch Kenny Dichter’s interview about Wheels Up on CNBC this morning.
King Air 350i By the Numbers
Max cruise speed 313 kts
Max range with four pax 1,714 nm
Max operating altitude 35,000 ft
Takeoff field length (mtow) 3,300 ft
Landing field length (Mlw) 2,692 ft
Max payload 2,500 lb
Mtow 15,000 lb
Engines PT6A-60A, 1,050 shp each
Avionics Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21
Pax load, typical configuration Pilot + 9
Cabin length 19 ft 6 in
Cabin width 4 ft 6 in
Cabin height 4 ft 9 in
Baggage capacity 71.3 cu ft