Gama Charters has hired 100 pilots to support ongoing deliveries of Beechcraft King Air 350i aircraft ordered by private aviation membership club Wheels Up, and plans to recruit 100 more as the twin-engine turboprops roll off the assembly line in Wichita. Gama Charters, the U.S. subsidiary of Gama Aviation (Booth 5551), of Farnborough, UK, dry leases and serves as exclusive operator of the Wheels Up-registered 350i aircraft for member flights in the U.S. Northeast, Southeast and Southwest.
Gama will also operate 10 Citation XLS mid-size aircraft which Cessna is refurbishing for Wheels Up by year-end.
Wheels Up expects to have a fleet of 42 aircraft by year-end, including 27 of the 105 King Air 350i models they ordered last year, the 10 Citation XLSs, and access to 15 larger-cabin aircraft through a partnership with Jet Aviation Fleet Services. Within the next decade, the lineup could grow to 200 to 250 aircraft, according to Kenny Dichter, Wheels Up founder and CEO.
Dichter predicted that Wheels Up would reach 10,000 “unique individual” members within 10 years, possibly as soon as six to seven years. Since enrollment began nine months ago, Wheels Up has signed up about 500 members.
Dichter told AIN the concept is “democratizing this space” by making private business aviation affordable to a broader base of customers. He estimated the current “aviation pyramid” is about 50,000 to 60,000 aircraft owners, fractional, charter, and corporate customers. “We want to grow the market size, and we think this can open up the marketplace on a scale of four to five times; 250,000 people in North America and Western Europe could be candidates.”
At a press briefing at the EBACE 2014 business aviation conference in Geneva, Switzerland, Gama CEO Marwan Khalek and Dichter reaffirmed their intent to launch operations in Europe “by next summer,” most likely including a base in the London area. “One year from now is a good target,” Dichter said. “We’ll have a King Air 350i in the EBACE static display area, and rev up the marketing and sales.”
Khalek said Gama is hiring pilots on a pace with aircraft deliveries, which have reached 16 to date, training them at FlightSafety International. Recruitment is in the vicinity of operations bases at Teterboro, N.J.; West Palm Beach, Fla.; and Van Nuys, Calif. Gama Charter president Tom Connelly said, “We’re getting more resumes than we thought we’d get, including pilots with a lot of experience.”
Dichter said Wheels Up, together with Beechcraft, “went through an exhaustive process” in search of an operator to manage aircraft operations. “We needed a partner who was going to be scalable and had the vision to broaden the aviation pyramid. He lauded Gama’s “entrepreneurial spirit and attention to detail.”
Wheels Up expects the King Air 350i aircraft to handle about 50 percent of member flight requirements and the Citation XLSs to cover another 30 percent, or 80 percent of the business using Textron Aviation products. “There’s a huge opportunity for a lot of airplanes,” Dichter said. “We want to keep the factories busy there.” Currently the King Air 350i deliveries are scheduled through 2018.
Dichter told AIN that Wheels Up is also looking at the Cessna Citation CJ4 as a potential fleet addition, calling it “a diamond in the rough.” He believes, “The CJ4 is under-represented in the market for what the airplane could be. Head-to-head, it can compete with anything in its category.”
Wheels Up Membership Fees (USD)
Individual – $15,750 first year, $7,250 dues per year thereafter
Corporate (6 named executives) – $25,000 first year, $10,000 dues per year thereafter
Wheels Up Member Cost Per Occupied Hour (USD)
• Beechcraft King Air 350i $3,950
• Cessna Citation XLS $7,950
• Jet Aviation Mid-Size $7,950
• Jet Aviation Super-Midsize $10,250
• Jet Aviation Bombardier Global 5000 $15,950