US members-only private aircraft operator Wheels Up is broadening its aircraft offering with the acquisition of pre-owned Citation XLS and Sovereign business jets from Cessna.
The move is designed to rival leading US fractional ownership programmes NetJets, Flight Options and Flexjet, and fill a gap in Wheels Up’s fleet. The company's fleet currently consists of Beechcraft King Air 350i twin-engined turboprops, Embaer Phenom 300s and CJ3s light business jets – owned and operated by air taxi company JetSuite – and top-end Bombardier Global 5000 and 6000s. These super-large and long-range twinjets are owned by Swiss VIP operator VistaJet. Wheels Up acts as VistaJet's US sales agent.
“The first XLS and Sovereigns are now being refurbished by Cessna [in Wichita] with the Wheels Up interior and livery, and should be delivered before the end of the first quarter of 2014,” says Wheels Up founder and chief executive Kenny Dichter. “We plan to have between 15 and 20 aircraft in the fleet before the end of next year and up to 150 Citations – from across the range – by 2020," he adds. "The aircraft will be no more than ten years old.”
The New York-based company was launched in August 2013 on the back of a record order for 105 350is. Nine of the twins have been handed over to date, and another 18 aircraft are scheduled for delivery in 2014.
“If you look at the fractional ownership landscape right now, the major players are in bed with Bombardier and Embraer,” says Dichter. NetJets – which has an order for [midsize] Sovereign and Latitude business jets – is phasing out its fleet of older light-cabin Citations. Flexjet does not offer Citations and Flight Options operates mainly Phenom 300s, Legacy 600s and Nextant 400XTs, he adds.
“Citations are workhorses. By offering a range of these aircraft we can differentiate ourselves from the fractionals. I'm confident they will be popular with our members,” Dichter says.
Since its launch, Wheels Up's membership has grown to 150, and Ditcher is confident it can add another 100 members before the end of the year. “This is one of the busiest times for the business aviation market,” he says.
Wheels Up is targeted at high net-worth individuals who typically fly 10 to 100h a year.