“Wheels up” is a phrase used in aviationto describe the transition from take off landing gear down configuration, to airborne configuration with landing gear, or wheels, retracted. It’s a phrase that evokes progress, speed, and of being on a journey.
Thus, it’s fitting for a pioneer in business and private aviation to be named as such. Wheels Up was founded in 2013 by three New York-based founders. Their founding goal was, and still is, to reinvent private flying through a “revolutionary new business model that delivers the safest, most consistent, and highest -quality aviation solution.” This article explores what that means to members and travellers, the pioneering journey that Wheels Up continues to track, and the company’s leadership in shaping an industry.
“You can’t fail, you pivot.”
Wheels Up is a leader in private aviation. And, the brand and legacy it forges only makes sense by looking at its founder, Mr. Kenny Dichter. A successful entrepreneur and businessman, Kenny Dichter made his first millions in 1998 through the sale of his college-founded Alphabet City Sports Records, a label focused on songs often heard in sports stadiums and arenas. In 2001, Dichter co-founded Marquis Jets, the world’s first fractional card private jet program. By 2007, the business was turning over USD700 million per year with 3,500 customers, selling private jet access in 25-hour allotments. That same year, Dichter predicted that Marquis Jets would grow into a billion-dollar business within three years.
In 2010, Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary company, NetJets, acquired Marquis Jet. Marquis Jets’ innovative, accessible, and flexible ‘jet card’ model bolstered NetJets’ fractional ownership business model. Within two years, NetJets proceeded to place the largest aircraft order in private history, for up to 275 Bombardier aircraft, valued at over USD17.6 billion.
“Rule Number One: Never lose money.
Rule Number Two: Never forget rule one.”
– Warren Buffett
Although the 2010 sales terms of NetJets’ acquisition of Marquis Jet weren’t disclosed, it’s probable that Dichter’s 2007 prediction was realised, with NetJets reporting significant sales increase that year. Today, both Marquis Jets and NetJets continue to operate, with the latter the clear private jet fractional ownership industry leader.
After selling Dichter took a ‘break,’ founding the highly regarded and cult-like Tequila Avión. Pernot Ricard, the premium liquor portfolio company, increased its ownership of the esteemed tequila brand to a majority holding over a few years.
In 2013, Dichter along with two co-founders, returned to aviation entrepreneurship with the launch of Wheels Up. The co-founders simultaneously announced their management team along with a USD1.4 billion order for 105 Beechcraft King Air 350i turboprop aircraft. In disrupting and creating new markets, Wheels Up’s business model was premised on a membership / on-demand business model, servicing non-hub commercial services.
Since founding, Wheels Up has gone from strength to strength in under a decade. Within a year of launch the company had over 1,000 members and close to 40 aircraft (King Airs and Cessna Citation jets), and by 2019 the company had over 5,500 memberships (individual and corporate) and owned nearly 100 aircraft.
Importantly, Wheels Up continues to succeed through challenging the industry’s norms through Dichter’s entrepreneurial attitude, manifested in business model adjustments. Although founded on an entirely new premise of membership-based flying access, in 2018 Wheels Up announced a new flight sharing membership offering, Wheels Up Connect. The goal of Connect was to “democratize private flying” by further reducing the unit cost to access the benefits, efficiencies, and economics of business jet aviation. Despite Wheels Up closing 2020 with 10,995 active members and USD690 million in revenue at the end of 2020, they estimate that “90% of people who can afford to fly privately don’t,” or more than a million people in the US, and forecast their 2021 annual revenue to grow to USD912m
The last several years have seen Wheels Up manoeuvering to capitalise on this untapped blue ocean of private aviation travellers. In 2019, the same year that Wheels Up announced their goal of 16,000 active members by 2021, the company started a strategic acquisition spree to bolster their charter operations and membership management platform. Acquisitions included included the Travel Management Company (TMC Jets); Avianis, a B2B communication platform for operators and brokers; Gama Aviation Signature, the largest Part 135 charter operators in the USA; and Mountain Aviation, the largest Cessna Citation X fleet charter operator in the United States.
The underlying logic behind Wheels Up aggressive growth is simple – the company needs aircraft (supply) to meet the untapped private aviation demand. Dichter told Forbes earlier this year that the company will continue to serve the wholesale market and supply the growing demand for members. To fund this exponential trajectory, Dichter has executed what appears to be an astute two-stage plan.
The first stage saw Delta Private Jets, Delta Air Lines’ private aviation subsidiary, merge into Wheels Up and bringing Delta’s 70 aircraft into Wheels Up’s fold in 2020. This merger saw Delta Airlines take a majority stake in Wheels Up, and granted them a board seat.
The second stage of strategic funding is a shrewd twist on Dichter’s previously reported preference to pursue an initial public offering (IPO). In February, the company announced a special-purpose acquisition company (SPAC) merger with Aspirational Consumer Lifestyle Corporation. By merging with a SPAC, Wheels Up is expecting to achieve an “enterprise value of about USD2.1 billion,” and cash proceeds of USD790 million, without negotiating the traditional IPO process.
The winner is…
Having a successful, proven, serial entrepreneur in Kenny Dichter, who is clearly passionate about general and private aviation, and recognises its unrealised potential, is an incredible opportunity for the industry. Travellers benefits through new and more accessible means of transport, at improved value; while the aviation industry benefits from positive disruption, bringing about improvements and progress.
Wheels Up are an industry leader, and Kenny Dichter an incredible change agent.
Swap the dazzling city sights of Sydney for the soaring mountain peaks of Thredbo with the ultimate VIP fly-in, fly-out private jet ski experience – perfect for snow-lovers seeking a luxurious way to hit the slopes in style.
Departing Sydney on select dates through July and August 2021, this incredible opportunity allows you to spend more time shredding and carving your way down the mountain instead of weaving your way through traffic.
Board a private jet with eight luxurious leather seats (max. six guests) and fast-track your way straight to the slopes.
Enjoy a light breakfast onboard your 35-minute flight as you soar above the magnificent Snowy Mountains to reach Cooma Airport. Upon arrival, be greeted by a private chauffeur, who will transport you to the centre of Thredbo.
Head straight to the Kosciuszko Express or Merritts Gondola, where pre-arranged lift tickets await. Spend the day racing down the mountain and getting your fix of adrenaline before your afternoon return flight to Sydney, with light snacks served onboard.
This experience is really worth calling in sick for.
With ongoing border instability we’ll be launching new seasonal routes in the future including Sydney – Cooma, Melbourne – Mount Hotham and Brisbane – Hamilton Island.
The perks of the SHARED program are best described by Lee Teirney, one of our first SHARED members, who loved the concept so much he joined the team in 2020 as VP of Membership and Experience.
As an Airly member having access to shared flights meant that I could have the convenience of flying private for a fraction of the cost, and non of the hassle of a crowded Airport. Also having the opportunity to meet a wide range of like minded people.
Lee Teirney – SHARED member and now VP Membership & Experience
We’re thrilled to be working on a new product that will completely revolutionise private jet charter. The introduction of this new product will also have benefits for members on the SHARED program as well.
After facilitating 11 flights in 2020 we want to see more members initiating flights, and most importantly, activate at least 4 SHARED flights per month.
To learn more about our SHARED program click here.
Embraer recently turned heads partnering up with Porsche in providing an extremely limited edition duet of their world-leading Phenom 300E private jet with Porsche’s 911 Turbo S.
There are only 10 of these ‘sets’ available at a price starting fro $11m USD taking over 12 months from order to delivery.
It’s all about a “seamless transition” of road to sky, says Boris Apenbrink, the director of Porsche’s internal Exclusive Manufaktur department, during a video call to Executive Traveller about the collaboration.
“The jet is meant to be piloted by the owner himself, and we also wanted the car that was the most fun to drive itself.”
“This is about making dreams come true for our customers,” he continues. And yes, it’s a bit of stunt marketing in the process.
Neither party’s are saying whether this will be the first and final collaboration, so we wonder if the best is yet to come?
Aussie private jet business Airly has teamed up with travel company Luxury Escapes to offer travellers another way to fly.
Through the partnership, Luxury Escapes has new private return charter experiences for up to four people, with destinations including the Whitsundays and the Gold Coast.
Luxury Escapes head of strategic partnerships Darran Kiel told Business Insider Australia via email the partnership came about because of the connection between what both companies offer – luxury private jets and luxury accommodation.
“At Luxury Escapes we have always really loved the Airly business model and have been in conversations with them for a while on how we could provide that next level of experience for our customers,” he said.
“The main objective for us was to find a way to start the holiday experience early for our customers. With the Airly partnership, the holiday starts as soon as they leave their home. We are thrilled to have been able to work with their team and incorporate this experience into our holiday packages.”
While the travel industry has taken a massive hit from the coronavirus pandemic, the number of people using Aussie private jet startup Airly has risen.
Airly, which launched in 2016, is an app-based service where members can book flights on a private jet – either by opting-in to an existing flight, or initiating a new one.
Co-founder Luke Hampshire told Business Insider Australia the service had been busy during the fourth quarter of 2019 until the bushfires hit and travel started declining. Then the coronavirus pandemic struck, initially causing a decline in usage.
But, in recent months, that has changed. Hampshire said usage on the app is up 80%, with the company doubling its membership numbers over the last three months.
Hampshire said flights over the past two weeks have been above average with June “looking very busy”.
“We’re in one of the best positions globally from the COVID perspective,” Hampshire said. “We’re very nimble. We’re able to move quickly, we see the demand, we see the interest [and] we can apply that model to what’s required. Whereas the airlines are slow-moving. They have a lot of assets, they have a lot of moving parts that take time to scale up.”
How Airly works
Hampshire describes Airly as a service that merges the perks of private travel with the predictability of commercial flights. “The big goal has always been how can we make private [flights] accessible and affordable to more sophisticated travellers,” he said.
Airly doesn’t require users to pay ongoing membership fees.
“We don’t want people paying for not using us,” Hampshire said. “So basically we can get members in now with no ongoing fees, let them check the app out, let them initiate a flight risk-free, get them on board and get them flying.” It was a decision the company made once the coronavirus pandemic set in, as a new way to provide value for its members.
Once you download the app and apply for membership, you get to either opt in for an existing flight or initiate a flight.
“What happens is that it sends out a notification to all the other members that the flight’s been initiated,” Hampshire explained. “The big difference for us is that you’re not paying for the whole jet, you’re just paying for what you need. And then we rely on other members to get on board, get involved and to book as well.”
Cost-wise, a flight from Melbourne to Sydney or Sydney to the Gold Coast flight costs $1295 a seat each way.
Most of Airly’s customers are business owners
Airly isn’t a scheduled operation. The company had considered it as a business model in the past but never went ahead with it.
“What we feel is the best option is to let our members decide when they need to go,” he said. “Ironically, they tend to be at similar times, which is helpful. It means you can get more than one group of members on a round trip.”
“Members who didn’t know each other prior to the flight actually become strong connections by the end of the flight,” Hampshire added.
Most of Airly’s current customer base are business owners. “Essential travel hasn’t stopped,” Hampshire said.
He explained that there was a period of time during the start of the pandemic when everyone was isolating – something Airly was advocating for as well. No one was flying through March and part of April before travellers started returning, especially business owners who have to travel to each of their business locations.
“It’s quite a contrast to everyone expecting work from home and Zoom to take over,” Hampshire said. “We’re still seeing those business owners needing to get from A to B.”
As a charter flight company, Airly is capable of doing global flights, including repatriation trips all the way from Europe. However, the company’s core focus is its shared flights – mainly from Sydney to Melbourne.
While Airly can provide charter flights for one-off destinations, its shared flights aim to capture the most popular routes. They do seasonal flights to destinations like Byron Bay and the Sunshine Coast, as well as options later in June for the snow season.
The company considers itself a supplementary service rather than a competitor to commercial airlines
Airly has coronavirus preventative measures in place
Airly uses the Embraer range of aircraft – a four-seat option called a Phenom 100 and the eight-seater Phenom 300. Hampshire said having these planes provides consistency for passengers because “we don’t want to be throwing 10 different aircraft at members.”
“They’re the perfect jet for us,” Hampshire said. “They’re capable of carrying a lot of luggage, they’re extremely economical, they’re the most carbon efficient jet available in Australia and it’s just a very comfortable ride for your one to two to three-hour flights.”
Hampshire also went through the measures Airly is taking to prevent coronavirus on flights.
Each passenger is required to provide a 14-day travel history before the flight. On the day of the flight, there are temperature checks at the door, and passengers are encouraged to use hand sanitiser. On shared flights, you’ll be required to use face masks, especially when there’s more than one group of members boarding.
While Airly had under 100 members for “a long period of time” through 2019, it now has more than 180 members. It wants to become the first point of call for people looking for a flight.
“The big goal now is to aggressively expand with our investors and keep increasing flights and as borders open we get Australia moving,” Hampshire said. “Right now it’s business travellers [and] we can’t wait until we can start moving leisure travellers around again.”
The media has been filled with negative outlooks on the global markets, blaming the COVID-19, housing bubbles and the ‘correction that was required’.
But amongst the standard doomsday articles stood a positive outlook for private jet deliveries. Up 15% in 2019 partly with thanks to the new Praetor range.
Disrupting the business jet landscape
Embraer’s Phenom 300 family continues to win the coveted most delivered private jet (light) title. But Embraer have always left a gap in the market when it comes to range.
The new Praetor family swooped into the market providing new-found range capabilities while maintaining the high-end and practical cabin layout, advanced systems and operating efficiency.
The Praetor 600 has a range of 4,018 nautical miles, very similar to the older Bombardier Challenger aircraft, but more than the Challenger 300. New York to London and Sydney to Singapore are now valid options for new owners.
Beauty found within
If you have followed us for some time, you’d know that we’re big fans of Embraer’s Phenom 300E. Especially the smart and practical cabin.
The Praetor’s cabin is stunning, beautifully appointed and comes in various configurations.
Additional perks include the lower cabin altitude leaving travellers fresh after the flight.
Bombardier is making solid progress on its commitment to reduce the carbon footprint of private aviation by announcing their first shipment of Sustainable Aviation Fuel outside of the US.
Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is created from renewable sources, but mimic the chemistry of petroleum jet fuel and can be used in today’s aircraft and engines without modification and provide the same level of performance and safety as today’s petroleum-derived jet fuel.
Montreal has become the first facility outside of the US to take shipment of SAF.
The arrival of 27,600 litres (7,300USgal) of cooking oil-based biofuel at the Dorval manufacturing plant also represents another step in the airframer’s ambition to secure a long-term supply of SAF across its global facilities, as sustainable fuel becomes more readily available.
This shipment will fuel the Challenger 350 (pictured) and 650 jets, but plan to boost supply in 2020 to include the new Global range.