On Monday at NBAA-BACE, Wheels Up founder and CEO Kenny Dichter recapped a year of growth and discussed plans for the private aircraft access provider’s future, highlighting its 2019 acquisitions and program introductions, in addition to ambitious goals to expand beyond its initial membership model.
The year’s developments began with the launch of Wheels Up’s online charter marketplace in January, bookended by its September purchase of flight management software developer Avianis. In between, the New York-based company (Booth C12749) introduced its entry-level Connect Membership; acquired wholesale light jet charter operator Travel Management Company (TMC) and its fleet of light jets; and deposited a $128 million investment that brought Franklin Templeton into its fold of equity partners and boosted the enterprise’s value to more than $1.1 billion, Dichter said.
“Six years ago [at the company’s founding], we said we wanted to be the tip of the spear of getting more people in the game” of using private aviation, Dichter said, and the year’s developments are aimed at creating the foundation for realizing those aims.
Wheels Up plans to create a seamless access portal offering options including flight sharing, membership access to a fixed fleet, and charter. Using the Avianis software engine, it will link vetted operators and consumers, increasing the efficiency and lowering the cost of access beyond what other providers currently offer, Dichter said. The TMC purchase and its Hawker 400XPs raise Wheels Up’s owned fleet, which includes King Air 350i twin turboprops and Citation Excel/XLS jets, to 119 aircraft. But Wheels Up is more focused on growth of its third-party charter operations, and Dichter expressed little interest in expanding its owned fleet to include midsize and large-cabin business jets. He compared the company’s foundational fleet memberships to Amazon’s initial book business, which has been totally eclipsed by revenues from its non-book sales.
The new Connect membership ($2,995 for the first year; $2,495 annually for renewals) shows Wheels Up is keeping the core membership program front and center. Targeting those flying 10 or fewer hours per year, Connect offers access as-available (rather than guaranteed) to its fleet and services, including flight sharing. Wheels Up currently has some 6,000 members, with a renewal rate of 80 to 90 percent.
Underscoring its commitment to technology in driving the expansion, Dichter noted its 80-person IT department represents the largest division at the company. Going forward, the public will have access to its charter marketplace, which will offer dynamic pricing and instant booking via mobile devices. The company currently has some 1,250 jets in its roster of vetted aircraft available for charter and plans to “go up by a factor of five,” said Dichter.
While expanding its digital business, Europe might be its next area of geographic concentration. Dichter said the company is already booking flights in Europe and will soon mount an aggressive expansion on the Continent, the world’s second-largest business aviation market behind the U.S.