2018 seemed like a perfect time for a travel tech startup to develop a predictive model aimed at informing consumers of likely disruptions to their scheduled flights.
In 2020, that same tool seems just as timely for helping travelers, along with airlines, manage demand and route volatility as government restrictions vary wildly in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.
That’s the premise of two-year-old New York-based Pilota and its FlySafe AI-powered booking assistant.
FlySafe, which was released in July, can be added as a browser extension in Chrome and used when booking a flight via metasearch engines like Google Flights, Expedia, Booking.com, and others. The extension gives travelers a way to compare potential itineraries based on the health and safety measures that matter most to them. What’s more, they can do this directly on the website they are already using to shop for travel options.
FlySafe’s turnaround was rapid. Pilota’s team began developing the FlySafe platform in March, as lockdowns and travel restrictions around the world started coming into effect due to the novel coronavirus.
The tool details the precautions each flight and airline have put in place. FlySafe also shows users whether masks are required to the plane, if social distancing measures are stipulated, if the carrier will clean the plane you’ll be taking prior to boarding, and whether there are HEPA filters on the plane. Over the next few months, FlySafe plans to add info about the number of people expected on each flight and your departure and arrival terminals.
“Bridge Labs has been incredible to work with on this new product,” says Saniya Shah, Pilota’s CEO. [ATPCO offered] the Reassurance UPAs pro-bono, so we knew that we were working with the highest quality data, and the UPAs provided us with exactly the data points that we needed. We could spend less time developing these data sets ourselves and more time building the product. Bridge Labs not only provided us with access to the data but was also there for us throughout the integration process and made it a seamless experience.”
Kambr Media: What is Pilota and how did it start? What’s your background and how did you come to co-found Pilota?
Saniya Shah: I love to travel, and have been to over 50 countries. I was actually hoping to go to Portugal and add another to my list this summer!
I am also a former founder and have worked in the innovation incubator of Fortune 7 company, UnitedHealth Group where I created and launched new products for the company. I have an M.B.A. from Cornell University and an undergraduate degree in Engineering from Boston University.
My co-founders, Cyrus Ghazanfar, Omer Winrauke, Kulvinder Lotay, and I met at Cornell when we were in grad school. As a group that both loves to travel and has an extensive technical background, we decided to do a research project to see if it was possible to predict travel risk like flight disruptions with artificial intelligence.
From there, once we verified that it was possible, we went out and started speaking with people all over the industry to understand the problem and whether there was an opportunity to use AI to assess travel risk in the market.
What is Pilota’s business model? How big is the company and where are its employees based?
We are a SaaS company. Our company is based in New York City and we have recently expanded our team for the summer to 11 people.
Is the company venture funded? Who are its backers?
Yes, we closed a pre-seed round in December from 500 Startups, Cornell University, Dorm Room Fund and Angel Investors.
What is FlySafe and how does it help inform air travelers about carriers’ safety protocols? How often is it updated?
Every 48 hours, we update our system and check for any changes. We are launching new features soon that will update users if their flight’s policies have changed since booking.
Does it work with all browsers?
It is currently compatible with Google Flights, but anyone can come to our website on any platform and search for the health/safety information for the flights they are considering.
Are there plans to expand FlySafe into an app or as a white label feature for, say, booking engines and travel metasearch sites?
Yes! We are actually speaking to a few of them now and hope to work with them to bring this valuable health/safety information to more users to continue restoring confidence in travel.
How does FlySafe align with or reflect Pilota’s other products?
Pilota’s vision has been to enhance the passenger experience by using emerging technology to assess travel risk. We started with the risk flight disruptions and this felt like a natural expansion given the current climate.
How does Pilota work with ATPCO? Does Pilota have any other noteworthy industry partnerships? How does Pilota typically look for or respond to partnerships?
Pilota has a few partnerships, for example with ATPCO and OAG. We also are active members of the startup travel community and form smaller partnerships or agreements with other startups to support one another.
As a company, we have spent a great deal of time developing strong relationships with other travel startups in our community. A lot of the companies that are a few years older than us have helped us quite a bit when it comes to advice, guidance and general help.
Which is why, in return, we keep an open mind when it comes to partnerships. Whether the company is large or small, we are open to creating partnerships with other companies and supporting each other as best we can.
What is Pilota’s growth plan and how has its strategy and vision/mission changed since the pandemic started?
Our vision for Pilota was always bigger than flight disruptions, and Covid-19 made it clear to us that we need to broaden our scope quicker than we had originally planned.
We knew that prior to Covid, travel risk, health, and safety were important to travel providers and travelers. But this information, and the data around it, wasn’t easily accessible and more importantly it wasn’t integrated into the end to end travel process.
From the point of booking your travel all the way to the point of reaching home after your travels, this kind of information was really only accessed if something went wrong. Post-Covid, travelers’ will continue to care about the risks associated with their trip –and Pilota will be the ones to provide them with this information throughout their travel journey.
Our first step towards this vision has been our new FlySafe product that we released earlier this summer and is has been gaining a lot of momentum by helping travelers to compare health/safety risks during the booking process.
What are your expectations for the shape of the airline industry in 2021 and how do Pilota’s goals reflect those expectations?
We expect that leisure travel will come back sooner than corporate travel, which is why we have shifted our goals to reach consumer directly rather than approaching them through other providers. This is why we released FlySafe directly to travelers.
What is your expectation of investment in travel tech over the next few months?
One topic that I find interesting, as a startup, is that we have been observing investments in travel over the last few months. There are changes being made in travel right now that will affect every traveler’s experience in the years to follow.
The future of travel is being shaped as we speak, and larger players are more open than ever to innovation and partnerships with startups. Therefore, I hope that investors will continue to focus in on the travel industry since the ones who play instrumental roles in the recovery will be here to stay for the long-haul.