Wheels Up: Private Jets and a Commercial Carrier Pedigree
THURSDAY, APRIL 29, 2021 -- There are countless private-jet operators, fractional-ownership programs and mom-and-pop charter brokers charging steep prices for speed, comfort, convenience and on-the-road cachet. Yet only one has a relationship with an international commercial airline.

The unicorn? Wheels Up, 25 percent owned by Delta Air Lines.

Obvious question: Why should you care that Wheels Up is in Delta's orbit? After all, you're paying for the privilege of flying private to escape commercial carriers like Delta and their potentially crowded airports, jammed aircraft, rigid booking rules and fixed routes.

Simple answer: Thanks to its relationship with Delta, eight-year-old Wheels Up has the management, marketing, mechanical experience and expertise of the Atlanta-based carrier. And, oh, yeah, it offers Delta's SkyMiles on your private-aircraft expenditures.

Wheels Up also has Gail Grimmett, who spent nearly a decade as Delta's senior vice president of New York operations. As the private jet's "chief experience officer," Grimmett has serious commercial airline chops and understands business travelers. The 19-year Delta vet came to Wheels Up in last year's deal that combined Delta's Private Jets operations with the privately held aviation company.

"We're not just an aviation company," Grimmett insists. "We're the leading brand in private aviation--a lifestyle brand. Our company gives the full aviation solution--from purchasing a plane, managing it for the owner, booking flights and creating distinctive experiences in the air and on the ground."

Wheels Up claims it has access to 1,500 aircraft ranging from King Air 350i turboprops to large-cabin private jets. What's more, it's simple to access a flight. The Wheels Up app for iPhones and Android phones promises an immediate hookup with an appropriate aircraft and an instant quote for flying it on a specific day and route.

With her Delta experience, Grimmett has brought consumer marketeering to an industry dominated by people who think and talk "private aviation." She's gutsy, a good conversationalist and doesn't sound like a pilot talking to an air traffic controller.

But is that talk about "distinctive experiences" just promotional hype? Not really. Wheels Up has a division called Wheels Down that is essentially a concierge for members. "We can deliver hospitality-related services that are more than just hotel rooms. [We] tailor experiences to our members' interests and passions," she says.

Translated, that could be Super Bowl tickets, a choice table at a popular restaurant or a camel safari. Wheels Up customers and members, Grimmett explains, are "paying for what they need, not what we have."

Still, Wheels Up fundamentally remains a company that matches upscale travelers with a massive fleet of private aircraft. The workhorse of the operation is the aforementioned King Air 350i turboprop. It can fly up to eight passengers nonstop for about 2.5 hours. The longer-range, eight-passenger Citation Excel or XLS can fly four hours nonstop. The so-called super-mid-sized Citation X can handle eight passengers and can operate coast-to-coast nonstop.

To see how responsive Wheels Up is to first-time private-jet flyers, I dialed the customer service line and promptly reached voice mail, not a call center. I thought that odd. Ten minutes later, however, I received a call from a helpful, knowledgeable sales rep in Montreal who took the time to explain the Wheels Up operation.

Simply put--and, honestly, nothing is simple when arranging private air transportation--Wheels Up operates in several tiers. First is the app-based approach. Called Download and Fly, it offers flights at real-time market rates and offers customers access to the four basic-sized aircraft.

The backbone of Wheels Up operation, however, is its membership structure. It targets specific users based on a variety of criteria, costs and benefits.

The first membership tier is called Connect and has a $2,995 one-time initiation fee and annual dues starting the second year of $2,495. This covers what Wheels Up calls "two authorized lead passengers" who must be related family members. Connect members can choose from the King Air or Citations on an "as available" basis.

The next level is Core Membership. For its steeper price--$17,500 initiation fee and an $8,500 annual fee--members get four lead passengers. (All must be family.) Benefits include 300 days of "guaranteed availability" on a King Air 350i and "as available" access to the Citation jets. It also includes access to other aircraft types not offered to Connect members.

The third and priciest level is Business Membership. It has a $29,500 initiation fee and $14,500 annual dues. That gets a member 330 guaranteed hours a year on the King Air 350i and "as available" access to the Wheels Up Citations. However, members are not limited to family passengers. The Business tier permits members to fly six unrelated people.

"This industry has evolved over the years," says Grimmett. "Flexibility is the key. Initially, you had to buy a private jet to fulfill your needs. Then came fractional ownership, which may or may not meet all your needs. With Wheels Up, you don't have to overpay because you pick the plane that fits your needs and we can hit 5,000 airports."

For better and worse, Wheels Up uses a dynamic pricing structure driven by supply and demand--just like commercial airlines, hotels and rental car companies. Prices change by the moment. For example, the approximate price on a one-way KingAir 350i turbo from San Diego to Dallas ranges from $13,000 and $17,000 one-way. A Citation X from New York City to San Francisco with seven days notice costs $29,995 one-way.