Wheels Up’s profit plan


This time last year there was a lot of noise around Wheels Up. The company had just announced that Kenny Dichter, its founder, was stepping down. It was shifting the business from being a national operator to focusing on the two US coasts. There were rumours that it was about to file for Chapter 11 protection. It was hard keeping up.

This week, when George Mattson (who has now been CEO for five months) announced the company’s first-quarter results, there was none of this excitement.

Sales were down 44% and it posted another loss, but this is not a surprise. The company is still restructuring. Mattson stressed that everything was in line with the plan.

“Wheels Up was great at the offensive, but its defence was weak,” says one member of its founding team looking back. “It was becoming the Amazon of business aviation but the warehouses and delivery team could not keep up.”

Much of the past year has been about building this defence. In an analyst call, Mattson and Todd Smith, Wheels Up’s chief financial officer, stressed how they are focusing on operations and turning around the company. They said that they have added more than 250 years of operational experience to its Atlanta Member Operation Center (we don’t know how many people this is). It had on-time performance of 87% and a flight completion rate of 98%. It is also cutting its fleet and cutting costs.

At $197m, sales for the first quarter were down 44% compared with last year. But half of this came from the sale of its aircraft management business to Airshare and lower aircraft sales (the company’s aircraft sales team have also since left). Charter – mainly run through Air Partner – was up 20%.

The number of active members fell by 25% to 9,155. Some of these were members in the centre of the US that Wheels Up no longer wants to serve with its King Air fleet (but it is very happy to arrange charter for them). Active users fell to 10,218, a 23% YoY drop from 13,336 users in the same quarter last year.

The results also show how long it can take to change a membership company. Wheels Up stopped selling its guaranteed nationwide programme in June 2023. So it still has customers on this programme – although it is now less than 20% of its peak.

Wheels Up is saying that it is on track to produce positive adjusted EBITDA by the end of the year. It had an adjusted EBITDA loss of $49m in the quarter; similar to the same quarter last year. 

The biggest change in the past 12 months is that it has added $490m in new investment – particularly the cash and support that has come from Delta Air Lines. At a members’ event at the Masters golf tournament, Ed Bastian, Delta’s CEO, stressed that the airline is committed to Wheels Up.

Mattson and Smith still have a way to go to get Wheels Up to profit. The company had a net loss of $487m for 2023 financial year, down from $555m in 2022. It got through $6,765m of cash last year. But they have a plan and will quietly keep working on it.

Subscribe to our free newsletter

For more opinions from Corporate Jet Investor, subscribe to our One Minute Week newsletter.

Subscribe here