Every generation, there are transformative events that permanently shape the future of industries. We are currently experiencing one of those monumental and fundamental industry shifts. The industry in question?
According to Statista, because of the global pandemic, travel spend across the United States is set to drop 31%, or by $355 billion dollars. The United Nations even projected that the global tourism industry was on track to lost $1 trillion and 100 million jobs.
Consumers are now more wary than ever of air travel. International travel, in particular, is in tough straits, with the UN also projecting a 58-78% decrease in international tourism. Unfortunately, no country will escape these negative impacts. The extent to which the impacts will be felt will vary drastically, however.
Take Italy, for example. Travel comprises 6% of the country’s GDP. Palau, however? 90%.
And the question for those in the travel industry is not when consumer travel habits will return to normal levels, but if.
Pilota is trying to change that by harnessing the power of artificial intelligence and machine learning to equip consumers with the information they need to travel safely.
A strategic pivot from B2B to B2C
Pilota is giving consumers back their peace of mind by “add[ing] flexibility and security to flights with a booking assistant that uses [artificial intelligence] to predict flight information.”
But a B2C solution wasn’t always in the cards. Before being admitted to world renown 500 Startups’ Batch 26, Pilota’s roadmap was for a B2B solution, meant for travel agencies, airlines, and the full value chain of the travel industry.
“What we saw was this is a huge problem – something people really instinctually feel,” says Saniya Shah, Founder and CEO of Pilota. “The second you say ‘flight disruptions’ to someone they are automatically thinking about that time that it ruined their life and it was the worst experience ever.”
As a young company, the Pilota team believes they are best positioned to change the customer experience for the better, and more quickly than industry incumbents are incentivized to introduce change.
“The people with the power to solve this problem are most likely airlines,” says Shah. “They’re the ones that get flight information first. But the steps they have taken are to provide better customer service, add more agents – basically prioritize people based on when they book and how they book. These solutions are more customer service oriented rather than fixing the actual problem.”
Much like the Instagram meets Facebook dynamic pre-acquisition, I envisioned a possible future Pilota where the team developed a robust solution that would ultimately be scooped up by a larger industry incumbent, the likes of Delta or Concur.
And then, coronavirus struck. And while that future is certainly not out of the question, the Pilota team made a very nimble and thoughtful adjustment to their strategy to take advantage of what they foresee is a much larger industry problem.
“One problem that became evident as soon as COVID happened was that people became very wary of how safe their flights are, what the risks of traveling are,” says Shah. “That’s where we saw an opportunity.”
Shah mentions that the pandemic served as an accelerant for Pilota’s grander vision.
“We realized we needed to speed up our timeline. The bigger problem at hand right now though is the health and safety risks of traveling. Nobody has solved this problem before. It’s a new problem and opportunity.”
And that opportunity has manifested itself in Pilota’s latest B2C solution – FlySafe.
Hyper-focus on improving the customer experience
FlySafe is a Chrome extension that allows users to compare flights based on the health and safety factors they care most about.
“If you’re trying to decide which flight to take, our solution shows which ones are requiring masks, which ones will block seats and more,” says Shah. “We provide it right there for you in the Chrome extension during the booking process.”
According to the Pilota team, it’s crucial to meet consumers on the platforms they use most often. Today, FlySafe is available on several search engines and in the first 2 months of testing alone, Pilota has analyzed over 160,000 flights and attracted more than 550 users. What’s more, FlySafe’s growth has been entirely organic – a proof point that consumers are searching for solutions like FlySafe to help them feel secure as they travel.
The team’s long-term vision is to build a crowdsourcing environment and capture information about the on the ground (or in the air) experience from consumers themselves. Shah and team believe that this approach, intertwined with the data sources they leverage for their algorithms, will provide consumers with unparalleled access to travel information – a solution that doesn’t exist in market today.
With this comes the opportunity for Pilota to build its brand – a unique position in the travel industry that Shah also sees as a great opportunity.
Shah recognizes that in travel – specifically air travel – there’s a tendency for consumers to build affinity toward an airline, but not necessarily towards a booking platform. And because there are several booking platforms at a consumer’s disposal all vying for affinity – Kayak, Hopper, Skiplagged – Pilota has optionality not only to work within these platforms, but to also consider a potential market entrance into flight booking, if and when that makes strategic sense.
But in the meantime, the team is being highly deliberate about how they choose to grow – a quality about Saniya and the team that struck me as a valuable quality to turning fledgling startup into travel industry success.
“Because we’re taking this big bet on where travel is going in the future, creating FlySafe was the first test to this bigger vision,” says Shah. “So now, our metric of success is the number of users downloading Pilota and FlySafe. Our goal is to validate our hypothesis that safety and travel risk will be a big part of the booking process before we move forward.”
Be a part of the next phase of travel
Get in touch with Saniya Shah to learn more about how she and the Pilota team are redefining the future of air travel. Email Saniya at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch with the StartU team for an introduction!