Every private-aviation startup wants to become the next Wheels Up, which expects to go public at a valuation of more than $2 billion in the second quarter after merging with a special-purpose acquisition company. That would be more than twice the 2019 value of the seven-year-old outfit, which has jetted to the head of a fleet of startups that want to become the Uber or Airbnb of their industry.
Business-aviation activity has rebounded well in the new year and is expected to continue to climb strongly as work travel recovers while use of airline flights lags. But entrepreneurial innovation will be required for corporate aviation to solidify its short-term advantage for the long term—whether it’s in electric planes, vertical-take-off-and-landing (VTOL) aircraft, sustainability initiatives or digital scheduling to improve service and capacity utilization, with wrinkles on what Wheels Up is providing.
Here are thumbnails on eight startups that could prove to be difference-making innovators in the industry, in the views of private-aviation experts interviewed by Chief Executive—and if you listen to the companies’ founders.
• 4Air: Sustainability narratives are catching up with private aviation in this Boston-based startup offering to evaluate the environmental impact of charter operations, corporate flight departments and the like, and then arrange for offsets of carbon emissions and other climate-related pollutants. The weeks-old company got some instant credibility in February when Clay Lacy Aviation, a big private-jet operator, agreed to a partnership with 4Air.
“In the past year, we’ve seen tremendous growth in the conversation around sustainability in aviation and environmentalism in purchasing decisions,” says Kennedy Ricci, an online entrepreneur and son of private-aviation pioneer Kenn Ricci. “We recognized a big need to create comparability and transparency.”
The company’s programs range from “Bronze,” which allows participants to become “carbon neutral” by countering all emissions with “verified carbon-offset credits” such as contributions to forest-protection or renewable-energy efforts, to “Platinum,” for “climate champions” that support the new, not-for-profit Aviation Climate Fund.
“The fuel burn of a flight determines its carbon footprint, and our customers buy a number of carbon offsets that equate to the footprint,” Ricci says. “The average cost of this for a cross-country flight will be a couple hundred dollars. The person in the back of the plane will know that they’re flying more sustainably and increasing support for long-term sustainability efforts.”
• Archer: United Airlines said early this year it plans to buy up to 200 flying taxis from this Palo Alto, California, startup. That imprimatur prompted Archer co-founders Brett Adcock and Adam Goldstein to announce a plan to go public through a combination with a SPAC in a deal that values the combined company at about $3.8 billion.
Archer plans to begin production of its taxis in 2023 and launch consumer flights the following year in planes that will be capable of flying 60 miles at 150 miles an hour and nearly halve carbon emissions for passengers traveling from Hollywood to Los Angeles International Airport. “There’s an ability to build one of the 10 most significant businesses in the world,” the co-founders write, “and more importantly help drive the world to a zero-emissions future.”
• Eviation: Singaporean billionaire Richard Chandler took control of Israel-based startup Eviation a couple of years ago because he believed in the promise of The Alice, which the company is billing as the first real-life practical, all-electric commuter airplane. It’s designed to take nine passengers up to 650 miles at a cruise speed of 275 miles per hour on a single battery charge.
Eviation is promising to cut direct operating expenses by up to 70 percent compared with high-end turboprops or light jets. Just as important is its sustainability narrative, which includes “dramatically lowering the industry’s environmental impact in noise emissions and materials used,” says Eviation CEO Omer Bar-Yohay. “We hope to see both passengers who happen to be electric-propulsion enthusiasts and those who are indifferent have equally excellent experiences on their first flight.”
• Jet It: The three-year-old company offers private flights in North America and hybrid ownership of HondaJet aircrafts, with a fleet that is expected to reach 10 by the end of the year, making it the largest operator of those planes. Two pilots always fly the six-person aircraft on flights that typically are 90 minutes to two hours.
Besides the small jet, which offers a cabin experience much like those in larger planes, Jet It’s main innovation is to offer owners or renters a plane for an entire day instead of by the hour. “Our study showed that most people wanted the opportunity to have two business meetings in a day in two different cities and return home the same day,” says Jet It co-founder and CEO Glenn Gonzales, who with co-founder Vishal Hiremath was a field executive for Honda Aircraft.
“We realized there is a huge gap in the market for the customer that can afford a larger and more entrenched aircraft but can’t justify the expense. In most cases, business flyers are rationing their hours: Do they fly commercial or fly in a business jet? We take the headache out of the equation.”
• Lilium: This startup based in Munich, Germany, is working on an all-electric “sky taxi” that performs VTOLs, is powered by 36 all-electric jet engines mounted on its flaps and can travel up to 300 kilometers per hour on one charge in a plane with no tail, no rudder and no propellers. The experience features gull-wing doors and panoramic windows. A Lilium Jet demonstrator flew in May 2019, over Germany, but the company announced a plan early this year to develop a network of at least 10 “vertiports” in the United States.
A pilot will steer the airplane for now, but the goal is to make Lilium autonomous in the future. And Lilium has some DNA behind that vision: Its $375 million in funding to date features $35 million from Baillie Gifford, the century-old Scottish investment-management firm that is also Tesla’s largest outside investor.
• VeriJet: This Uber wannabe of the skies is banking on its fleet of six-passenger Cirrus SF-50 Vision Jets, which have engines based on the cruise missile and carbon-fiber fuselages, and fly low and slow, efficiently, quietly—and safely so far, after more than 44,000 dispatches of the Minnesota-made aircraft without major incidents. VeriJet’s aircraft require only one pilot, who is assisted by artificial intelligence. If necessary, passengers can hit an emergency button, AI lands the jet, and there’s an ejection parachute for everyone on board.
The company has started by offering flights out of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to any airport within 800 miles for $500 a seat per hour. The price “is typically half that of other light jets,” says Richard Kane, VeriJet’s chairman and CEO. “My goal is to pull people off United and Delta who are stuck there.” Booking is by smartphone app, with Kane’s goal for VeriJet to need only two hours’ notice after expansion across the United States and Canada.
Kane is counting on “carbon shaming” to help drive customers to efficient networks like his in an eventual jump to Europe. “A number of family offices there are interested in our service so they can fly quiet—and green,” he says.
• XTi Aircraft: This is another startup with private planes that will take off like a helicopter, but XTi’s point-to-point aircraft are supposed to fly at the speed of a jet from sites in urban downtowns. The Denver-based company already has dozens of orders for its six-seat, TriFan 600 hybrid-electricVTOL aircraft as it refines its concept, technology and funding.
Late last year, XTi also announced development of a smaller TriFan 200 VTOL aircraft, designed as an unmanned vehicle that will operate autonomously and transport up to 500 pounds of cargo on missions of more than 200 nautical miles.
• ZED Aerospace: Aiming to fill the gap between commercial airlines and private jets, Miami-based ZED is upgrading a 75-seat Bombardier CRJ700 aircraft to accommodate just 29 passengers.
“Our approach was to take existing private jets like Airstream and share those seats, but a Gulfstream isn’t made for commercial aviation or that level of utilization,” explains ZED Founder and CEO Zander Futernick. “So, we started with a commercial airliner.”
At the same time, he says, “Covid really ushered in a paradigm shift because people who wouldn’t consider private aviation before are now considering it. Our target is people who live and dress and eat well and live in multiple cities but don’t fly private.”
The time value of utilizing small airports will be part of the company’s appeal, as will its fees of $250 to $500 per hour per seat. Swiss-designed interior sumptuousness will be ZED’s calling card, including an eight-passenger super-premium cabin featuring zero-gravity seats with thick mattresses for sleeping and a 21-seat rear space that includes a rotating menu of fusion tapas, sushi-bar selections, a curated list of alcohol and other beverages, a complimentary iPad and virtual-reality headsets. “Our dual-class approach has never been done before in such a small cabin,” Futernick says. “We’re offering choice.”