Travel Tech Essentialist #52: Old Normal (but better)

With 1/3 of the US population partially vaccinated, it is refreshing to see how fast things are going back to the old but better normal, based on my experience flying in the past several weeks. Old in the sense of full flights and crowded airports. Better in terms of traffic flow, contactless technology, and overall better passenger experience. That will soon be the case in the rest of the world as well. This ad by Google struck a chord.

This newsletter has been sponsored by xCheck.

xCheck's latest product combines route, price, and COVID-19 data in one shoppable map.

Airlines can now augment their passenger experience with interactive and shoppable maps that combine the latest COVID-19 entry restrictions with legislation-compliant pricing. The product, called simply Maps, results from a strategic partnership between airfare automation platform xCheck and AI-powered content engine SmartVel.

View the demo and use a live example, here: Maps, by xCheck.

By the way, congrats to xCheck on getting Delta Airlines as its first client to launch the Maps product. And Delta did so very visibly, with prime positioning on its home page and advertising. As a result of this launch, I wrote The Power of Startup-Corporate Collaboration, in which you will get to know xCheck’s founder, Tim Underwood, in a more personal way. I hope you enjoy that conversation.

1. Travel is well represented in Andreessen Horowitz’ ranking of top 100 marketplaces

a16z Marketplace 2021 ranks the 100 largest consumer-facing marketplace startups and private companies. The Marketplace 100 is based on data from Bloomberg Second Measure, a consumer data analytics company that analyzes billions of purchases to track real-time consumer behavior. With 11 companies in the ranking, the travel sector is well represented, including 3 companies in the top 15: Vacasa (#3 overall), Outdoorsy (#11), RVshare (#14). Six of the 11 companies are RV and camping marketplaces, reflecting the boom of outdoor travel during Covid. Across the 27 sector categories, Travel had the 8th highest growth rate.

2. Airline sector poised for change post-Covid

This McKinsey article explores five fundamental shifts in the aviation industry that have arisen from the pandemic. For each one, they issue a call to action so that airlines can adapt to the long-term implications.

  • Leisure trips will fuel the recovery →Revisit flight economics

  • Debt levels will lead to ticket price increases and a larger role for government →Be a constructive collaborator

  • Greater disparity of performance among airlines →Aim higher when it comes to IT and digital investment

  • Aircraft markets may be oversupplied for some time to come → Act countercyclically now

  • Air freight will see undersupply for some time → Bring back freighters

3. Travel demand is back in the US

I recently saw on Lufthansa Innovation Hub’s TNMT an analysis based on Google search activity for “hotels” and “Zoom” that highlighted how travel demand was returning in the US but not in Europe. I looked at Google trends to see search activity for flights in Spain, Germany, France and the US for the past 12 months. Searches for “Flights” in the three European countries are currently in near minimums while in the US they’re at maximums and growing.

4. Flight Penguin: a flight search subscription-based Chrome extension

Flight Penguin was launched by Hipmunk founders Adam Goldstein and Steve Huffman (who’s also Reddit’s CEO and co-founder). It’s a Chrome browser extension that simultaneously searches airline websites and apparently has the ability to mix and match different airline results. Rather than taking a commission or affiliate fee, Flight Penguin will instead charge its users $10 per month. It is positioning itself as a better alternative to OTAs (“Some of the largest travel sites hide flights from you in exchange for special favors from airlines.”) and metas (“It's time to put Kayak on ice”). In 2020, PayPal acquired Chrome extension Honey for $4 Billion (it had raised a total of $40.8 million in VC funding). I’m not familiar with Chrome extension companies in travel that have massively succeeded, but the competition for Chrome extension download acquisition might not be as fierce as it for online customer acquisition, and lifetime value could be greater. In any case, it’s very positive to see new business models and competitive environments being tested. Read more.

5. Jetblue launches Paisley

Paisly helps JetBlue flight customers book other products such as hotels, car rentals and theme park offers while earning TrueBlue points and getting JetBlue level customer service. JetBlue plans to add additional hotels, vacation rentals, activities and retail products in the future. I would think that incorporating non-JetBlue flights (and ground transportation in one same booking) would have a bigger impact than adding accommodation, activities and theme parks, but it’s great to see airlines test new alternatives. AirAsia is another airline that has launched an ambitious plan to become a travel lifestyle brand, not only an airline. Read more.

6. Supersonic travel is about to make a comeback

In a few years, it might be possible to fly from Washington DC to Paris in 4 hours or from San Francisco to Tokyo in 6 hours aboard a new crop of supersonic jets. A handful of startups with a fresh approach — lightweight materials, efficient engine technologies and cleaner fuels — will make supersonic jets much cheaper to operate and thus economically viable for everyday travel. Read + Axios.

7. How to operate an airport in Antarctica

Before 2005, getting personnel to the Norwegian Polar Institute’s Troll Research Station in Antarctica involved one week on a boat followed by a 250 km trek over snow, ice, and rock. In 2005, the research station opened its 3000 meter blue ice runway. This is a fascinating article on what it takes to maintain it and to have planes landing, fueling and taking off safely.

8. Israeli travel startups

Israel is a global travel technology hub. Mobileye, Waze, Gett and Moovit are some examples of companies coming out of its startup innovation ecosystem. This article highlights five Israeli startups that may play a role at rebooting global travel:

  • Wishbox: Hotel guest relations and fast communication

  • Air Doctor: Global travel healthcare

  • Zenner: Real-time flight disruption information and assistance

  • Triplan: Real time trip planner

  • Xoltar: AI-powered hotel receptionist

9. Lots of fundraising taking place in travel and mobility

  • Hopper closed $170M funding round. It also launched a new B2B product known as Hopper Cloud with Capital One as its first partner and is preparing to take on “the big global empires [of travel] as our next stepping stone.”

  • Xie Zhu, a Chinese company providing smart technology for hotels, raised $46 million in a Series B round.

  • ForwardX, the Chinese creator of the world’s first side-following suitcase raised $38 million

  • New York-based Mint House, which provides apartment-style accommodations in downtown areas for high-end business travellers, secured $18 million.

  • Roadsurfer, the Munich-based camper platform raised €24 million to drive international expansion. Roadsurfer is already active in eight countries.

  • Berlin-based Blacklane raised €22 million. The chauffeur service startup intends to use the new funds to launch in the US (including New York City) and abroad, directly challenging Uber and Lyft in the short-distance passenger trip business.

  • The Guild, an Austin-based startup that runs 800 apartments as hotel-style short-term rentals in US cities, raised $17.1 million.

  • Redeam secured $12 million, led by Vertical Venture Partners and Thayer Ventures. Its technology connects supply and demand to tours, activities and experience providers.

  • Unagi Scooters, an Oakland-based electric scooter manufacturer, raised $10.5 million in Series A funding.  The company has launched a subscription service in several cities including NYC, Los Angeles, Austin, Miami, Nashville and SF.

  • German hospitality technology Apaleo raised €4.5 million in funding for its API-driven property management system.

  • Australian OTA Webjet is advancing its position in the cryptocurrency space by investing $4.1 million into blockchain startup LockTrip.

10. The Startup Corner

  • Pack Up + Go is a startup based in Pittsburgh that plans trips around the United States. The catch? The destination is a surprise. Until the day the traveler departs.

  • BRB is a a London-based startup that offers a monthly subscription in exchange of three short European breaks a year. The destinations and hotels are revealed one month before travel. £49.99 / month for solo travelers and £49.99 / month for 2 travelers.

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