Wheels Up brings membership-based aviation service to Upstate

Upstate now home to nine general aviation airports and one commercial airport. Growth credited for attracting new aviation business.

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Wheels Up currently operates a fleet of 80 aircraft. Photo provided by Wheels Up.

After raising more than $100 million in funding, Wheels Up, a membership-based private aviation company, has begun the expansion of its sales and marketing campaign by targeting residents and businesses across the Upstate.

The New York-based startup, which was founded by serial entrepreneur Kenny Dichter in 2013, offers members access to a private fleet of aircraft with as little as 24-hours notice, according to Jim Bundren, vice president of regional sales at Wheels Up.

Bundren, a Clemson graduate and former sales representative for the Florida-based orthopedic medical device developer Arthrex, joined Wheels Up and relocated to Greenville in October to boost the company’s presence and sales efforts in the Upstate.

“More and more people across the country are looking into private aviation as big airlines continue to reduce their services and increased security makes commercial flying more stressful,” said Bundren. “We’re working to make it more attainable.” 

Individuals and families interested in joining Wheels Up pay an initiation fee of $17,500 plus $8,500 in annual dues after the first year, according to Bundren. Corporate members, however, pay an upfront cost of $29,500 plus $14,500 in annual dues. Wheels Up also offers a “pay-as-you-fly” membership that allows individuals, families, and businesses to pay by the hour. 

The Cessna Citation Excel/XLS business jets is part of the Wheels Up fleet. Photo provided.

Jamie Jaffe, senior vice president of marketing at Wheels Up, said the company has earned about $300 million in annual revenue and added more than 5,000 members since 2013. About 80 percent of those members are individuals and 20 percent are corporate.

During last year’s National Business Aviation Association conference in Las Vegas, Dichter said the company expects membership to reach 10,000 by 2020. “I think we can be a $5-10 billion company,” he said. “There’s no reason by 2025 into 2030 we shouldn’t have 25,000 or 30,000 members. We should be every year taking more airplanes than we took the year before.”

In October, Wheels Up announced it had closed an equity-based fundraising round of $117.5 million. The funds will be used for a number of growth initiatives, including the purchase of additional aircraft and expansion of sales and marketing.

Bundren, who was hired after the announcement, said the continued growth of the Upstate’s aviation industry is one of the many reasons why Wheels Up is now targeting the region, which is home to nine general aviation airports and one commercial airport.

The Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport, for instance, serves more than 1.8 million passengers per year, with five major airlines offering 49 nonstop daily departures to 14 major cities and 18 airports across the United States, according to the South Carolina Aeronautics Commission. In 2017, the airport had an economic impact of $1.2 billion.

Wheels Up has access to Greenville-Spartanburg International and other commercial airports across South Carolina, according to Bundren. But the company is also targeting individuals and businesses that use the Upstate’s general aviation airports, which had a combined economic impact of more than $600 million in 2017, according to the S.C. Aeronautics Commission.

The Upstate’s nine general aviation airports include the Greenville Downtown Airport, Anderson Regional Airport, Spartanburg Downtown Memorial Airport, Oconee Regional Airport, Pickens County Airport, Greenwood County Airport, Laurens County Airport, Union County Airport, and Donaldson Field.

General aviation activity throughout South Carolina and the rest of the U.S. decreased between 2007 and 2014 due to an increasing costs for fuel and aircraft insurance. But recent tower activity shows that demand is growing in the Palmetto State thanks to business aviation, which is the fastest growing segment of the general aviation industry.

The Greenville Downtown Airport, for instance, had more air traffic than all other general aviation airports last year. It was topped by only three commercial airports — Myrtle Beach International, Charleston International/Air Force Base, and Columbia Metropolitan.

“We’re not targeting a specific demographic, but I think we’re going to see a lot of interest from local businesses that already fly commercially or own private planes,” said Bundren. “Many of our corporate members like the fact that we can accommodate a wide range of flying behaviors and provide supplemental lift. It doesn’t matter if your plane is under maintenance or your flight is cancelled, we’re always available.”

Wheels Up, however, faces hefty competition from several other fractional jet and charter companies in the Upstate. That includes Spartanburg-based Fenix Air Charter, which offers both cargo and individual charter flights across the continental U.S., as well as Greenville-based Venture Aviation, which offers private flights to more than 5,400 airports nationwide.

Unlike some of its competitors, Wheels Up has been able to lower the cost of private flying by purchasing a pre-owned fleet of turbo prop airplanes as opposed to traditional jets, which are more expensive to operate, according to Bundren.

Wheels Up operates 65 Beechcraft King Air 350i turboprops. Photo provided.

Wheels Up currently operates a fleet of 80 aircraft, including 65 Beechcraft King Air 350i turboprops and 15 Cessna Citation Excel XLS business jets. The company is also looking to purchase between eight and 10 Citation X jets by the end of 2018.

Wheels Up currently partners with UK-based Gama Aviation to source FAA-certified pilots who train at Flight Safety International twice a year, according to Jaffe. 

Bundren said Wheels Up has differentiated itself from other private aviation companies by putting a larger focus on digital capabilities. In 2015, for instance, the company launched an app that allows members to book flights, manage their accounts, estimate flight times, and select one-way flights that are posted daily and updated in real-time.

The app also allows members to share flights.  As an example, a member who commutes from Greenville to Charleston every week could post their commute on the app and find other members who pay for the same flight. They can then agree to share the flight and cost.

Members can also take advantage of the “Wheels Down” program, which offers exclusive access to concierge services and major sporting events, according to Jaffe. 

As for the future, Wheels Up plans to not only purchase more aircraft but also grow its membership by establishing additional sales and marketing teams across the country, according to Jaffe. The company also plans to expand into Western Europe.

For more information, contact Jim Bundren at jbundren@wheelsup.com. 

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