Wheels Up makes first Delta-era program changes (Part 1)

Wheels Up is ditching its Connect and pay-as-you go options, while cutting peak days, callouts, and daily minimums.

By Doug Gollan, June 17, 2024

Wheels Up this morning made its first program changes in the George Mattson era, and for the doubters about the private jet flight provider’s staying power they will likely be disappointed.

The now Atlanta-based private flight provider was the subject of bankruptcy rumors last year before Delta Air Lines led a $500 million investment, giving it and its partners a 95% stake.

However, Mattson, a longtime Delta board member before taking the CEO spot at Wheels Up last September, tells Private Jet Card Comparisons, “The way Delta has clearly made this an integral part of their customer narrative with their most important corporate and individual customers speaks for itself.”

He noted, “Thoughtful companies don’t spend a quarter of a billion dollars to buy some time to wind things down and upset their customers by going out to them, attracting them (to Wheels Up and private aviation).”

Delta is generally regarded as the best-run U.S. airline. Last year, it had a net income of $4.6 billion on $58 billion in revenues.

In announcing its Q1 results, Delta CEO Ed Bastian told analysts, “We remain confident in our full-year targets for earnings of $6 to $7 per share and free cash flow of $3 to $4 billion.”

In an interview last night before this morning’s announcement, Mattson said, “I think the naysayers will see the commitment over time.”

During its Q1 earnings call, Wheels Up executives reiterated that they expect to reach EBITDA profitability by the end of the year.

READ: A brief history of Airlines and Private Jet partnerships

So, back to the main topic – the changes.

Prospects and customers will find positives and negatives regarding the changes.

However, that doesn’t really matter to some degree.

That’s because both new and existing customers have until July 17 to buy into their choice of the new or old rule sets.

Executive Vice President of Global Sales Robert Bourrier says the decision to offer customers both the existing and new program is simple.

“There are a lot of conversations that have been in effect for the last 30, 60, 90 days…It’s making sure at all decision points it’s in the best interest of our customers,” he says.

For current customers, Wheels Up will honor their existing contracts even when the new program goes into effect, something it has done ongoing.

Goodbye, Wheels Up Connect

So, what are the big changes?

Connect, the entry-level membership program with dynamic pricing launched in 2019, has gone away.

It is replaced by Wheels Up Charter.

Wheels Up Charter uses dynamic pricing.

It targets flyers who don’t want to pay to join a program or deposit funds—more on that in a moment.

Instead, you get 2% flight credits for every $50,000 spent.

Roughly, it’s competing against Vista’s XO Membership and FXAir’s Aviator Membership, but without membership fees.

With Wheels Up Charter, you also gain Diamond Medallion status by spending $125,000 in a calendar year.

Upgraded Points reports Diamond Medallion typically requires spending $28,000 to get that status.

Its value is between $5,000 and $10,000, depending on how often you fly with Delta.

Benefits include higher priority for rebooking, upgrades, priority boarding, and an option for lounge membership, which is referred to as a Choice Benefit.

Delta and Wheels Up

While Wheels Up Charter is ancillary to those of you focused on guaranteed rate programs, it dovetails nicely with how Wheels Up and Delta are exploiting their relationship.

For example, Mattson points to Delta’s new route from New York-JFK to Naples, Italy.

Leading up to the launch, the duo worked together to target Delta One passengers who would benefit from private flight options in Europe.

Mattson says, “We have significant uptake from that,” adding, “Imagine in the future doing that across the entire Delta schedule in a more automated way.”

In case you were wondering, Delta operates 260 weekly flights to 18 countries and 29 destinations in Europe and the Middle East.

In terms of attracting new flyers to private aviation, Wheels Up is working closely with the SkyMiles database team to better understand and target members who could benefit from private aviation.

Core Membership Changes

The meat and potatoes of why you would join Wheels Up is its Core membership, now called Wheels Up Membership.

As I said, there are some good and some bad aspects.

Gone is the $9,995 joining fee, typically waived if you put down 100k.

You still pay the $8,500 per year annual membership.

Gone also is the pay-as-you-go option.

The entry-level to gain guaranteed availability capped rates is now a $100,000 deposit.

However, Wheels Up is also cutting the peak days at the 100k level from 40 to 20.

100k level still doesn’t guarantee availability and uses dynamic pricing on peak days.

Still, only 20 peak days at 100k provides one of the most flexible entry-level options on the market.

It’s also well below the average peak days for similar programs, which stood at 47.5 days at the end of Q1 2024.

READ: Q1 2024 Jet Card Pricing and Policy Analysis

At 100k, you also get a Delta Diamond Medallion status.

In the past, you only received Platinum, which is a lower status on Delta.

Reduced Call-outs, Daily Minimums

Non-peak callouts are also now 48 hours across the board, down from 72 hours in some cases.

Daily Minimums on Light and Midsize Jets go from 90 and 102 minutes, respectively, to 72 minutes, including taxi time.

King Air segment minimums go from between 60 to 72 minutes to a straight 60-minute minimum at all deposit levels, including taxi time.

While last June’s changes reduced the capped rate area (dark blue on the map below), Wheels Up is now strategically expanding it.

There are a couple of additional airports in Texas that now get capped hourly rates.

Kansas City and Minneapolis/St. Paul, a Delta hub, are back in the capped rate zone.

There are also more airports in Eastern Canada and a third destination in the Bahamas where the capped hourly rates apply.

Wheels Up Primary Service Area

Wheels Up Primary Service Area Map July 2024


Trading Up

So why put down more than 100k?

You get guaranteed availability on peak days. Plus, peak day surcharge goes from 20% to 15%.

There are new discounts on qualifying roundtrips.

It’s 3% at 100k, but it goes up to 6% at 400k, and it applies to King Air flights as well.

For each 100k you fund, you get another Diamond status for Delta, which is up to a maximum of four per account.

100k continues to allow four lead passengers. 200k goes from four to six lead passengers, and 400k goes from four to eight lead passengers.

A lead passenger is required on each flight.

At 200k and 400k, you get lower capped hourly rates, although the rates have increased across the board.

You get longer rate locks.

100k is 12 months, while 200k is 18 months, and 400k is 24 months.

In the new program, funds expire after a 12-month grace period that follows the rate lock.

In other words, at 200k, you get a rate lock for 18 months and 30 months to use your funds, or you lose them.

At 400k, you have 36 months to use your funds (a 24-month rate lock + 12-month grace period).

At 100k, you need to use your funds within 24 months (12-month rate lock plus 12-month grace period.

READ: An in-depth look at Wheels Up’s changes to pricing and flight costs

Not so good

Previously, funds didn’t expire, but you could only use them for dynamic pricing unless you paid your annual membership. Now, you can use the unused funds to extend your membership.

An extra expense is that deicing is now a pass-through expense.

The legacy program includes deicing on all but super-midsize aircraft and caps the cost based on the deposit.

Also, you now need $12,000 MQDs, or Medallion Qualification Dollars, on Delta to get the choice benefits, such as a complimentary Sky Club membership.

Finally, Wheels Up no longer offers its transcontinental discounts in a formal way. You can read more about that in our Part 2 analysis or pricing and costs.

Back to the good. It continues to offer guaranteed WiFi on all aircraft categories in its capped rate program.

Also, executives say there are no changes to the programs offered by its Air Partner unit.

Despite the downsizing, Wheels Up ranked as the nation’s fourth-largest charter/fractional operator last year, excluding off-fleet flight hours.

READ: An in-depth look at Wheels Up’s changes to pricing and flight costs

Upping its game

They say save the best for last.

So, if you have gotten this far, you probably have a big enough interest in jet cards to understand the importance of recovery flights if there is a mechanical or a pilot calls in sick or fatigued, with the result being that the aircraft scheduled for your flight is a no go.

Most jet cards that offer guaranteed recovery flights – including Wheels Up until now – couch their recovery flights with plenty of wiggle room.

In fact, more providers have been giving themselves slack around recovery flights.

Since the cost to the provider of a last-minute recovery flight can often significantly exceed what you paid, recovery flights are generally a money-loser for flight providers.

Flyers question whether their flight provider is sourcing the fastest replacement aircraft – or the cheapest.

In other words, are providers making you wait, so they lose less money?

Wheels Up answers this question with a tangible policy.

It will cover the cost of a recovery aircraft up to 1.5x your original quote.

And here’s the drum roll: if it can’t get you on your way with a mission-capable aircraft within four hours of your scheduled departure, you can cancel without penalty.

This puts a time limit on the “we’ll get back to you” calls.

Wheels Up offers compensation if their recovery options go beyond four hours.

However, for those of you who have spent time cooling your heels, waiting, waiting, and waiting, not being able to cancel and make alternate plans, you will appreciate a more precise policy.

Paid members of Private Jet Card Comparisons can compare the new Wheels Up Membership with over 80 jet cards and fractional providers.

There have also been changes to the long-flight discount program, noted in detail below.

READ: An in-depth look at Wheels Up’s changes to pricing and flight costs

(Editor’s note on June 22, 2024:  An earlier version of this story had the incorrect length of time for the 200k and 400k rates locks and fund expiry.)

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