Private Aviation Company Wheels Up Raises $115M to Fuel App, Expansion
Wheels Up, the private-aviation company founded by serial entrepreneur Kenny Dichter, has closed a $115 million funding round, bringing its post-money valuation to $540 million.
The round was led by T. Rowe Price, Fidelity and NEA.
Wheels Up, based in New York, is Dichter's second foray into private aviation. He founded Marquis Jet in 2001 as the first-ever fractional jet-card program, before selling the company to NetJets in 2010. He then went on to start luxury spirits brand Tequila Avion, before founding Wheels Up in 2013.
This company is different from other private-aviation companies in that it operates more as a membership club than traditional fractional-ownership models. Individuals pay an initiation fee of $17,500, then annual dues of $8,500, in order to be eligible to book flights, Dichter said. "That's a very, very big step to open up the marketplace," he said.
As a result, Wheels Up can attract younger executives who typically don't think of a private aviation, people in their 30s and 40s -- a "group of people who are going to be flying for a while," Dichter said -- as opposed to their travelers in their 60s, who have traditionally made up much of the private-aviation market.
That was a big draw for the investors. “Private air travel has been the domain of the ultrawealthy," Henry Ellenbogen, who led T. Rowe Price's investment, told The Wall Street Journal. "This is attractive to that consumer base and the one right below that, which is much bigger.”
Just like Uber is less about the ride than about the app to book it, the startup community has been interested in Wheels Up's proprietary booking app, which the company developed internally. The app manages members' flights, by allowing travel booking, planning and access to the company's concierge services. Part of the proceeds from the latest capital raise are going to increase development of the app.
Dichter said the plan will be use the app to allow ridesharing. For example, if a member books a flight from the New York area to Boston, other members would be given the opportunity to take that same flight, which would lower the costs for everyone. It will also allow members to see repositioning flights -- about 30 percent of the fleet's flights right now -- and travel on those, he said.
"It's social aviation," Dichter said.
In addition to using proceeds to enhance the app, Wheels Up plans to fund a further expansion in the U.S. to areas like Chicago, the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest, Dichter said.
Also, the new capital will allow the company to enter Western Europe, with the first flight offerings scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2016, he said.
The $115 million raised is Wheels Up's first institutional round. Previously, Dichter raised $73.5 million from 360 institutional investors.
Ray Hennessey is the former editorial director of Entrepreneur.