HOW THIS MEMBERSHIP BASED COMPANY IS REDEFINING THE PRIVATE AVIATION INDUSTRY
BY JESSICA JONES GORMAN • PHOTOS BY ROBERT NUZZIE
When Wheels Up was founded in 2013, the fledgling company’s mission was nothing less than to redefine the private aviation industry.
“Our founder, Kenny Dichter, wanted to make private aviation a reality for more individuals and companies,” noted Sean McGeough, executive vice president and head of corporate sales for the Manhattan based company. “Kenny is a serial entrepreneur, with many different businesses to his credit, but his passion, really, is business aviation. A few years ago, he made the decision to democratize the space, delivering a cost effective and best in class experience to private fliers.”
Key to Dichter’s concept was a membership based model that greatly reduced the upfront cost of flying private making the barrier to entry a fraction of the seven or eight figure capital outlay for a whole aircraft purchase or the six figure cost of a fractional share or jet card.
“For a modest one time initiation fee and low annual dues starting in year two, members gain guaranteed access to a private fleet of aircraft to use as needed up to 365 days a year, with as little as 24 hours’ notice,” McGeough explained. “It’s a members only fleet, so it’s exclusive, and offers more flexibility than other private aviation options because the aircraft can be positioned at the closest suitable airports. With this model, Kenny and our Wheels Up team have been able to bring the safest, highest quality, and most consistent private aviation to a greater number of individuals, families, and businesses throughout North America.”
The idea took off quickly: Wheels Up became the nation’s fastest growing business aviation membership program. It has built a base of 6,000 plus members and increased its fleet to encompass nearly 100 airplanes, including the eight passenger King Air 350i, Citation Excel/XLS, and Citation X. It is also the only company to offer a fleet of King Air 350i planes.
“Our King Air 350i, Citation Excel/XLS, and Citation X are always flown by two captain qualified and type rated Gama Aviation pilots, and every aircraft is equipped with WiFi, Gogo Text & Talk, and a fully stocked refreshment center, so your time in the air is as enjoyable as your time on the ground,” McGeough said. “With the average private flight being less than 2.5 hours, our fleet of King Air aircraft provides members with the most economical solution for flying private with up to eight passengers.”
Last month, Wheels Up acquired Travel Management Company (TMC), one of the nation’s leading wholesale focused charter operators, in the process adding 26 Hawker 400XP light jets to its roster.
“That acquisition enabled us to expand our light jet program through our Flight Desk and continue focusing on efficient and economical solutions for flights up to 3.5 hours,” said McGeough. “While other private aviation companies tend to focus on higher end large cabin jets, we concentrate on smaller planes, bringing first time private fliers to the market, though giving fliers of all experience levels more cost effective and flexible service.”
When members require longer range trips up to five hours or longer, Wheels Up has a Super Mid Jet offering through its Charter Marketplace, giving members the ability to book fast aircraft like the Citation X, Citation Sovereign, and Hawker 4000. The Charter Marketplace also lets members book light, midsize, large/heavy, and ultra-long range jets. All options come from an inventory of Wheels Up approved charter partner aircraft.
There are three different levels of membership: Connect, Core, and Business. The first carries a $2,995 initiation fee and annual dues of $2,495 starting in year two, and allows a member and one alternate lead passenger to join Shared Flights proposed by other members when they want to lower their costs, as well as book flights via the Charter Marketplace when they want to travel fully on their own terms.
Core, the company’s most popular option, features a $17,500 initiation fee and annual dues of $8,500 starting in year two. This level allows the member and up to three alternate lead passengers to pay as they fly, with 300 guaranteed days a year and with no minimum hours commitment required. Core also gives members the ability to join and propose Shared Flights and enjoy unlimited access to Hot Flights one way empty legs on jets, turboprops, and helicopters that come at a fraction of typical cost.
Business, which carries a $29,500 initiation fee and $14,500 annual fee beginning in year two, offers all of those benefits plus guaranteed access on even more days with the pay as you fly plan (330 per year) and a greater number of alternate lead passengers (five). To access additional guaranteed days, up to a full 365, and other benefits, corporations large and small can opt for a Fund Program.
“To put it in perspective, our closest competitors in the same space have a minimum entry barrier of $225,000 for these same services,” McGeough said.
“We are a pay as you go membership and don’t require you to put down exorbitant amounts of capital to gain guaranteed access on peaktravel days.”
The company facilitates flight sharing through “The Community,” a social aviation platform on the Wheels Up app that allows members to engage with one another, including discussing and coordinating shared flights to events and common destinations. The chat feature allows them to send direct messages to each other to arrange flight details, and the Forums help them discover proposed routes and join flights to popular sporting events, festivals, trade shows, and vacation spots.
“Our clients book flights from the palms of their hands via that app,” explained McGeough. “On our Charter Marketplace, they can view real time pricing for aircraft options that can be instantly booked. Our social aviation features encourage camaraderie between members, delivering an experience that is unique in business aviation.”
To complement the private flight experience for Core and Business members, Wheels Up maintains partnerships with Inspirato, a luxury vacation club offering discounted stays at hundreds of properties worldwide, and Four Hundred, which manages the Wheels Down Concierge a full service agency fulfilling all on the ground requests, from reservations at five star restaurants to VIP access at the biggest concerts.
Connect, Core, and Business members also enjoy company signature events, like star studded Super Bowl gatherings as well as exclusive hospitality and parties on the Masters circuit in Augusta and on the beach at Art Basel in Miami. Additionally, Core and Business members have access to regional events, such as private meet and greets with top athletes, entertainers, and government officials.
A dedicated member services team, based in Columbus, Ohio, consists of seasoned private aviation and customer service experts available 24/7 to take care of all travel details, from flight booking to ground transportation and beyond.
McGeough added that the combination of a unique feet of popular aircraft and unrivaled commitment to customer service and unforgettable experience makes this company stand apart from competitors.
“It’s a model that we are primed to build upon,” he said. “We have a world class team and the means to provide private aviation to an entirely new customer base. Members can always count on flexibility, comfort, convenience, and of course, safety.”
855.FLY.8760 / wheelsup.com