How APIs Simplify the Complexities of the Airline Industry

API Economist: FlightLookup has been delivering travel data to mobile devices long before the arrival of smartphones. When did you get started?

Rory Veevers-Carter is president of FlightLookup, Inc., a single source data distributor and electronic platform provider for airlines and the travel industry. FlightLookup’s core business is focused on the management of airline schedules and related information such as dynamic connection building, flight itineraries, airline codes, aircraft type, and city/airport codes. Their customers include American Express, United Airlines, Boeing, and Singapore Airlines. Rory is on the Advisory Council of CASMA, the Computerized Airline Sales and Marketing Association and President of the British Toast Rack Society in his spare time.

Rory Veevers-Carter is president of FlightLookup, Inc., a single source data distributor and electronic platform provider for airlines and the travel industry. FlightLookup’s core business is focused on the management of airline schedules and related information such as dynamic connection building, flight itineraries, airline codes, aircraft type, and city/airport codes. Their customers include American Express, United Airlines, Boeing, and Singapore Airlines. Rory is on the Advisory Council of CASMA, the Computerized Airline Sales and Marketing Association and President of the British Toast Rack Society in his spare time.

Rory Veevers-Carter: We have been serving the needs of the airline data industry since 1996. When we started out, we took airline data and built a dynamic routing engine and created Windows flight schedule lookup products. We've expanded that core technology to deliver it to mobile phones. Our flight schedule and our flight status applications originally launched when the Palm VII came out. We've been in the value added data delivery space for travel information for a very long time.

API Economist: When did you publish your first API?

Rory Veevers-Carter: Our first web APIs came out in the late '90s and the early 2000s. We had a flight status and flight schedule feed. We could deliver them over a number of formats. Original formats came back as raw text but could be delivered as WML and WAP for mobile phones. It could be integrated into either our own or other people's applications. We took large database dumps from airlines with flight status, processed the data, and made it so that people could query flight status on mobile phones and pagers.

We’ve been doing internal APIs for a very long time. They allowed us to be able to deploy to multiple platforms very quickly and efficiently. As the market has evolved, especially in the last two years,our approach has changed: we're moving away from a small number of companies who become experts in a platform for a specific part of an industry, and more toward developers on platforms, such as the iOS and Android platforms.

These app developers are more numerous, they're more about the platform, and you no longer have to be so cognizant of the back-end data as long as you provide access to that data. That's the path we're now going down - making sure that our API are more publicly accessible rather than just internal. This is why we launched our developer portal and published our REST-based APIs.

API Economist: The business-to-business arrangements are well understood in the travel industry and with the partners you deal with. With open APIs, what does the business model look like?

Rory Veevers-Carter: Our approach is very straight forward and will be familiar to many developers. Developers will be able to get an API key and begin using the APIs in their apps and we will throttle them at a certain number of hits per month. If you want to have more hits per month, you'll pay either based on a variable or a fixed fee basis.

The need for developer outreach is something new for us. This is why we have established a strategic partnership with an API management vendor. They can help us with our developer portal, API delivery platform, and developer outreach efforts such as participating in hackathons.

API Economist: With the explosion of mobile devices, and the explosion of apps, what are some of the trends that you're seeing in the travel industry?

Rory Veevers-Carter: There are a couple of different trends, and it depends on which market you're talking about. If you're talking about the airline market, we've definitely noticed the trend of bringing development back in-house. It's similar to what happened with websites back in 1999. Airlines would throw a couple hundred thousand dollars out there, say, "Go ahead, and build me something. I need a presence on the web. I don't think much is going to happen, but if something happens, I am there."

After that 1999 period, everything started coming back in-house. They started realizing this was now a valuable platform that could generate sales. Therefore, they needed to control it; they needed to integrate into their back-end systems of record in a secure fashion. Over the last year, we've seen exactly the same trend begin to happen with mobility and APIs. These platforms are coming back home to roost with the airlines. They're taking more and more control.

While airlines are taking control of the operational side, they're still going outside for the creative, for the design, for the “wow” on the platform. You still see quite a lot of products out there with a lot of “wow," rather than pure functionality.

For example, the United Airlines mobile app is probably the most feature rich and useful travel application out there. But you get some other ones such as Delta Airlines’ Fly Delta for the iPad app that lets you see where you are flying as well as see your social network you’re flying over. It’s a cool app with a nice “wow” factor, but it doesn't necessarily bring any extra ticket sales to Delta. It doesn’t manage your travel any better.

API Economist: What about the role of developers?

Rory Veevers-Carter: Exactly…on the other side of the market is the developer. This is one of the reasons why we like the idea of hackathons and other developer outreach programs. Because we've been in this industry for a long time, we have a preconceived notion of how flight schedules are used and what a flight means. But flight information can be used for so many different things in so many different ways. And this is where innovation and creativity come in. It could be an airport TGI Friday trying to calculate when certain flights are going to be coming in from certain markets, so they can extra staff at the airport and build that into an API. That's an example of a market we would never touch or even think about going into. Having an open API published makes that information available to a much wider audience.

We often find that people who are thinking about building a travel application think that getting the data right is easy. They don't understand the restrictions that come with flight data or how much of it there is in terms of just raw options. It's a very complex routing problem with lots of rules and restrictions. How you get the data, how you process it, and then how you implement it for your type of special need, these are complex problems that many people underestimate. Having a well-designed API can go a long way into minimizing that complexity, so people can create something of real value.

API Economist: I can think of a number of killer travel apps that don’t exist today.

Rory Veevers-Carter: Just think of road warriors who get stranded at an airport. How do I get from here to where I want to go? There's so much capability because the platform has gone from very large screen down to in the palm of your hands. When you're stuck, you're actually in a race with everyone else who also got stranded to figure out how to get out. Do I need a hotel? Do I need a car? Am I going to take a train? Is there another flight? Can I go somewhere else?

Interruption in travel is inconvenient. Recovering from interruption represents an enormous number of opportunities in the entire value chain, all the way down from airlines to all of the long-tail vendors within the travel community.

If I were a hotel chain near the airport, I'd be looking to tell all of the people who are stranded in the airport that I have rooms when other hotels are full. Because if you're not listed there, how do you get to chat? How do you get people to call you?

API Economist: How do you explain all of the discrepancy in travel data?

Rory Veevers-Carter: In a nutshell, that data comes in from multiple sources. You can get that information from the FAA. You can get direct real time or delayed feeds from an airline. You can get operational feeds from a GDS (Global Distribution System) such as Saber and Amadeus. There are 7 GDSs’ in the world and not everybody is updated at the same time.

The problem in the travel industry is that it costs real money for every transaction. So you end up with a combination of these different systems that are not in sync because it’s a very dynamic environment.

For example, sometimes, because of infrastructure reasons or marketing reasons, airlines have a policy of not immediately posting a delay until it's confirmed. They won't change the status on their website until they're absolutely sure the plane is going to be late, or they actually know how late it's going to arrive. Other sources might already tell you it's going to be late.

API Economist: With information being so dynamic in the airline travel industry, do you see more crowdsourcing as a major trend?

Rory Veevers-Carter: Actually, we do in a bunch of ways. Twitter is really interesting for information about where to eat in an airport. If you actually go and use a combination of Twitter and Foursquare, you can actually get recommendations on restaurants based on checking in at a gate, and where to go for a delay, based on history.

API Economist: How does FlightLookup add value in this equation?

Rory Veevers-Carter: We have taken an interesting approach in the market. We take existing data sources that are available to our clients, for example, flight schedules in their native format. We take that data and process it through a unique engine that allows us to query all of our client’s data in a way that makes it faster, more compact, and easier to use. We have built a specialty and a business around the taking our client’s native data stream and adding value to it and then providing it to them and also selling it to other organizations.

On the mobile front, we've actually taken our dynamic connection engine and made it available on an iPhone. With our SDK and API, developers can take flight schedules and embed them in an application. The problem with WiFi and connected applications in an airport is that if you don't have service, you may not be able to connect to online resources, so we make a lot of information available when you're offline.

We have a complete flight schedule routing engine that. When you have your phone in airplane mode and you're flying across the country, and you find out you’re being redirected, you can say, "Well, where do I go from here?" When you get off the plane, you're more prepared.

For example, this is being used in the SkyTeam iPhone application. We take the flight schedule for all of the Sky Team airlines and make it available for download and get updates right on the iPhone. It's not real time data for flight status, but when you're disconnected, there's value-added data that is locally available on your device.

API Economist: What are some of your favorite mobile apps?

Rory Veevers-Carter: The one I use the most is probably Sudoku. It's a great way to kill 10 to 20 minutes. You get absorbed and the time passes quickly. I do use a lot of the travel applications. I'm a United Airlines frequent flier, so I do use the United application a lot.

API Economist: Rory, thanks for your time!

Rory Veevers-Carter: It’s my pleasure. Thank you!