Wheels Up lands in London

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The reception area at Air Partner’s London Gatwick Airport office last Monday lunchtime was unusually quiet. The entire head office was meeting the Wheels Up team that had acquired the UK charter broker.

There was a huge cake to celebrate the transaction. And, of course, lots of Wheels Up merch: lanyards, fleeces, water bottles and (its famous) baseball caps.

Kenny Dichter, founder and CEO of Wheels Up; Vinayak Hegde, president of Wheels Up; and Greg Greeley, chairman, Marketplace, were clearly enjoying the meeting.

“We bought Air Partner because it is a great company that can help make Wheels Up the number one business in private aviation. We always said we would go international, and this is the first step” says Dichter.“This is just the start.”

Air Partner is Wheels Up’s first international acquisition with others planned. “Air Partner can teach us a lot about the European market,” says Hegde. “They’ve been very successful, and we look forward to applying those lessons in both markets.”

Air Partner CEO Mark Briffa said Air Partner will benefit, as well: “It is no secret that we want to invest more in our brand,” he said. “Wheels Up has an exciting and dynamic brand, and our team is excited to be a part of it.”

Briffa is excited that they will be able to do things like committing to summer charter in advance, but still offer high-touch service to existing customers.

Even when the Wheels Up team are in Europe their focus is on meeting huge demand in the US. Wheels Up has two ways to do this: growing supply and making its own business more efficient.

Greeley, who worked at Amazon and Airbnb, is focused on growing supply. There are 23,266 business jets worldwide, according to data from WINGX. But of these, just 6,532 business jets are operated under Commercial Air Transport certification – so legally available for charter.

However, many of these 6,532 aircraft are owned by fractional companies (899), competitors, individuals and corporates that rarely or never make them available for charter. When they do, a significant number of owners also want to have the ability to approve any request. WINGX says that there are 2,682 branded charter aircraft – effectively dedicated to charter – worldwide.

“The key thing is that many aircraft are underutilised,” says Greeley. “But you could say the same thing about Airbnb – a lot of the parallels are there. Obviously, there are regulatory – including pilot – issues, but fundamentally a lot of owners are not aware of the value of the asset they have until demand is demonstrated. It was the same with spare rooms and holiday houses with Airbnb.” He is also working on an innovative programme for UWNWIs where they could donate their aircraft with proceeds going to charity.

Hegde believes that Wheels Up can also be more efficient. The company is still integrating the acquisitions it has made in the past three years – TMC (2019), Delta Private Jets (2019), Mountain Aviation (2020), Gama Aviation Signature (2020) and Alante Air (2022). Merging operators is extremely hard and Wheels Up has not finished integrating its older acquisitions. Let alone, Alante Air, a small operator, it acquired in February. The Wheels Up team and Briffa are confident that they can integrate Air Partner quickly.

Wheels Up is now planning to place all its aircraft on a single Air Operator Certificate (AOC) – down from six now – which should simplify scheduling.

It is has also invested heavily in software. “Integrating operators is hard,” says Hegde. “And I am happy to be candid about that because we have identified many of the issues, invested when needed and are excited about what’s to come.”

By the time they had left the Gatwick office, the fleeces and lanyards (and some hats) were all being worn by the new Wheels Up UK team.

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