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Launched only three years ago, the Wheels Up member-based fractional aircraft access program has attracted almost 4000 members and is now eyeing Europe for potential market expansion. At a press conference at the NBAA BACE show in Orlando Monday, Wheels Up founder Kenny Dichter said the company’s King Air 350i-based aircraft fleet can serve 90 percent of popular European city pairs nonstop.

In this exclusive podcast from NBAA, Dichter said the company has seen explosive growth and has more than 3750 members in the U.S. The company’s ethos is to expand access to business and personal transportation in turboprops and jets and Dichter believes the potential universe is 10 times what’s being reached by traditional fractional and personal ownership models. Presently, Wheels Up has 70 airplanes: 55 King Airs and 15 Citation XLSs

“Our business is more Netflix and less Net Jets,” Dichter says. Memberships are at two major levels, $29,500 for a corporate membership and $17,500 for an individual member. Hourly fees for the King Air 350i are $3950, according to the company’s website. Wheels Up guarantees aircraft availability 365 days a year, with 24 hours' notice. Annual dues are about half the membership buy-in and the company does not charge ferry costs.

“What that guarantees is access to a fleet of 55 Kings and 15 XLSs. You have the use of these airplanes on a one-hour minimum basis. You don’t have to worry about crew overnights. You don’t have to worry about repositioning,” Dichter said.

Dichter said Wheels Up is promoting the service among viewers to business news outlets such as CNBC and Fox Business, Bloomberg and ESPN College Game Day. He said these markets have yielded takers who might consider a charter, but don’t see the value of a fractional or wholly owned airplane. Dichter believes the traditional market for such services has been about 250,000 people and that Wheels Up’s potential is to expand that to be between 2 and 3 million.

One way of doing that is to move into the European market, which Wheels Up hopes to do by next year. “Europe is a continent that’s set up beautifully for Wheels Up. The geography is one third the size of the United States. The King Air is a green airplane and that’s very important in Europe,” Dichter said.

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Thanks to improvements for business aircraft at some of Japan's major airports, business aircraft activity there has sharply increased, according to Japanese aviation officials. At a press briefing at NBAA in Orlando Monday, Hideki Fukui, director of policy research for Japan's Civil Aviation Bureau, told reporters that the average business aviation movement growth increase between 2010 and 2015 was about 2.9 percent. But between 2014 and 2015, operations increased by more than 20 percent at two of the country's major airports, once of which was Narita.

Fukui said the country has made major strides in reducing delays on the ground and expediting customs clearance. What used to require up to 30 minutes of taxi time to customs has been reduced to three minutes and several airports have added parking slots exclusively for business aviation, Fukui said. However, the country still has work to do. Although requested flight plans for foreign aircraft movements used to require 10 days for approval and now require three days, Japan is far from the U.S. standard of flight plan approval on demand.

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Gulfstream will build the last 450 model business jet in 2018 as its new G500 enters service. At a news conference at NBAA, company officials updated several programs, noting that despite the softer market, Gulfstream is maintaining the schedule for its new aircraft. There are now five G500 test airplanes flying and more than 1,750 hours have been accumulated. One of them got to 53,000 feet and .995 Mach. One of the test aircraft is at the static display at Orlando Executive Airport. The follow-on aircraft is the G600 and crews in Savannah are getting ready for first flight of the first test vehicle.

The 500 and 600 bring fully updated avionics and interiors to the midsize offerings. There are 10 touchscreen panels in the cockpits. The interiors of both new aircraft will have features borrowed from the top-of-the-line G650. Meanwhile, although new orders have slowed, Gulfstream continues to chip away at the huge backlog for its flagship G650. So far 230 of the ultra-long-range aircraft have been delivered.

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ADS-B technology will help air traffic controllers to implement a new NASA system called “Flight Deck Interval Management,” which aims to make aircraft arrivals more efficient, NASA said this week. NASA now is planning a field test of the system early next year, above Seattle. The cockpit-based technology combines NASA-developed software with off-the-shelf hardware and connects the system to the aircraft’s onboard information and navigation systems. “[Interval Management] allows controllers to deliver the aircraft more precisely and more predictably, which is a huge advantage that helps the airlines and airport operators more efficiently manage air traffic to minimize delays,” said William Johnson, project manager at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia.

The technology is expected to enable air traffic controllers to predict aircraft arrival times within about 5 to 10 seconds, NASA said, a major improvement over the current average of about a minute. Here’s how it will work: Air traffic controllers will determine the ideal goal for spacing aircraft as they approach the airport. A controller then contacts a flight crew, relaying the spacing goal, the trajectory the aircraft should fly, and the ID of an aircraft ahead of them. The pilots then enter all this information into the Interval Management system, which computes a solution with the help of the airplane’s ADS-B unit. The result is a number displayed on a cockpit screen that tells the crew what speed to fly so they can follow the specified aircraft in front of them all the way down to the runway, at a safe distance.

The field demonstration will be flown by a Falcon 900 and Boeing 757 supplied by Honeywell, and a Boeing 737 provided by United Airlines, NASA said.

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There are two ways to look at the ongoing FAA fuels testing project called the Piston Aviation Fuels Initiative. One is that no news is good news and things must be perking along as planned. The other is that no news is bad news and that things aren’t going as planned or else we would have heard progress reports.

The rational among us would assume the former, realizing as we do that the federal rules on which the PAFI program is based require confidentiality to protect the proprietary interests of the companies doing the work. That’s not an unreasonable requirement given that the FAA is intimately involved in this process and necessarily intersects with the secrets companies doing the work would just as well keep secret until these fuels are finally approved.

But we live in a leaky world and what’s leaking out is not encouraging, especially with regard to Shell’s proposed unleaded replacement for 100LL. Recall that PAFI started in 2013 with 17 potential fuels from six entities. As PAFI has proceeded through its planned phases, that has been winnowed to two fuels for final testing, one from Shell and one from Swift. Both are now undergoing advanced testing, including flight trials toward a 2018 certification date.

The last official update from the FAA was in July at AirVenture, which delivered bland assurances that everything is just fine. From what I’m hearing, it may not be. Over the weekend, we heard from the fourth source who told us that the Shell fuel may have high toxicity and significant materials compatibility issues. One source told us the fuel is capable of stripping paint off wing surfaces and did. Two others told us the fuel has compatibility issues with seals and O-rings, a key element in the ability to drop into the existing fuel infrastructure, not the least of which is the fuel system in individual aircraft. We’re also hearing that it requires respirators and protective gear to handle, at least in the version being tested now.

Whenever a planned product overhangs the market with distant promises, whisper campaigns are inevitable. I’d say this is another one of those, except the sources I spoke to about it are highly reliable. No one wants to or can go on the record because of non-disclosure agreements and the aforementioned federal rules. However necessary such secrecy may be, it begets certain people lifting up the corner of the tent and that’s where we are.

I reached out to Shell about this and got what I expected: an assurance that Shell will deliver a fieldable fuel by the agreed-upon date in 2018. But a polite refusal to answer detailed questions about results of materials compatibility or toxicity testing. Both of these are critical because if the fuel that emerges requires HAZMAT handling at the dispensing point, that’s not just a non-drop-in, it’s worse than 100LL and of doubtful appeal in the market. For what it’s worth, we haven’t heard these complaints about Swift’s candidate fuel.

So what does all this mean? Ever the sunny optimist, I still believe there will be a viable replacement for 100LL and by 2018. The volume of business, although in graceful decline, still represents too much money to just walk away from. Something will emerge. I do have concerns that the materials compatibility will be devised in a way intelligent enough to represent every airplane, including my 78-year-old Cub.

And for the record, I’m not the only guy who has heard about this. I’m told by firsthand sources that the alphabets are well aware of it and so are people in the fuel community. (AOPA declined comment.) What I’d wish for is an honest, detailed update from the FAA and from Shell. If these problems have been addressed, say. Otherwise, if we’re headed for a train wreck here, better to find out sooner than later.  

The foregoing blog is opinion and commentary based on disclosed fact. AVweb welcomes alternate points of view, including guest blogs. 

At NBAA 2016 in Orlando, Embraer showed off a test version of its new Phenom 100EV, a higher performance version of of the entry-level 100. In this AVweb video, we get a quick video tour of the new aircraft.

Launched only three years ago, the Wheels Up member-based fractional aircraft access program has attracted almost 4000 members and is now eyeing Europe for potential market expansion. At a press conference at the NBAA BACE show in Orlando Monday, Wheels Up founder Kenny Dichter said the company’s King Air 350i-based aircraft fleet can serve 90 percent of popular European city pairs nonstop.

Picture of the Week
Picture of the Week

Don Thun shot Skip Stewart and airshow partner making a crossover pass during their routine at AirVenture. Dramatic shot, Don.