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Most Innovative Companies

Six Companies Changing The Way We Travel

From affordable private jets to a new way to share your car, these ideas are shaking up the travel industry.

Six Companies Changing The Way We Travel

[Illustrations & Animations: Ellen Porteus]

Commercial isn’t the only way to fly

Imagine wrapping up a visit to New York City by heading to a small airport on the city’s outskirts. There, you breeze through the single terminal and immediately board a 10-seat Falcon 2000 jet for a flight back home with a handful of other travelers. Through an app, you’ve already booked a seat for the following week on a similar type of flight to another city. Though a life of private jets and line­-free airports sounds like a luxury for the global elite, you are not among them. Instead, you’re paying a moderate amount for a subscription to a private-jet club.

Flying private has traditionally required the enormous expense of either buying or chartering an entire plane. While fractional-ownership companies like NetJets pioneered the idea of saving money by sharing planes, a slew of new startups are opening up the experience to an even wider swath of travelers. One of the most promising is the three-year-old JetSmarter, founded by Sergey Petrossov and backed by the likes of Jay Z and the Saudi royal family. The company takes advantage of all the wasted inventory in private aviation: Planes sit idle between charters, or fly empty after delivering passengers. Petrossov reasoned that if he could aggregate demand along certain routes—and get people to share flights—he could reduce the cost to a point where he’d attract both experienced private fliers and travelers ready to graduate from commercial airlines. "People who fly charter way overpay," he says. "And people paying for business class hate it."

JetSmarter’s tactics are reminiscent of those disrupting other industries. Rather than owning and managing a fleet of planes itself, the company created a sophisticated system for accessing private-jet operators’ schedules and uses GPS to track the available supply of planes. Its app allows members to easily reserve seats, while notifications encourage bookings, goosing demand. "We’re proactively pushing [members], based on their interests and frequent and current locations, that ‘Hey, you should take this flight,’ " says Petrossov. Today, a $10,000 annual JetSmarter membership allows users to buy seats on shared flights for a fraction of what it costs to charter an entire plane. It also gives them free access to 40 to 50 weekly scheduled flights between 10 U.S. cities and within Europe and the Middle East. Petrossov expects to expand to another 40 cities by the end of the year, creating a network of private-jet shuttles crisscrossing the country.

Other companies have entered private aviation with similar strategies—albeit mixed results. Rise offers unlimited flights within Texas for $1,850 a month. Starting at $1,950 a month, Surf Air offers all-you-can-fly service throughout California. JetSuiteX sells tickets on private-jet shuttles between San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and elsewhere for as little as $109, one way. Less successful was BlackJet, a luxe, Uber-of-the-skies charter service that folded this spring. Petrossov, however, believes that the sophisticated travel brand he’s developing will continue to attract new customers, further reducing prices. Right now he sees his service as "broadening the market from the .1% to the 1%." Who knows how much further it could go?

Zach Everson

A great meal is worth the commitment

As co-owner of Chicago’s Alinea restaurant, the theatrical temple to molecular gastronomy helmed by chef Grant Achatz, Nick Kokonas has upended the domestic culinary scene once already. But his next act may prove even more significant: A year ago, Kokonas launched Tock, an online reservation system that gives restaurants the ability to compel diners to pay in advance for meals, either entirely (for a prix-fixe menu) or as a deposit (on an à la carte experience). Tock solves two problems that have long plagued restaurateurs: It cuts down on costly no-shows and eliminates staffing inefficiencies and food waste by offering a forecast for each day’s meal service. So far, about 120 restaurants in nine countries have Tock subscriptions, and Kokonas predicts that the system will process between $50 million and $60 million worth of prepaid bookings by the end of the year. We talked to him about why ticketed dining has struck a chord.

Rather than facilitate reservations, Tock is focused on selling experiences. Why is this important?
Look at a place like [New York’s] Gramercy Tavern. The kitchen offers a bar menu, an à la carte menu, and a tasting menu. So when you make a reservation for 8 p.m. on a Friday, the kitchen has to figure out—on the fly—what you want and reshuffle its expectations. If guests book their experience from the start, it cuts down on [food] waste.

Have you seen results in any of your restaurants?
The year before last, we lowered prices at Next [a Grant Achatz concept restaurant in Chicago] because our margins had grown so much [from selling tickets through Tock]. Everyone thought we must not be popular anymore—that something must have gone wrong. But we lowered prices because everything went right.

How did your knowledge of the restaurant industry shape this technology?
Almost every piece of [previous] reservation software has been made by someone from outside the industry. Ours is the first that’s made by people who understand what happens in a kitchen every night. We embedded engineers in restaurants to find problems and solutions. They saw servers texting the kitchen discreetly to tell them things—this was happening constantly. Now there’s a button within our system to send messages from different stations or the kitchen. And if I’m at home, I can log in and see how my restaurants are doing in real time.

What’s next for Tock?
We’re making the process of booking anything easier. We’re just starting with restaurants. Doctors might be next. We’re getting calls already.

Nikki Ekstein

Sometimes you want a human at the end of the line

When travel started moving online with the launch of Expedia two decades ago, the death watch for travel agents began. After all, who needs an expert to arrange hotels and flights when you can just tap into the reservation system and do it yourself? But although they’ve lost ground, agents still accounted for 28% of bookings for the $341 billion U.S. travel market last year, according to industry research group Phocuswright. Online travel agencies, such as Expedia, Travelocity, and their ilk, represented 17%.

It was numbers like these that drew Paul English, the cofounder and former chief technical officer of Kayak, back into travel four years after selling his site to Priceline for $2.1 billion. This spring he launched Lola, a new mobile-only concierge-style booking service that’s centered entirely on chat. With Phocuswright predicting that mobile will account for a quarter of online domestic travel bookings by 2017, creating an app-based service is a forward-thinking move. Even more prescient is English’s decision to power Lola with both human and artificial intelligence.

Travelers can use the subscription-based Lola, which is currently invite-only (it opens to the public in the fall), to book flights, hotels and Airbnbs, restaurants, and even tours and activities. Depending on the complexity of the request, either a professional travel consultant or a chatbot will respond with options and suggestions, logging clients’ preferences and behaviors along the way. The idea: Use machine learning to make travel consultants more efficient and intuitive, and use humans to maintain that intangible matchmaking quality of an old-school travel agent. Though initially all but the most basic questions (such as "What time is my flight?") will be addressed by humans, English expects the balance to shift significantly to bots as Lola becomes smarter. But he has no plans to give up on travel advisers. "Travel is stressful," he says. "We are very focused on maintaining human-to-human contact."

English saw the opportunity for Lola when he realized that the experience of booking a hotel or flight has remained remarkably static for the past two decades. While websites have improved the process of filtering and finding rooms and seats, most are still variations on a theme: they aggregate inventory from various sources and make travelers do the rest of the work. On the other end of the spectrum are travel agents, who arrange customized trips from end to end while dealing with any hiccups during the journey. The problem: They still conduct business over email and phone. "Apps have trained us to be irritated by the phone," says English. "People prefer the asynchronous efficiencies of an app—you can do multiple things at once." A messaging platform seemed a natural solution. But instead of turning to chatbots to cut out agents, English saw how they might work together.

As the service grows, English plans to hire more multilingual agents and offer subscriber benefits, including airport-lounge access and early check-in/late checkout, free breakfast, and upgrades at hotels. He’ll also shop the platform to travel agencies. After nearly a decade of helping to put them out of business, English is now ready to empower them.

Amy Farley

Airports can be living, breathing destinations

Can an airport be lush? The architect Moshe Safdie thinks so. When his Jewel complex at Singapore’s Changi Airport—the world’s sixth busiest—is finished in 2018, it will connect the existing terminals to a five-story glass dome containing a sprawling indoor garden. Laced with walking trails, play areas, restaurants, and shops, the building culminates in a 130-foot waterfall. It’s a model for a new kind of airport—a vibrant public space designed to attract more local Singaporeans than fliers. To Safdie, airports aren’t just transit hubs or glorified malls. They’re catalysts for great urban design, and treating them as anything less is a disservice to citizens and travelers. Here, he shares his vision for the airport of the future.

How did the idea for the garden emerge?
I wanted to find something that would be extremely attractive to passengers, the tens of thousands of people working in the airport, and the citizens of Singapore. So I came up with the idea of a giant paradise garden with multi-levels and lots of mini attractions within them. We’re working with the Exploratorium in San Francisco to program some of them.

Was designing an ecosystem inside an airport a technical challenge?
Changi’s CEO said from the outset: "If we’re going to do this, I want this to be all about passenger comfort: 24 degrees Celsius (75 degrees Fahrenheit) and normal humidity." Peter Walker, the land­scape architect, suggested that means looking for species that thrive in tropical conditions—but high [and cooler] altitudes. So they’re now busy picking out trees in Australia, the upper hills in Thailand, and Malaysia.

You often talk about humanizing projects with green space. Is that what you’re doing here?
This kind of greening of the mega-scale is very much expressed in Jewel. I think that’s why—in brainstorming what should be [in this space]—the garden won. Because a garden humanizes what is one of the biggest airports in the world; it creates a kind of feeling about it, a quality that’s not what we associate with transportation.

Do you see Jewel setting an example for other airports?
I think it’s going to open people’s minds that airports could be so much more. Already, almost every major airport has an airport city popping up next to it. This shows that you could have a new kind of public realm that’s energized by the airport, but is a place that’s an integral part of the city.

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan

Luggage can multitask...

The $30 billion luggage industry—which hasn’t progressed much since adding wheels to bags some 45 years ago—is making a leap forward, thanks to a slew of new direct-to-consumer "smart luggage" companies. The most interesting is Raden, which offers two models of hard-shell suitcases (in carry-on and checked sizes, starting at $295). The chic monochromatic cases come with a scale (to prevent excess weight charges), a modular battery with two USB ports, and Bluetooth technology that allows travelers to track their bags throughout the airport.

And so can your car

Among the partners Ford announced in January for its pioneering new-mobility FordPass app was the startup Flightcar. The service allows travelers facing the prospect of long-term parking at a dozen domestic airports to rent their cars to arriving visitors instead. Though car owners get only minor income from the transaction, they benefit from free parking and the full car wash that Flightcar provides all vehicles. Travelers get to skip the hassle of the rental-car counter in favor of Flightcar’s sleek, hospitality-focused outposts. Flightcar is peer-to-peer—with added polish.

A version of this article appeared in the July/August issue of Fast Company magazine.

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