Wheels Up Takes Off Strong

Membership-based aircraft service continues aggressive growth pattern.

Wheels Up King Air 350i

Wheels Up King Air 350i

** Wheels Up King Air 350i**

Wheels Up, the company that placed a gigantic $1.4 billion order for 105 King Air 350i airplanes last summer, has made a successful entry into the aviation market and is adding more airplane types to its list of offerings. Kenny Dichter, the founder and CEO of Wheels Up, said that by the middle of the year the company expects to have 500 members, and the Wheels Up fleet will then include at least 20 King Airs ready to be deployed to customers around the country.

Gama Aviation, which operates the Wheels Up King Airs, has hired 100 pilots to fly the twin-engine turboprops and 20 support staff to get the operations going in the United States. With Gama's headquarters being in the United Kingdom, Wheels Up plans to expand its services into Europe next year.

Wheels up is also strengthening its relationship with Textron Aviation, which absorbed Beechcraft earlier this year, by adding Cessna Citation XLS business jets to its fleet. Unlike the King Airs these airplanes will not be new, but they are completely refurbished and updated by Cessna prior to delivery. Dichter said the first two XLSs are expected to be available any day now and two more will be added this summer. Wheels Up plans to add a total of 10 refurbished Citation XLS business jets this year.

In addition to the 10 XLSs, Dichter expects to have 27 King Airs and between three and five Global 5000 airplanes by the end of the year, bringing the fleet to more than 40 airplanes just over one year from the startup of the company.

Although the company is new, the airplanes are by no means hangar queens. The current fleet is averaging 11 occupied hours per aircraft per week nationwide and 13 hours on the east coast, which is not far from the company's targeted maximum of 15 occupied hours per week per airplane, said co-founder and president David Baxt.

While Dichter said the company is looking at other options to add to its fleet, he said it is unlikely that the fleet offering will be expansive. Instead, Wheels Up will be able to offer a breadth of airplane types through partnerships. Wheels Up has partnered with Jet Aviation, a Part 135 charter company that offers a fleet of about 100 airplanes including Cessna Citations, Hawker jets, Challengers and Gulfstreams. The partnership allows Wheels Up to offer super, mid and large-cabin business jets to its customers on 24-hours notice.

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