The heads of three major business aviation enterprises—George Antoniadis, founder and CEO of PlaneSense; Kenny Dichter, founder and CEO of Wheels Up; and Kenn Ricci, founder and principal of Directional Aviation Capital—shared the dais and views on the current and coming state of the industry at the NBAA-BACE Aviation Visionaries Forecast Luncheon on Monday.
All three executives expressed surprise at the speed and extent of business aviation’s recovery, with Dichter likening demand for lift to “Joe’s Stone Crab on a Saturday night in season,” referring to the popular Miami restaurant. Antoniadis noted his company and the industry is “now squeezed because of unprecedented demand,” and Ricci said Flexjet went from 320 revenue hours a day on its fleet pre-Covid to between 500 and 550 revenue hours daily now. “In many ways, [the jump in hours is] more challenging than no business,” he said.
Can the growth be sustained? Ricci cited three factors to watch: the economy; people’s feelings about their own wealth; and the state of the airline industry—“at its nadir,” Ricci said. “If none give, we’ve got a good road ahead.”
All three agree most new customers are onboard permanently, with Antoniadis calling the change “an inflection point.” Dichter believes growth can continue with more efficient operations and ease of access, citing Uber and Amazon as examples of transformative models, and predicted the industry would expand exponentially “if it’s as easy to call a plane as it is to order a pizza on the phone.”
Dichter’s company, Wheels Up, founded in 2013 and launched as a membership program with a fleet of King Air 350i twin turboprops, quickly expanded its fleet and offerings, and this year listed on the New York Stock Exchange, the first private aviation company to go public.
Ricci, in contrast, noted the industry models were based on 3 to 5 percent growth per year. “We’re not geared for 20 to 30 percent [annual] growth,” he said, predicting “we’ll run out of equipment,” which “will temper growth.”
Ricci’s Directional Aviation owns the Flexjet fractional ownership program, Sentient Jet-card program, PrivateFly on-demand charter brand, and Nextant Aerospace, among others.
Antoniadis, citing the infrastructure constraints, said, “The ultimate solution is new pilots,” and believes the business aviation industry needs to take the same proactive approach to attract and train pilots as the airlines are now doing. “It’s our responsibility to keep in front of this job creation,” he said.
PlaneSense, founded by Antoniadis in 1995, operates a fractional fleet of Pilatus PC-12 turboprops and PC-24 light jets, and has been known in part for the stability of its operations throughout that time.
Asked by moderator Miles O’Brien for their industry forecasts for the next 20 years, Antoniadis said, “I’ll be happy if we double” in customers, with further growth potential “limited, with existing delivery models;" while Dichter believes it could grow “10 or 20 times” from current levels. He is convinced “one or two million people [annually] will be using the space in 20 years.”
Ricci predicted rapid industry consolidation during the interval, with the industry dominated at its end by “four major brands,” though no names were offered.