Thursday 18 April 2019

Tech startup Fairfly using machine learning to help drive down sky-high airfares

Ami Goldenberg, Gili Lichtman and Aviel Siman-Tov, co-founders of the startup
Ami Goldenberg, Gili Lichtman and Aviel Siman-Tov, co-founders of the startup

Mark Evans

Booking a pricey business class ticket - whether by an individual or a firm's travel management company - doesn't have to mean passing up on value.

One tech startup is offering to grind data to see if the ticket price can be lowered, and the saving passed on to the client.

"We're all about transparency," says Liat Bornstein, head of marketing at FairFly. The company says it uses algorithms and machine learning to track air fares after booking in order to identify savings opportunities and seamlessly facilitate the rebooking process.

And this takes in all the factors, including airline penalties and corporate policies. Travel management companies normally give the go-ahead to rebook once there's a decent discount after these penalties are taken into account, and hands the rebooking process over to FairFly itself.

"The average business class traveller can save hundreds of dollars," says the head of marketing. The company itself gets a finder's fee, but Bornstein says the savings to the end customer can be substantial - "16 days out the price can be 30pc cheaper than the original price".

Like many new tech companies, it hails from Israel which, like Ireland, is a hive of digital innovation. It's not the only player in this market, and unlike rivals hasn't moved into the hotel rebooking space (yet) - but it does have the advantage of moving its offering into the European market.

FairFly is already live on the travel industry's Galileo and Sabre global distribution systems (GDS) - giving it real-time access to fares and availability - but it's gone one step further and can now support the vast ecosystem of the Amadeus GDS to crunch enormous volumes of airline data.

Chief executive Aviel Siman-Tov hailed the Amadeus move, boasting that "we can now provide the first big data solution for corporate air travel in Europe for businesses around the globe", adding that the "air fare is typically the second-largest investment in a company's budget".

"We're not so startup any more," says Bornstein of the company founded in 2014 by Uri Levine, co-founder of crowd-sourced mapping platform Waze, bought by Google for a reputed $1bn.

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Bornstein says it's a common misconception that fares remain fairly static, and don't decrease in price as you get closer to departure date. The company's research has found that fares change an average of 90 times from creation to departure date - with roughly seven changes per day.

It cites such examples as a price drop of $1,158 on a flight from London to New York. If clients want bigger savings, there's also the option of rebooking with a similar flight - ie, a similar airline, seat, mileage club, flight date and time. Its best example? A saving of $4,139 between San Francisco and Heathrow.

Whether Irish companies and typically conservative travel managers will flock to use such as service, or remain loyal to original fares and keep their customer data to themselves, remains to be seen - but the company is claiming average savings of 7pc annually on their air spend in Europe via the Amadeus platform.

But if you work for a deep-pocketed and fluffy new-age company there's one huge bonus for the traveller - in the past the traveller has been allowed to pocket some of the difference if they find a way to travel more cheaply.

Global professional driver service Blacklane is ramping up its activity in Ireland.

In Dublin, it's the partner of Middle Eastern airline Qatar Airways, shuttling business class passengers to and from the airport.

Company director Adam Parken said airline deals are a new trend as carriers move from just transport in the air, to transport on the ground.

"We've a lot of partnerships - Qatar, Saudi and Finnair in particular - because airlines are realising that they can do more than take people from airport to airport; they can take people from door to door," Parken told the Sunday Independent.

The company subcontracts to local operators, and finding the right kind of driver is a challenge, he admits. "Whether it's Dublin or Dubai, Shanghai or Singapore the service is consistent - vehicles signs, English-speaking drivers and using Mercedes E class, BMW 5 series or Audi 6, and in the United States a Cadillac CT6," to transport business class passengers.

"We've been in Dublin for years. Qatar certainly increased our business but Ireland has always been a very good market for us. We'll be expanding this year at Shannon. So many tech companies are within driving distance that it makes sense for us. They've been asking for us in Belfast - and it's on the list." That'll mean working with local operators on a franchise basis, as the company expands globally to over 300 cities, thanks to a recent funding round from an Abu Dhabi investor.

Sunday Indo Business

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