““Last year, complaints about airlines increased 22%. There were probably more complaints, but the airlines lost them.” ”
JetSuite's Alex Wilcox
The aviation bug bit Alex Wilcox at an early age, back when an airline pilot could invite a wide-eyed youngster into the cockpit during a long flight. Wilcox's Swiss mother and American father spent lots of time in Europe, and he vividly recalls extended conversations with pilots while crossing the North Atlantic.
During high school, Wilcox worked at Burlington International Airport in Vermont and spent all the money he earned on flying lessons. Before entering the University of Vermont, he worked for two years at Brockway Air, which flew Saab 340s in regional service for Piedmont Airlines. That experience undoubtedly helped him when he got a summer internship at Southwest Airlines.
After college, Wilcox joined Virgin Atlantic Airways, where he was one of the first to see David Neeleman's idea for a low-cost carrier. Virgin's leaders liked the concept, but ran into regulatory and foreign-ownership issues, so Neeleman sought financing elsewhere and went on to launch JetBlue Airways in 1999. Wilcox helped with the launch and worked for JetBlue for six years, after which he went to India to run a new airline called Kingfisher.
Soon after he returned to the U.S., New York private equity firm Proctor Capital Partners hired him to write a business plan for a
business jet charter company startup now called JetSuite. Then in August 2007, Proctor hired him as the company's president. Now Wilcox-who recently became JetSuite's CEO-is preparing to launch a service that seeks to widen the market for light-jet charter and aircraft ownership.
You almost detoured into another career, managing rock bands. What happened?
After college, I managed a rock-and-roll band and lived in a Winnebago for a year. The band ultimately did not get signed, but I had a great time. I saw a lot of the country at Winnebago level and even to this day when I fly over Kansas I remember how long it took to drive across it.
How did you wind up at Virgin Atlantic?
It was the only airline-type operation that would look at a guy with a rock-and-roll background.
After Virgin and your time with JetBlue, you joined Kingfisher Airlines. When you left Kingfisher, did you feel compelled to stick with aviation?
I don't want to say I'm a one-trick pony, but I know this business fairly well. It's been a lifelong passion. I never wanted to fly professionally but I always wanted to be around airplanes. When I fulfilled my obligations to Kingfisher, I definitely had a bias toward airlines, although I often joke that I'd rather own a hot dog stand because who cares if you don't show up? It's easy to manage and tangible. With most of what we do here, it takes a long time to see the results.
You've had several experiences with startups. Are they addicting?
The problem with starting companies is that you measure success in years, not in minutes, days or weeks. And sometimes it seems a bit ethereal, going to work every day on a plan versus having some tangible task to accomplish. But it's much more challenging and therefore much more interesting to create things from whole cloth than it is to go into operating businesses.
Thus far your experience has been in the airline industry, but JetSuite will be a general aviation operation. Do you think the general aviation industry needs airline discipline?
Yes. I think the way general aviation is run today is a lot like Pan Am was run in the '60s. Very entrenched. And there wasn't a lot of thought given to utilization or efficiency or single-fleet types-with the exception of Southwest Airlines when it finally came along in the 1970s. Pan Am invented the playbook and never changed a word. With few exceptions, that describes the way general aviation is run today. Most of these airplanes spend the majority of the time on the ground. That's not efficient. And I think that's going to become an issue as prices continue to increase.
What's a specific example of general aviation inefficiency?
The titans that can afford to keep a GV sitting around waiting for them all day are few and far between. We have 2,000 airports in this country that are mostly empty, but ought to be full. And the reason they're not is because the basic business model for general aviation is broken. There are a lot of reasons for that-partially regulatory, partially just backward momentum, partially public perception that flying private isn't for them. And the airlines have done a good job telling people that they're the only way to get into the sky for almost everybody.
So will the skies darken with air taxis?
I'm not a believer that we're all going to be flying private to Grandma's for Thanksgiving. This is still an expensive business, and it's not getting any cheaper. There are clearly huge markets of people who ought to be flying private but aren't. And there are also probably millions if not billions of man-hours wasted in U.S. airports every year because of the kind of brain-dead way the hub-and-spoke [airline] system evolved. I think there's a lot of opportunity for us to create a much better charter product than is out there today.
Who is your target market?
Even though we call it business and corporate aviation, most private jets fly for leisure purposes, whether for the CEO's golf or a family going skiing or whatever. We see our cost being so much lower than the competition's that businesses will be able to justify this, not just wealthy individuals. You have to have a certain amount of money, obviously. But with us you're going to need about half as much as you need with the incumbent operators. So it's going to be anybody from the current jet card owner, to a guy who flies first-class short hauls and spends two hours in airports for every 45 minutes of flying, to a guy who has a GV today but flies only two or three people 700 miles on average and is having a hard time justifying the overhead he spends for that kind of mission.
The [Embraer] Phenom 100-the aircraft you plan to use-lends itself to this mission?
[We expect] the Phenom to accomplish probably 70 percent of the missions in the corporate aviation world. Basically, anyone who's got to go under 1,000 miles for less than half what our competitors are charging-that's our market. You charter the entire airplane and there's no stopping on the way. There's no sitting next to somebody you don't know. And there's plenty of room for the golf bags and skis.
Is the Phenom's airline heritage attractive?
Absolutely. Part of the reason most general aviation airplanes don't fly that much is they're not made to fly that much. Embraer has a terrific regional [airline]
pedigree, because regional airliners typically fly high-cycle [many takeoffs and landings] missions, so this thing is built to last. This airplane's got a 35,000-cycle life expectancy. That's probably-at one hour per cycle-a 35-year life expectancy, double what competing airplanes have. The Pratt & Whitney Canada 600-series engines are already on the Mustang and the Eclipse and have proven to be just about bulletproof. We think it's going to be an extremely reliable airplane.
What is the current status of JetSuite?
We have about a dozen people. We should get our first airplane in November and we plan to start operations in May 2009. Marketing is beginning to ramp up. We are managing several active sales leads for owner positions. We've got a growth curve that sees us ramping up to nearly 60 people in February next year. It's slow growth but we're burning equity now so we're doing it judiciously.
Tell us about JetSuite's financial backer.
Proctor Capital Partners [based in New York City] had been looking at this business for quite some time. They considered several other platforms, but settled on the Phenom. Anytime we needed anything, they've been there for us. You can't ask for much more from your bankers. We've lined up financing for 40 aircraft.
Résumé: Alex Wilcox
Position: CEO, JetSuite
Past Positions: Owner, Smooth Flight Holdings, LLC; president and COO, Kingfisher Airlines; director, Western region, JetBlue Airways; director, product development-airports North America, Virgin Atlantic Airways.
Education: B.A., English and political science, University of Vermont.
Personal: Age 38. Born in London. Lives in Los Angeles. Divorced. One daughter. Private pilot with seaplane rating.