AirlineTickets and AirportParking CEO Sujan Patel on the Future of Online Travel

The airline industry may be in a slow and painful decline, but the online travel searching, booking, and rating industry is still soaring, especially here in Seattle. The combination of the Northwest’s tech startup culture, open-minded worldview, and the rainy winter months that leave us all yearning to hop on a plane to somewhere—anywhere—warm and sunny, has created a hotbed for travel-centric startups to plant seeds and grow.

The original Seattle-area travel booking powerhouse, Expedia, has now spread its wings to encompass flight, hotel, restaurant, and vacation review site TripAdvisor, and flight seat advice and review site SeatGuru. And a series of other niche sites have popped up on the Seattle travel scene, including InsideTrip, which focuses on providing consumers with more information about flights beyond pricing comparisons—like on-time records, baggage handling records, the age and type of the plane, etc.—before they book. Other startups on the local online travel bandwagon include Farecast (now folded into Microsoft’s Bing Travel), Yapta, Raveable, Ignition Partners backed-TravelPost, and Madrona Venture Group-backed Off & Away.

In an industry that is clearly growing, another entrepreneur has jumped into the game, launching a series of sites that he says are aimed at making the hefty job of researching and booking travel (as well as getting to and from the airport) easier. After working in Internet marketing for a number of years for sites including Lowfares.com, IdentityTheft.com, Radar Online, and Yahoo! Games, Sujan Patel turned his online expertise into a business plan for airlinetickets.org and airportparking.org—two for-profit sites, still in development, that he says will fill gaps in the online travel industry, and make the process of traveling less like a chore, and more like the beginning of a vacation.

“It wasn’t till I worked on a site called lowfares.com where I found my passion for travel. While working on Lowfares.com I found gaps in the travel industry,” Patel wrote to Xconomy, via e-mail. Lowfares, another online travel comparison and booking site, is where Patel developed his travel industry chops. It’s also where he found inspiration for his own business—a site that compared more than just travel prices.

“That’s when I came up with the idea for airlinetickets.org, airportparking.org and our other websites. There are plenty of sites that can help you find a cheap flight and other travel accommodations. There are even sites that review specific destinations and hotels that can help people enjoy their vacations,” he wrote. “However, no individual website focuses on making the process of traveling more enjoyable. I’d like to help with the simple things all travelers have to do, such as flying (choosing an airline), and find parking (at an airport of course).”

Although still in its infancy, the venture has caught the attention of a number of local angel investors, including Andy Liu and David Niu of BuddyTV, Geoff Entress, Bob Senoff, and Fred Hsu, the co-founder of oversee.net. So far Patel says he has raised $90,000 out of a $200,000 round, which will close within the next 30 days.

I caught up with Patel last week and asked him a few questions about the new startup, including what makes airlinetickets.org and airportparking.org unique compared to other travel startups, what his plans are for the future, and the age-old question online startups face—how he plans to monetize. Here’s what he had to say:

Xconomy: You mentioned that you noticed “gaps in the travel industry” while working on Lowfares.com. Could you expand on these gaps, and how you plan to tackle them?

Sujan Patel: I want to help travelers book flights based off their individual needs beyond the simple variables of prices and dates. Each traveler has different needs and I want to help travelers by providing different statistics to help guide them in the right direction.

For example, someone who flies frequently would benefit from an airline in which they can earn rewards with, such as free flights or upgrades. Another example is someone who travels with children—they may benefit from choosing an airline that offers individual TVs, which can make the flight more enjoyable.

I don’t see these different attributes are currently being met with any one website—they are all just about short-term pricing and getting the quick buck at that time. I think bits and pieces of deeper information are out there on the airlines’ websites and some random blogs, but not accessible when you’re thinking about booking your next flight—that’s where the gap lies.

X: What will airlinetickets.org provide that isn’t already easily available online? Airline reviews, tips and advice? How will this content be created? Through users? An in-house editorial staff? Both?

SP: We will be providing the basics—airline reviews, travel tips, and advice—however we’ll be extending beyond that. Airlinetickets.org will organize the information in a way that helps you make a more educated decision when booking your next flight.

Think of it as how Bill Shrink helps you with your personal finances and finding a cell phone provider, but for the travel industry. So based on what type of traveler you are, your date range, who you’re flying with, where you’re going, how often you travel, etc. we’ll help you book your next flight.

Content will be created with an editorial and development staff. Users may play a part, however that hasn’t been determined yet.

X: Why did you decide to have airportparking.org be a stand-alone site, rather than a service packaged within airlinetickets.org?

SP: It’s too complicated…not from the technology or sales process, but for users. We want to make it as simple as possible. When you’re for a looking for a flight, you get relevant information that helps you book the right flight for you and the same things goes when you’re trying to find a place to park your car.

X: What other airline/air travel services do you plan to offer through these sites?

SP: These two websites will remain focused on air travel and airport parking, however I plan to expand into hotels, vacations, and travel deals with different websites.

X: I noticed that all of these sites end in “.org”—are these non-profit sites? What’s the business model behind your venture?

SP: We are a for-profit business, the “.org” endings just happen to be a coincidence.

As of right now, the business model is to just create good informational sites. We’ll figure out the monetization strategies later on.

X: What do you plan to use the recently raised financing for specifically?

SP: Funding for developers and experienced writers to help us build out this platform.

X: How many staff do you have working for you at this time, if any? (If none, are you hiring? And what positions do you need to fill?)

SP: We don’t have any full-time staff right now other than me. We have a few contractors and we will be looking to hire a few writers and developers in the next few months.

X: The online travel space has been full of expansion and hiccups over the years—everyone seems to agree that all the information people need to search, discover, book, and organize their travel should be online and easy to access and use, but where companies have struggled is how to make this platform successful and financially stable. How do you see airlinetickets.org and airportparking.org fitting into this sector? What about these sites is revolutionary?

SP: We’re going to keep things very simple. The most revolutionary thing about our sites is going to be how easy it will be to compare dozens of factors that you think about when you travel—even ones you’re not aware of at the time of booking.

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