Dallas Startup Rise Aims to Pilot New Frontier in Private Air Travel

Xconomy Texas — 

Door-to-door, the trip from Dallas to Houston took two hours.

That’s quite a feat considering the two Texas cities are nearly 250 miles apart. But on a flight run by the Dallas startup Rise, there was no need to get through security 30 minutes in advance, parking was just yards from the plane, and a smiling attendant pointed passengers to free Wifi and fresh coffee as I waited the 15 minutes for the flight.

That was my experience last Friday on Rise, an “all-you-can-fly” aviation startup founded last August and approved in early July by the Federal Aviation Administration. “We’re dealing with the most valuable commodity in the world,” says Nick Kennedy, Rise’s CEO and co-founder. “We are saving our members time in a safe and efficient manner.”

The price of admission? A $750 deposit and monthly membership dues that start at $1,650.

The nod from the FAA has meant Rise can get off the ground in earnest. (The company had been operating a limited schedule as allowed by authorities.) Rise now has 40 flights a week from Dallas to Houston, Austin, and Midland, TX, and plans to add service from Houston to Austin, and Dallas to San Antonio and Oklahoma City, in a few weeks. The number of members, is in the “several hundred range,” Kennedy says. They can choose from three rates, the highest being the “chairman” level at $2,650 a month, which includes a greater number of reservations booked at one time and two companion passes.

Two of Rise’s staff are former military pilots—chief operating officer Dan Caine was among the F-16 pilots ordered to the skies to protect Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001—with deep logistical expertise in aviation, but Kennedy says “everyone else’s focus is hospitality.” Kennedy, whose background is as a serial tech entrepreneur largely in the healthcare industry, says he wants to leverage software and data analytics to bring customer service back to the aviation industry. “This is essentially a technology platform that connects users with unused capacity,” he says.

With a membership model that requires customers to put down $750 and commit to three months (the membership runs month-to-month after that), Rise has developed a stable revenue base compared to ticketing revenue used by most airlines, Kennedy says. He declined to disclose how much investor funding the airline has raised, but says that members’ dues are supporting much of the operational costs.

Rise can better keep costs under control, compared to traditional airlines because it doesn’t own its planes, Kennedy says. Instead, the company has an operating agreement with Monarch Air, a 20-year-old licensed aviation charter operator based in Dallas. So far, Rise has two branded jets—King Air 350s that hold eight passengers—and another jet on call, should the company need it. Kennedy says he expects to have an additional jet in service by the end of this month.

Rise’s target member is the business traveler—road warriors in consulting, energy, and real estate—who are tired of commercial airlines but not quite ready for, or can’t afford, fractional jet ownership or the purchase of their own private planes.

Kennedy says Rise offers access to private aviation’s convenience and luxury—at a lower price, Kennedy says. The idea is to punt the “sharing economy” to the higher end of the luxury scale. “Our travelers don’t want to think of themselves as using ‘’Airbnb for a jet,’ but it’s the same type of principle,” Kennedy says.

My recent trip from Houston to Dallas—where I visited Rise’s headquarters at Love Field—and back again, was seamless. I arrived a mere 15 minutes before my flight, was personally escorted onto the plane along with another pair of travelers, and offered an assortment of snacks and drinks. Compared with flights on, say, Southwest Airlines to the same destinations costing about $300 each for a frequent flier, Rise’s monthly membership can make sense, especially when you factor in the convenience.

Operating out of the general aviation side of airports, Rise follows the same security procedures in place for private and charter jets. In addition, Rise says it conducts background checks on all members and guests as part of the application process.

Rise isn’t the only company trying to usher in a new frontier in private jet travel. Texas Air Shuttle, which is based in Conroe, TX, just north of Houston, is waiting for FAA approval for its own “all-you-can-fly” service. The company uses Beechcraft King Air 200 jets that can seat seven, with memberships that start at $899 and go up to $4,800 for unlimited monthly flying, according to its website.

New York-based Wheels Up also sees opportunity in Texas. Offering memberships for both individuals and families, as well as corporate rates, it began flying out of Dallas earlier this year.

Still, others have found entering the market to be more turbulent. AirPooler had pilot runs in California for its service that matched extra seats on private planes with travelers willing to pay for them.  But a year ago, the FAA ruled that the service was illegal.

Looking forward, Kennedy says Rise is working on a licensing arrangement with a British carrier that would essentially take Rise’s business model international, starting with flights to Brussels. Closer to home, the company, which currently only has service on weekdays, is planning on adding “fun flights” to New Orleans; Austin; or Vail, CO; to capture some of the holiday market. All the while, Kennedy says, Rise is analyzing traffic data to determine which flights, days, or times are popular so it can adjust the schedule accordingly. Down the line, Rise may offer memberships at different levels, depending on which days a person wants to fly.

The focus on technology makes sense considering the backgrounds of both Kennedy and his Rise co-founder Clynt Taylor. The men have worked together for about a decade, largely in healthcare technology-related companies, including leadership roles at NantHealth, the healthIT company founded by Los Angeles billionaire entrepreneur Patrick Soon-Shiong.

As Kennedy and I spoke of his background in leveraging technology in some fairly bureaucratic industries (think healthcare and aviation), we got the attention of a fellow passenger, David Lindsey, a healthcare entrepreneur himself. He said he saw a Rise ad in a magazine and quickly decided to put down his $750 deposit.

The men exchanged stories of building and selling healthcare companies, and Kennedy said that an unexpected outcome of the Rise flights was how they became great opportunities for like-minded executives and entrepreneurs to share ideas.

“Yes, I can see that,” Lindsey said. “You can meet a lot of great people on these flights.”