Co-founded by Kenny Dichter, David Baxt, Bill Allard and Brookhaven native Robert Withers, the business hosted an event Thursday for current and prospective members at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport near Chamblee.
“Atlanta is a pretty significant market for us,” said Withers, a Marist graduate who now lives in New York. “We democratized private aviation into 25-hour [fractional jet] cards. We further democratized it and drew the pyramid even further. Members join the club like a country club.”
The way the company works is people can join Wheels Up by paying a $15,750 initiation fee, which includes the first year’s dues. After that, dues are $7,250 annually. Wheels Up also charges an hourly rate for rental of its fleet of 15 King Air 350i jets (it plans to add Cessna Citation XLS planes to its fleet in June). For the King Air, the rent is $3,950 an hour.
Dichter, Wheels Up’s CEO, owned Marquis Jets before selling it to NetJets and its parent company, Omaha, Neb.-based Berkshire Hathaway, in 2011 for an undisclosed amount. Wheels Up was launched in August, when the company, boosted by more than 300 investors, including some in metro Atlanta, placed an order with Wichita, Kan.-based Beechcraft Corp. for 105 jets worth $1.4 billion after raising more than $70 million in equity, Withers said. But it did not officially open until November, starting in the Northeast, Southeast and West Coast markets. Next year the company plans to add service in Chicago, Texas and Europe.
Wheels Up has high expectations for growth, said Withers, its executive vice president. He expects Wheels Up to have 37 jets, including 27 King Airs, by year’s end.
Withers, who worked with Ditcher for eight-and-a-half years at Marquis before spending a year and a half as a sports agent for Aces Inc., said the company has more than 415 members nationwide and between 25 and 30 in metro Atlanta. He said Wheels Up is expected to have 1,000 members overall by year’s end and up to 300 members in metro Atlanta in the next five years.
“The model really resonates in Atlanta because the King Air is the perfect airplane for Atlantans to go to Hilton Head, St. Simons [Island], Destin, 1,000 miles and in,” Withers said. “We saw this spring, as a precursor of the fall, a number of people use it to go around on college tours. I also see this as a Game Day plane for people to head out to college football destinations with their buddies across the Southeast.”
He said Wheels Up can do business anywhere there’s an airport. In metro Atlanta most of its clients use PDK but some use the Fulton County and Buford airports, Withers said.
He also said the company has a luxury lifestyle component, Wheels Down, which specializes in hospitality. In the first of what will be an annual party, it hosted an event in New York the night before the Super Bowl. Wheels Down also hosted a party the week of the Masters golf tournament in Augusta in April.
Wheels Up is also planning to launch “within several months” an iPhone app that would allow members to book flights while on the go and even share rides, Withers said.
Brookhaven resident Merek Shoob, who is both an investor in and member of Wheels Up, said he got involved for several reasons.
“[I am a] frequent private flyer, like the concept and liked the success we saw with the prior endeavor,” Shoob said, referring to investing in Marquis Jets. “[The 350i is a] great plane/flying experience. The new 350i’s are outfitted well and [an] enjoyable way to travel.”