Rejuvenated Wheels Up Aims for Operational Excellence

George Mattson inherits the helm at the membership and charter private aviation provider, which has been rocked by performance problems.

Barely three weeks on the job, Wheels Up's new CEO, George Mattson, has a message for customers.

“We're going to be very much of a ‘show me’ and not a ‘tell me’ company,” he recently told BJT. “We're just going to go get it done and then tell people what we did. We’re going to deliver operational excellence and consistency,” he added. “Our state goal is to become the best-run private aviation company and we are delivering tangible, measurable progress every week, every month.”

Mattson inherits the helm at the membership and charter private aviation provider that has been rocked by performance problems and nearly $1 billion in losses in recent years and is now six months into a reorganization plan.

That plan concentrates on implementing primary service areas, reducing deadhead legs, improving operational performance, rebalancing its client base to focus more on business clientele, and leveraging its relationship with Delta Air Lines to provide “seamless” solutions to its customers that integrate premium airline and private aircraft travel.

Wheels Up has shed membership in the process but already has seen a financial benefit from the reforms. It has been aided by a half-billion dollars in loans and a credit line from Delta, Certares Management, Knighthead Capital Management, and Cox Enterprises received in September in exchange for a stock position that has grown to 95 percent ownership of the company. CFO Todd Smith said the company is looking at adding another $50 million from an as-of-yet-to-be-determined investor.

The Delta-Wheels Up connection has grown in recent months with the addition of Mattson, a Delta director; Dan Janki, Delta’s CFO as Wheels Up chairman; and Dave Holtz, Delta’s former chief of operations who is serving as president of operations at Wheels Up and will run its new 35,000-sq-ft consolidated operations control center in Atlanta, which opened in May.

Mattson credits Holtz with transforming Delta over the course of a decade from an airline tarred with a reputation of “operational mediocrity” to one known for “operational exceptionalism and excellence.” 

“[FAR] Part 121 and Part 135 aren't exactly the same, but they're more similar than different in many respects and we're taking a lot of those same disciplines, processes, procedures, and focus on execution to the operation,” Mattson said.

Wheels Up’s owned and leased fleet stands at approximately 180 aircraft, according to Todd, with 60 being King Airs. At one time Wheels Up operated nearly 76 of the turboprops. The company also has access to another 1,200 vetted aircraft from its partner providers.