Lots of companies claim to be the fastest growing in business aviation. It is an easy statement to make and, in an industry with little public data, a hard one to challenge. But Wheels Up, the membership company, can prove it.
Wheels Up was launched on August 1 2013, when it placed an order for 35 King Air 350i aircraft with Hawker Beechcraft. The order included options for another 70 King Airs plus maintenance support. Beechcraft (which was then in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and is now part of Textron Aviation) said it was worth $1.4 billion. Sceptics laughed.
No one doubted the sales skills of Kenny Dichter, one of the founders of Marquis Jet, and his team. But there were concerns about whether passengers would love the King Air.
They were wrong.
Four years later, Wheels Up has taken delivery of 63 King Airs and 15 Citation XL and Citation XLS aircraft. It aims to have 85 by the end of 2018.
But Dichter says that this is just the start.
Corporate Jet Investor: How is business on Wheels Up’s fourth birthday?
Kenny Dichter: It is very, very firm. We will close out the year with more than 4,000 active members. We are running more than 20% above plan for the first six months of 2017. That is 75% year-on-year growth for the first six months.
I told you a long time ago, in the lobby of the Wynn Hotel, that we were going to get to scale. We have now taken 78 airplanes. We have taken more net new aircraft into our fleet than anybody on the planet over the last four years.
So it is all good. My number one sales bullet is that Wheels Up is “more Netflix than NetJets.”
Corporate Jet Investor: Do you think you can keep growing at this rate?
Dichter: It is all about the TAM, as they say in the tech world – The Addressable Market.
When Uber started in 2009, the addressable market for taxis and limousines in the US was $11 billion. Today it’s $55 billion. They blew the market wide open.
Wheels Up, with its disruptive price point, can broaden the aviation market in the same way.
Between 30% and 35% of our new members are coming to us from the airlines. That tells you that there is a big, big addressable market which will support sustainable growth.
Corporate Jet Investor: How big can you get? What will Wheels Up look like in 2030?
Dichter: I think a 1,000 King Air programme could support 75,000 members.
The Addressable Market in North America and Western Europe will support more than 1,000 Wheels Up King Airs.
With 78 aircraft and 4,000 members, we are only 8% there with the picture that we are painting.
Corporate Jet Investor: Of those 1,000 aircraft, is it 800 in America, 200 in Europe?
Dichter: I’d say it’s 700 America, 300 aircraft in the rest of the world. Maybe 200/250 in Europe and another 100-odd airplanes around the world.
Corporate Jet Investor: How much money do you have to earn to be a Wheels Up member?
Dichter: Let’s put it this way, the addressable market for cards and fractions is about 250,000 people in North America.
There are 1.5 million people and businesses that can participate in the Wheels Up membership model. So just like Uber, Wheels Up is growing the private aviation market by five or six times.
Corporate Jet Investor: Will you need to IPO to keep growing?
Dichter: We are positioning ourselves for a Wheels Up IPO 12 to 18 months out, provided the market conditions are right.
A public platform is the right structure for Wheels Up to execute on its 2030 vision.
Corporate Jet Investor: But it is not just about adding aircraft. What about technology?
Dichter: Wheels Up is committed to providing its members with a world-class digital experience. We look at what Amazon, Apple and Uber did as inspiration.
The flight department of the future is going to be on your smartphone.
Corporate Jet Investor: So the next phase is not necessarily with your aircraft?
Dichter: Think of it this way, Amazon started with books, and it became the biggest book seller. Now they sell everything. At the end of the day, you know if you order it from Amazon, it is going to be priced right, but most important it is going to get there in two days and they will stand behind it.
With the Wheels Up brand, the proven Wheels Up demand and, most importantly, the Wheels Up safety protocols, we are in a unique position to lead the digitisation of business aviation. That is what is going to set our digital story aside from everybody else’s.
Corporate Jet Investor: Will you still be running Wheels Up in 2030?
Dichter: I will either be running Wheels Up in 2030 or it will be running me. Seriously, Wheels Up has the most talented people in aviation and I would be happy working for any of our senior team.