The tech arms race
Once you have got past the tourists outside, there is a surprising calm in the Wheels Up offices (it possibly helped that Kenny Dichter, the founder of Wheels Up, was not in that day). But one of the things you quickly realise is how important tech is to the company. The office is full of programmers, digital marketing experts, people who specialise in user experience, apps, systems and artificial intelligence. There is a lot of concentration and analysis taking place.
Tech has been important to the company since it launched; in fact its first official hire was Terrance Truta, its chief technical officer. Since then it has hired more than 50 tech specialists (since Wheels Up launched five years ago they have only lost two tech staff one to Apple and the other to Google).
Dan Crowe, the company’s chief information officer and executive vice president, joined from Weight Watchers, where he led the digital strategy of this very different membership company. Before that he led a team of 1,200 people at IBM and also grew Autotrader.com (the same company that ended up buying their CFO’s former company) from a start-up to one of the biggest car buying sites. He clearly loves his job at Wheels Up.
“Hiring tech people is hard and I spend a lot of time doing it,” says Crowe, “but there are a lot of benefits in working here. They get to create products that people use – and improve their experience – and we are growing fast.” He adds that they also have a we work standard table tennis table.
Crowe says that Wheels Up are constantly trying to improve how customers interact digitally. This week it launched a product that allows people – such as personal assistants – to track flights in real time. Crowe says that staff are spending a lot of time understanding data. “Anyone who knows the industry can predict the top 30 peak days,” he says. “You need AI to predict the next 30 days and the next 30.”
Wheels Up is just one business aviation company that sees technology as a priority.
Vista Global last week formally launched TechX, its new technology company. “The pressure from the client side will be, over the years, to have the highest level of technological platform,” says Thomas Flohr, founder of Vista Group (who this week also bought XOJET). “I don’t see the need for every single operator in the world to build their own technology platform, I believe that we have a platform and we will continue to invest in a platform which we can make available for many operators around the world.”
Last year Directional Aviation, the parent of OneSky, launched OneSky Network which also wants to run IT for operators. Last month it bought PrivateFly, the pioneering online booking site.
All of the companies are doing this because customer behaviours are changing.
“We are not far from a world where 50 per cent of SkyJet’s transactions are digital,” says Andrew Collins, president of OneSky’s Skyjet and Sentient Jet. “This can be a high-touching business and we are happy to support customers who want to speak with us as many times as they want. But when I travel I am not a high-touch person. I use Uber, I use hotel apps, I like knowing autonomously that I can move about. We have a lot of customers like that.”
But traditionalists do not need to be too worried. One of the reasons that Wheels Up’s offices have a high proportion of tech specialists is because it likes its salespeople to be out of the office and with customers. The membership company has offices all over the US – including Boston, Miami, Los Angeles and Nashville. Old fashioned referrals and face-to-face sales are still very important to the company.
Business jet companies are watching each other’s tech developments closely. “We had a similar thing when I was at Autotrader,” says Wheels Up’s Crowe. “There is definitely a tech Arms Race going on and it is going to continue.”