The first time I heard about The Flight Deal was in a Flyertalk thread on ultra cheap airfares a few years back. Among the discussions, one casual user gave credit to “TFD” in a wayward link, everyone quietly nodded and the crowd moved on.
Here in 2014, “credit to The Flight Deal” has become a common reference in the forums and out in social media. Over the past years, the group has been tirelessly scouring for and posting airfare deals, posting them to their WordPress-backed site and earning a place as a core competitor to Airfarewatchdog, the gorilla (or rather, canine) in the indie flight deal game.
Their success lies in their tenacity for finding good deals. Searching for airfare from any particular city can include an exhaustive set of variables from date range to target destination to layover city, and the summation of all of those permutations can add up to thousands of searches per city per day.
The Flight Deal has overcome these challenges by coming up with tools to automatically search and sort airfares as they’re published. Once their system flags an airfare that the staff qualifies as a deal, one of their editors vets the fare, builds a post, publishes an article on their site and pushes out a message into social media.
In addition to their fare searching technology though, TFD has also earned a reputation as a sharply focused and impersonal brand. Click the “about” section of their website and you’ll learn a bit about the ethos of the site but not about who’s running it or how. Reach out to them on Twitter and you’ll get a specific response to a specific fare question, but little in their feed points to the brains or thoughts behind their operation. That’s pretty tough to do in a world of self-involved tweets and rambunctious CNN punditry.
We wanted to get a better look at how TFD runs their show, so we invited them out for coffee at New York’s Ace Hotel to talk about the present and future of their company. Matt Ma and Rida Wong joined us for the chat.
Skift: You do exist! Thanks for coming to visit us.
Matt Ma: Well, our low profile is on purpose. Our site isn’t really personality driven — we’ve built this technology at the core of our brand and who we are is inconsequential to the deals that we provide. We want the deals to speak for themselves.
Rida Wong: Right – we’re not a content company. We share great deals on a unique platform.
Skift: So can you tell me a bit more about your technology?
Ma: So, looking at the fare publishing industry, domestic fares are published four times a day while international deals are published every hour. Travels isn’t in realtime, it’s batched. So we built a platform that searches multiple times a day, doesn’t care about UX and that produces deals 24/7.
Skift: Assuming you’re searching 500 city pairs over two or three date periods from say, Boston, you’re looking at 1500 to 2000 searches per source city per day. Multiply that by the number of cities from which you supply fares and you’re talking tens of thousands of searches. From where are you getting this data?
Ma: There are a lot of data sources. We’re not scraping the major sites — that’s not scaleable or sustainable — but we are using both public and private data sources.
If you think about the space right now, not many groups want to be in this business. It’s actually a very difficult space because you have to make sure that the data is fresh every day. Look at Kayak’s Explore data, and you’ll realize that all of it is stale. When we first started we thought about scraping all of the public sites, but then we realized really quickly that the stale data was so much more greater than the relevant data — so it wasn’t worth it.
As we grow, we definitely want to be able to get the most live data feed from the airfare publishing companies, but it’s super expensive for a group that’s just bootstrapping itself.
Skift: Okay, so you bring in an enormous chunk of data automatically and The Flight Deal staff manually processes any good deals?
Ma: Right, the data goes into a publicly shared document and we validate it from there. It really is the best way. If we published fares automatically and some of them included stale data, the frustration points with our customers would be very high.
Skift: How many subscribers do you have?
Ma: On Facebook and Twitter we have about 35,000 combined — and that’s growing about 6 – 7% each month. Our newsletter subscribers are much more.
Skift: How are you going to make money off of this then? Sure you can use your affiliate links through Orbitz or Priceline, but is that sustainable in the long term?
Ma: I don’t think we want to be a transaction company. When we first started, we didn’t monetize for a really long time. I think that we want to be a media company.
We know what our audience is… they’re between ages of 25-44 and mostly female. And we just need to scale that up. There are a lot of opportunities from a preroll or ad perspective and also a data perspective.
Skift: As people who sit in front of fare booking sites all day then, what in your opinion are the best online travel agents right now?
Ma: We like Orbitz because you can specify multiple airlines when you’re booking. That means the chance of booking exactly what you can find through ITA — the tool that we use to validate fares — is very high. Priceline does a very good job with that too… and then Expedia. In that order.
The challenge with Hipmunk is that since they raised money they’ve been really focused on hotels since that where the money is. Any time an OTA does that airfare product gets minimized and turns into an afterthought.
Skift: Best deal you’ve gotten so far?
Ma: I think it was a couple of years ago when we went to Barcelona for $280.
Wong: I liked Brazil for $540. Israel for $300 would have been so clutch, but I was headed into a meeting when it was available.
Ma: A couple of years ago a couple of us did Copenhagen and Stockholm for $150 on Delta.
When you think about deals, the most important thing is the ability to act on it. If you can’t act on it immediately you’re going to lose out.
Skift: Do you see people expressing frustration on some of these short-lived fares?
Ma: Yeah, just this week we had a big deal to Paris from San Francisco – $750. The problem with that was we posted the deal the night before — at 10PM, and our cycle for emails came at 3PM. By the time the email came, the fare was already gone — timing is very difficult unless you’re on social media.
Skift: Any thoughts towards offering paid subscriptions where people can get immediate notifications?
Wong: We’ve talked about that as well and it’s something that we’re considering in the near-term pipeline.
Ma: We need to figure out how much to charge.
Wong: People don’t like feeling like they’re paying for something that they think they can get for free.
Ma: The challenge becomes: do we provide incremental deals for paid subscribers and how do we handle that? There are a lot of requests for business class deals, for example, but the challenge for that is there is not enough dynamic pricing in that space for us to deliver value on a daily basis.
Skift: So where do you see yourselves in a year?
Ma: In a year I think we’ll be twice our size. We’ll start covering more cities — one of the things that we want to do is scale the technology to cover more cities
Wong: Within the next year I think it’s safe to say that we’ll have some version of the product that is more realtime for those who are frequent flyers and want better access to information.