Did Airbnb just hire the Chip Conley of aviation?
Since the fall of 2016, when Airbnb launched its first product outside of homesharing, CEO Brian Chesky has hinted at the possibility of the company entering the transportation space with “Airbnb Flights.”
Ever since, numerous new reports have pondered exactly how Airbnb would delve into transportation. Would Airbnb build or buy an airline? Would it buy a booking engine or a metasearch platform?
Today, it’s still unclear exactly what Airbnb intends to do with transportation. But the $31 billion company has taken the step of hiring longtime aviation industry veteran Fred Reid to be its first-ever global head of transportation.
In this new role, Reid, the former president of Delta Air Lines and the founding CEO of Virgin America, will be tasked with “building partnerships and services that make travel seamless while delivering the kind of people-to-people hospitality Airbnb is known for around the world.”
One thing Reid is unlikely to accomplish anytime soon is the development of an Airbnb-branded airline.
In a press statement announcing Reid’s appointment, Chesky noted, “I’m not interested in building our own airline or creating just another place on the Internet where you can buy a plane ticket, but there is a tremendous opportunity to improve the transportation experience for everyone.”
Reid added, “Airbnb and its incredible global community have revolutionized where you stay and what you can do when you travel. I’m excited to work with them to tackle the third part of the travel experience: how you get there. Whether in the air or on the ground, there are tremendous opportunities to create products and forge partnerships with other companies that make travel easier and even fun. Realizing those opportunities will take years and require constant experimentation, and I’m truly honored to have the chance to take on such an audacious challenge with this team.”
A Longtime Aviation Industry Veteran
Prior to joining Airbnb, Reid was most recently the president of Cora Aircraft Program, a division of Kitty Hawk that specializes in autonomous electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, or air taxis. Before that, Reid was president of Flexjet, a provider of fractional jet ownership, leasing and jet card services.
In 2004, Reid was appointed chief executive of Sir Richard Branson’s “next-generation airline,” Virgin America, but by late 2007, Reid was forced to leave the post in order for the airline to get off the ground, literally. The Department of Transportation demanded Reid leave Virgin America as part of its certification for beginning flights.
Virgin America is now defunct, having been acquired by Alaska Airlines in 2016, but the airline was known for spearheading a major shift in airline passenger experience, violet-hued mood lighting and touchscreen ordering included.
In 2014, Reid spoke at the inaugural Skift Global Forum about what it takes to build an airline brand that customers love — something that will likely come into play in his new role at Airbnb.
Airbnb’s own relationship with Virgin America stretches back to 2015, long after Reid left, when the two companies formed a loyalty partnership.
Prior to joining Virgin America, Reid was the president of Delta Air Lines where he helped develop Delta’s low-cost carrier brand, Song, and led Delta Connection, the world’s largest fleet of regional jets. He also helped form the global airline alliance, SkyTeam — work that may prove useful as Airbnb develops its own transportation partnerships and loyalty program.
Reid was also the first U.S. national to lead a major international airline when he was named president and chief operating officer of Lufthansa German Airlines in 1996 where he was also the co-architect of the Star Alliance, the first multi-airline, independently branded alliance.
Airbnb has a track record of hiring creative, progressive-minded travel and technology industry veterans to help grow its business, and Reid’s appointment is no different.
In 2017 during an interview at the Oxford Union in Oxford, England, Chesky noted he had enlisted the help and advice of current and former airline CEOs to help him build Airbnb’s transportation business.
Back in 2013, the company hired Chip Conley, the founder of Joie de Vivre Hotels and a boutique hotels pioneer to help lead its hospitality expertise and strategy. Most recently, the company appointed Greg Greeley, the former Amazon Prime architect, to lead its Homes division, and oversee the development of an Airbnb loyalty program.
Transportation as Part of an End-to-End Travel Platform
The same press announcement heralding Reid’s appointment noted that his role would play a crucial role in “building an end-to-end travel platform that combines where you stay, what you do, and how you get there, all in one place.”
Transportation is just one part of Chesky’s larger vision for Airbnb as being an end-to-end travel platform. Other features include tours and activities, which debuted with the launch of Airbnb Trips in 2016, as well as dining, which was highlighted by Airbnb’s integration with restaurant reservations platform Resy in 2017.
Airbnb also noted how Reid “and the Airbnb team are uniquely positioned to use the Airbnb platform to partner with others in the travel and tourism industry to deliver better travel experiences to millions of people around the world and create significant economic opportunities for these partners.”
Today, the Airbnb platform has more than 5 million accommodation listings around the world, and by the end of the first quarter of 2019, the company estimates it will have seen more than 500 million guest arrivals.
Monetizing that massive audience with additional products, from tours and activities to transportation, will be a No.1 priority for the company as it proceeds with a planned initial public offering, which Chesky has previously said could take place as early as this year.
Possible transportation-related products for Airbnb might include an Airbnb-branded booking engine, a metasearch platform, white-label transportation services or packages, or even public aviation charters a la JetSuiteX.
Whatever Airbnb ultimately decides to do in transportation, it’s clear that the company’s focus will be on improving the traveler experience.
“There was a time when getting on a plane was a magical trip of its own, but over the years, how you get to where you’re going has become an experience we endure, not enjoy. We believe that needs to change,” Chesky said. “We couldn’t ask for anyone better to take on this monumental task than Fred, and I’m honored that he’s agreed to work with us.”
Skift Editor’s Note: You can watch Reid speaking at the 2014 Skift Global Forum on “Creating a Radically Guest-Centric Airline” below.
Photo credit: Longtime aviation industry veteran Fred Reid is joining Airbnb as its new Global Head of Transportation. Airbnb