Wheels Up is channeling its inner Delta to improve operations

A new operations center opening next month in Atlanta will help Wheels Up continue improvements, executives say.

By Doug Gollan, April 19, 2023

Wheels Up’s flight completion percentage since the beginning of 2023 was 98.5%. That’s higher than its 95% completion percentage in 2022.

Its on-time performance is up 11% during that same period. 89% of its flight departed within 60 minutes of the time members scheduled, with 74% within 30 minutes. That includes delays due to members showing up late.

Controllable interruptions decreased from around 30% in March 2022 to 20% last month.

More improvements are on the way, say Wheels Up executives.

Wheels Up executives
Wheels Up operations executives David Holtz (left), Robert Withers, and Dovie Vejarano say a new operations center opening in Atlanta next month will help the private jet airline continue improvements from the past 15 months.

By next month, the company will open its new Member Operations Center in Atlanta. It’s about a mile from Dekalb-Peachtree Airport, one of the private jet company’s busiest.

Wheels Up’s Delta connection

Private Jet Card Comparisons met with Delta Air Lines veterans Dave Holtz, Wheels Up’s Chairman of Operations, and Dovie Vejarano, Senior Vice President, Member Care – Operations, at the new facility earlier today, along with the private jet company’s Co-Founder and Executive Vice President Robert Withers.

Delta, regarded by many as the best U.S. domestic airline, is Wheels Up’s largest shareholder.

The two companies have a wide-ranging commercial alliance. For example, Wheels Up members gain high-level SkyMiles status on Delta. They can also use deposit funds to buy tickets on the airline.

In short order, the Wheels Up facility will house around 300 employees.

The list of departments is long, including member services, customer care, flight coordinators, flight controllers, mission planners, crew logistics, crew scheduling, aircraft scheduling, duty directors, and enterprise operations management.

It will bring under one roof legacy operations from Wheels Up’s six operator certificates.

They were acquired during its buying spree that started with the 2019 purchase of TMC Jets.

Through February 2022, it added Delta Private Jets, Mountain Aviation, Gama Aviation Signature, and Alante Air Charter.

During that period, its membership more than doubled to over 12,000.

Wheels Up has already consolidated down to four operator certificates, a rigorous process via the FAA.

It expects to be operating under a single certificate within 12 months, says Holtz, who helped lead Delta through its integration of Northwest Airlines.

10,000 small steps

“It’s 10,000 small steps,” Holtz says, pointing to efficiencies from crew scheduling to dispatch.

Until last summer and through the worst of Covid shutdowns, Wheels Up was sometimes hamstrung by having to coordinate everything between the operations centers of the acquired operators spread from Arizona to Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, and Connecticut.

Verjarano says members felt the pain when it came to sourcing aircraft and crew for recovery flights, the replacement airplane when the scheduled aircraft or crew can’t fly either to a mechanical or back then Covid.

Consolidating part of its operations in Ohio last summer slashed recovery time by 42%.

“There’s the ability to solve problems better and faster when everyone is in the same room,” says Vejarano.

She says the number of customer complaints that needed to be elevated to executive management has dropped from around 10 a week to one or two.

A new team formed last year reads every survey, and another team supports day-of-flight disruptions, reaching out to impacted customers as quickly as possible to figure out what can be done to assuage the situation.

The new operations center includes an area local and visiting members can use for meetings and an opportunity for them and employees to meet.

“It gives our members a chance to see what we are doing, to show how much our team cares, and it’s not just a voice on the phone,” Vejerano says.

Withers says the executive talent injection from Delta is helping Wheels Up take advantage of the big airline’s capabilities. That includes navigating ATC delay programs and even the weather.

Holtz says The Masters golf tournament was an excellent example of how Wheels Up used Delta’s state-of-the-art meteorological tools.   

It moved the bulk of its flight operations from Aiken Regional Airport, about 25 miles east of Augusta, to Thompson McDuffie County Airport, an equal distance to the west.

Holtz says none of the flights moved to KHQU were delayed, while other airports in the area saw delays of two to three hours.

“It’s like having a powerful uncle,” says Withers.

Improving efficiency

By consolidating the operating certificates, Wheels Up will gain crew scheduling flexibility, improving on-time performance and shorter recovery time.

So will having maintenance operations under one roof, so dispatchers and member services can understand the nature of delays in real-time and figure out the best way to get members in the air.

Best practices from each operator will also help.

For example, Gama Aviation Signature, Wheels Up’s longtime operator of its King Air and Excel fleet, ran a trip feasibility analysis at the time of booking.

Based on the analysis, it might be apparent a fuel stop was needed, or a nearby alternate airport with a longer runway would mean less chance of a diversion.

By doing it when the flight was booked, customers would have a chance to decide if they wanted to upgrade to a nonstop capable aircraft and plan to fly to another airport.

Holtz says of his over 40 years at Delta, “We were a mediocre airline for a long time before we became a good airline.” He says Wheels Up is “30-40% of where we need to go.”

Wheels Up to report Q1 financials May 9

In separate news, Wheels Up said it would report Q1 2023 financial results before the market opens on Tuesday, May 9, 2023.

In its Q4 announcement, the company said it expects to trim Adjusted EBITDA loss from $185 million in 2022 to $110-130 million this year and reach profitability in 2024.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information about the timeframe and specifics related to completion percentage and controllable interruptions.

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