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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Wheels Up Looking Toward 2015 European Expansion

Woodrow Bellamy III 

[Avionics Today 08-14-2014] August marks the first year of operations for Wheels Up — a first year that saw the New York-based private aviation company sign up 575 new members, raise $75 million in equity and reach more than 40 flights in a single day. Now, the company is on track to reach 1,200 members and more than 40 business jets by the end of 2014, with a planned expansion to Europe coming in mid-2015, according to David Baxt, co-founder and president of Wheels Up. 

Cessna Citation Excel/XLS. Photo: Wheels Up.

"We suspect there is tremendous demand [in Western Europe]. If there is demand in the United States for the service we are offering on shorter range aircraft, such as the KingAir, its only going to be greater in Europe given the geographies of Europe tend to be closer together than North America and the United States broadly," said Baxt.

Baxt said Wheels Up is "highly confident" about their ability to be successful in Western Europe. Gama Aviation, Wheels Up’s operator, has its headquarters at Farnborough Airport. "We would have a natural home as we start to progress toward Western Europe, but we have yet to determine what our actual bases would be," said Baxt. Gama is also one of the existing Wheels Up operators in the U.S.

The latest business aviation activity report from business aviation consulting firm WingX Advance agrees with Baxt's future plans for Western Europe. Business aviation flight departures in the U.K. increased by 3.3 percent in July compared to the same period a year ago. In contrast, there were a total of 64,048 business aviation flight departures throughout Europe, a 2.7 percent year-over-year decline. 

When Wheels Up does expand to Europe, one of its attractions for new business aviation customers will be the combination of its business model and the in-flight connectivity package featured on its existing fleet of King Air 350i and Cessna Citation Excel/XLs aircraft. Customers pay $15,750 up front, and then pay only for the number of hours they fly, or their "wheels up time," according to Baxt. The Wheels Up co-founder said the fleet features the Gogo Biz ATG 5000 system, which Gogo claims has a connection speed up to "56 times faster than a traditional dial-up connection."

"Wheels Up believes that Wi-Fi — certainly on shorter stage legged flights — has taken the place of In-Flight Entertainment (IFE),” said Baxt, adding that the limitations of the commercial air transport version of the ATG 5000 from Gogo results from the relationship to the aircraft's airborne position to a ground station. 

"You’re not always connected with the commercial version, depending on where you are in relationship to a ground station … The advantage of our system is because of the high data rate — you probably wouldn’t even notice that you’re going in and out of range, because you’re downloading all of your emails pretty quickly and you’re not noticing that they’re not going through," he said.

The next major avionics installation for Wheels Up will be Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) Out, and ADS-B In to become compliant with the FAA's 2020 equipage mandate. 

"Our aircraft are not fully equipped for the requirements of ADS-B. [But,] as soon as they start coming off the manufacturing line that way, then our aircraft will be that way," said Baxt. "But given the dates 2020, I think we’re a way off there. But we’re fans of it and we’re eager to see it happen."

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