On Friday, Wheels Up said it was joining with rotorcraft manufacturer Bell Textron to launch a helicopter service by year’s end. The operation will extend service to Wheels Up members and customers who charter and share private jet flights. It will also connect travelers booking airline tickets on Delta Air Lines and will likely included scheduled shuttle flights.
With its January acquisition of Mountain Aviation, Wheels Up is neck and neck with Directional’s Flexjet unit as the second-biggest for-hire operator of private aircraft in North America. In February, Directional said it had acquired Associated Aircraft Group (AAG), which sells fractional shares and jet cards on a fleet of helicopters in the Northeast U.S.
Wheels Up will launch a helicopter service by the end of the year in partnership with Textron Bell. … [+]
The idea of urban mobility – conquering the last mile between airports and final destinations or in place of commuting to work by car – has been attracting dozens of old and new names in recent years.
In a press release issued early Friday morning, Wheels Up founder and CEO Kenny Dichter said, “We are always looking for different ways and new features to enhance the services we provide to our members and customers, and this is a logical evolution of our systematic disruption of the aviation industry, and a vision to extend our holistic approach to air transportation.”
In an interview on CNBC, Dichter said there are currently 8,000 helicopters in the U.S. with 2,500 available for charter.
Wheels Up has a longstanding relationship with Textron’s Beechcraft and Cessna units, with a large fleet centered around King Air 350i, Citation XLS, and Citation X private aircraft.
In a joint interview, Scott Donnelly, chairman and CEO of Textron, told the business network, “This will be the first time that you see somebody coming into this in a real way and a way with scale…taking the benefits of having a real platform around Wheels Up, a huge customer base that’s used to that on-demand air travel capability, and moving that into the helicopter VTOL world is a logical extension.”
Details of the agreement with Bell were not disclosed, and the release described the arrangement as an initiative designed to “lead the industry both in short- and long-term solutions with vertical take-off and landing,” also known as VTOL.
The deal with Bell is in addition to Wheels Up’s partnership with operator Heliflite, according to one source. That tie-up dates back to 2013. In July 2019, Wheels Up began offering its members the ability to “purchase a 10- or 20-hour HeliCard to secure guaranteed lift availability.”
In addition to 350 owned, leased and managed aircraft, Wheels Up sells charter flights on around 90 third-party operators who go through a safety vetting and verification process.
The deal also gives Delta, the largest individual shareholder in Wheels Up, a leg-up on rival United Airlines. In February, CNBC reported the Chicago-based carrier had placed a $1 billion order for 200 Archer eVTOL aircraft, with an option to purchase 100 more for $500 million. However, they won’t enter service until at least 2024.
Dichter said that he sees the VTOL opportunity as global. Documents related to its SPAC merger that will place Wheels Up on the NYSE under the symbol UP call for international expansion. Helicopter travel is already a mainstay in many areas of the world, including Brazil, India, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where urban sprawl and congestion make them a near-necessity.
During the CNBC segment, Dichter said moving into VTOLs is part of his democratization strategy. Since 2016 it has sold memberships through Costco. His King Air strategy helped extend private flying to a wider demographic.
For its part, Directional has not provided any updates since the announcement its OneSky Flight unit had acquired AAG from Lockheed Martin. OneSky includes Flexjet, the second-largest fractional fleet operator, Sentient, a major player in jet cards, and on-demand brokers FXAIR and PrivateFly. Directional founder and principal Kenn Ricci separately launched a SPAC last year specifically targeting future flight concepts.
This year, Maryland-based GrandView Aviation said it plans to start a scheduled by-the-seat helicopter service connecting College Park, Washington D.C., and New York City by the summer under the Fly Lindy name.
Blade, which like Wheels Up, is planning to trade publicly via a SPAC merger, announced it is expanding its helicopter service to Chicago. In recent years it has expanded its by-the-seat options from helicopters to private jets, with seasonal, scheduled flights from New York to Miami and Aspen, as well as giving customers the ability to create their own shared flights.
I’m Editor-in-Chief of DG Amazing Experiences, a weekly e-newsletter for private jet owners and Private Jet Card Comparisons, a buyer’s guide comparing over 250 jet card programs from major players like Flexjet, Jet Linx, NetJets, Sentient Jet, Wheels Up, VistaJet, and XO to newcomers like FlyExclusive and boutique brokers. You’ll also find performance profiles of popular private jets, from turboprops King Air 350, Pilatus PC-12 and HondaJet to the Phenom 300, Challenger 300 and 350, Gulfstream G450, G550, G650, G700, Bombardier’s popular Global Express family, the iconic Learjet and S-76 helicopter used by both Queen Elizabeth and Donald Trump. There’s a free guide explaining various options and even a guide for first-timers and specifically what you need to know before chartering. And before you fly, find out what’s an FBO. You’ll also find a Deal Book, cataloging M&A activity and launches by key players. I’ve spent my working career in travel and luxury media, for 14 years at Travel Agent magazine, where I began as a reporter, then covered the airline industry as Aviation Editor and ended up rising to Group Publisher. In 2000 I started Elite Traveler, a consumer lifestyle magazine distributed globally aboard private jets, where I was President and Editor-in-Chief until 2014. In 2007, I co-authored of “The Sky’s the Limit: Marketing to the New Jet Set.” In 2014 I wrote “23 Ways to Create More Sales Opportunities 25 Minutes,” and in 2016 I co-authored “Secrets of Selling to the Super Rich.” Verb named me as one of the Top 25 Digital Luxury Experts to follow. For more private aviation and news on jet cards, private aviation memberships, and fractional ownership, visit Private Jet Card Comparisons’ news updates.