EXCLUSIVE: Wheels Up introduces new entry-level membership offering, Wheels Up Connect, and fixed-rate light jets

The pay-as-you-go membership program is broadening its customer base with its new $2,995 Connect Membership while launching a light jet program, anchored by the Citation Encore+, with a fixed hourly rate.

Wheels Up is no longer a two-trick pony. After five years making its mark principally on the back of King Air 350i with the help of the midsize Cessna Citation Excel/XLS, the New York-based privation aviation membership company is taking two big steps today. First, it is moving to fulfill founder and CEO Kenny Dichter’s vision of democratizing private travel even further with its new Connect Membership, which is focused on the concept of sharing flights, booking charter and accessing signature events.

Wheels Up Connect enables members to shares flights and reduce costs

At the same time it is launching a light jet program (as we reported would happen in December) filling in an important gap for existing members and widening its market appeal to buyers of fixed hourly rate jet cards. Lastly, Dichter tells Private Jet Card Comparisons that it will have fixed hourly rates for its Citation X fleet by the end of the year. The news “gives our members the opportunity to move up and down the private aviation food chain,” Dichter said.

Wheels Up Connect

The cost of a Wheels Up Connect Membership is $2,995 and comes with a $500 flight credit. Renewal is $2,495, starting in year two. Benefits include access to shared flights, up to four Hot Flights (empty leg flights) per year, shuttle flights such as between New York and Nantucket in the summer, access to its signature events during Art Basel Miami, The Masters and the Super Bowl, complimentary FoundersCard Membership, and the ability to and the ability to use its Flight Desk for on-demand charter.

JetSmarter vs. Wheels Up

Key to many will be the shared flights benefit, an area of private aviation that has long been a siren’s song for start-ups seeking to make flying privately more accessible. It comes at a time when JetSmarter (see related story), which has been the leader in the space amassing over 8,000 members, is under scrutiny after changing its model. The Ft. Lauderdale based company is facing over a dozen lawsuits from unhappy members and was recently the subject of a scathing CNBC report about its sales tactics as well as takeover rumors.

While JetSmarter is now focused on a crowd sharing model where one member proposes a flight at a specific time on the company’s public website and app, and then both members and non-members can sign on, the flight only operating if a specified number of seats are sold, Wheels Up is using a community-only approach accessible uniquely to its members.

Asked if the new Connect Membership is meant to go head-to-head with JetSmarter, Dichter said, “We feel like Wheels Up is in its own category. Our goal is to continue redefining the space as we’ve already done with the exclusive King Air 350i. The Connect Membership is the next step in our vision for bringing more people into the community.”

Wheels Up Community Forums

Connect Members will be able to access Wheels Up Community Forums via a member website and app. Forums are split between those that feature popular routes, high-demand cities and events. The way it works, a member can start a new conversation in the Community Forums, “I am flying from LA to Las Vegas next Friday afternoon, would anyone like to join?”

Members can also communicate directly with each other via an in-app chat function, to better coordinate flight details, such as departures dates and times. “I see you have availability on your proposed flight. I’m interested in joining you if you can leave at 5pm instead of 4pm.” If the members agree, voila, a shared flight that can now be booked, meaning the two members share the cost of the flight based on whatever they’ve agreed to. Wheels Up then handles the billing for each member group using their credit cards on file.

Wheels Up Connect benefits

Wheels Up calls its empty legs, Hot Flights, which cost as low as $320 for the entire aircraft. Connect Members don’t have guaranteed access to the Wheels Up members-only fleet of King Air 350i and Citation Excel/XLS aircraft, which have fixed hourly rates. However, they can use its new Charter Marketplace to book off-fleet aircraft with variable pricing from over 1,200 Wheels Up safety-vetted and verified aircraft flown by approved third party operators.

Stephen Nitkin, a co-founder of Wheels Up said the goal is to sell several thousand Connect Memberships this year and grow it to over 16,000 by 2021.

Light Jet Options

Wheels Up is now offering light jet options, anchored by the Citation Encore+  for its members. On an as available basis and with as little as 72 hours’ notice, Wheels Up Members now have access to a light jet option for flights departing from airports east of the Mississippi at a fixed hourly rate of $5,795 (not including FET). Deicing is not included in the pricing and aircraft are equipped with WiFi. Flight minimums will be the samec 60 minutes as with the King Air 350i and Citation Excel/XLS. Wheels Up EVP-Marketing Ken Hogan said plans are to expand the light jet program to members nationwide by the end of 2019.

Super Midsize Jets

With a soon to be national light jet program to go with its King Air 350i and Excel/XLS midsize fleet, perhaps the final missing piece in the Wheels Up puzzle is an aircraft capable of flying coast-to-coast nonstop. While 80% of private flights in the U.S. are under two hours, for those private aviation users who need longer range, when Wheels Up rolls out a fixed hourly rate on its fleet of Citation X aircraft, it will become an option to a broader range of jet card customers, even without a large aircraft program. Seating eight, the Citation X (along with the Gulfstream G650) is the fastest private jet, making it a favorite with quite a number of fliers.

Final Thoughts

Via its Connect Membership if it reaches its goal of 16,000 memberships, well that could be as much as $40 million in annual revenues.

The new Connect Membership also means more people to share the cost of flights proposed by existing Core and Business Members through social aviation. Whether or not those members would have taken the flight anyway if nobody wanted to share remains to be seen, but any incremental flying will boost fleet utilization. While commercial aircraft typically fly 10 to 12 hours per day, private aircraft often are in the air less than 15 hours per week. In other words, there is the opportunity to increase the bottom line by getting its fleet in the air a bit more.

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Filling a big gap

From a consumer perspective, the light jet option fills a key gap for Wheels Up. Its King Air 350i is ideal for flights under 500 miles where there isn’t a significant penalty with a slower turboprop. At the same time, for those short hops, the eight seat King Air 350i is a big money saver. If you have eight people you would have to select a super midsize jet, many coming with 90 to 120 minimums and rates at around $9,000 per hour compared to the King Air at $4,695 excluding the FET.

On the other hand, for somebody flying alone or with two or three people on popular routes from places like New York or Chicago to South Florida, at $7,695 (excluding FET) the Citation Excel/XLS is more aircraft than you would need and the King Air 350i would give back any savings compared to a light jet with longer flying time. Having a light jet program with fixed hourly rates will keep members who might have used other providers flying with Wheels Up for these flights making the program attractive to fliers who may not have previously considered joining Wheels Up.

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About the Author Doug Gollan

I am Founder and Editor of Private Jet Card Comparisons, the only independent buyer's guide to jet card membership programs, and DG Amazing Experiences, a weekly luxury travel e-newsletter for private jet owners. I am also a contributor to Forbes.com
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