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Families traveling by air have often been seen as a nuisance by fellow travelers and airlines alike. How can air travel be more appealing for families with small children after the pandemic?

A new startup offering what it bills as affordable concierge and nanny-like services is providing hope for families choosing to travel with small children ahead of the holiday travel rush at Reagan National and Dulles International airports.

It plans to launch at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport later this month.

The idea for SkySquad, which offers families and others needing extra help, dedicated airport assistance from the time they arrive at the curbside until they are at the boarding gate and everything in between. The company was born from a bad experience founder Julie Melnick had while traveling back and forth between California and Florida.

“When the kids were little, I just really struggled to get through the airport, I struggled to carry my huge toddler car seat -those car seats are just so bulky-and carrying that along with my luggage and my son was almost impossible and I thought when I have a second baby how am I going to do this? You know, how will I travel?,” asked Melnick, 42, who now has two children.

The size of the market is certainly significant. A 2019 New York University family travel study showed that 11 percent of families surveyed said the hassle of air travel was an inhibitor to traveling with children.

Launched last January, SkySquad grew from another startup — Nanny in the Clouds — that Melnick formed in 2012 but that never caught on. This time around, feeling the problem has yet to be solved for stressed-out families, Melnick prepared to provide a much-needed service to families who are traditionally underserved by the airline industry.

SkySquad helps a family with small children navigate the airport.

What she didn’t account for was the global coronavirus pandemic in March affecting worldwide travel and bringing her startup to a screeching halt.

“It was really devastating because all the events we had built up, and all these people canceled their flights and we were on hold. But the nice thing was it gave me time to sort of really pause and think about how we wanted to build a company from the foundation up,” Melnick said.

She was able to connect with Chris Tomseth a former executive with Emirates airline and analyst at Delta. In turn, Tomseth introduced her to Dave Osborne, a finance executive with previous startup experience at Redbox and InstaCart.

“And so connecting with him was really, a pivotal moment because I was able to connect with someone who really had background in the hospitality industry which I really didn’t have … So Chris and Dave are now co-founders. And Dave comes from the marketplace industry from InstaCart. So he has this experience in scaling a business with lots of staff, doing kind of the gig employee, gig worker kind of thing,” Melnick said.

Initially coming on as an advisor in July at depths of the low-travel volume, Tomseth said he saw the potential for a travel business in 2020 because when things recover, it will be going up. In addition to the three co-founders, SkySquad has four advisors and a small team of badged and background checked airport staff.

“We have the airport staff which are not technically employees, they’re all independent contractors, but right now we’ve got about 10 at Dulles Airport in Washington and a small handful at Reagan National, and then we’re about to open Cincinnati. And then really where we’re seeing that scale up, eventually we want to be in all the major airports obviously. But in the near term, we’ll probably aim to get about 20 people for airports,” Tomseth said.

The Cincinnati airport reached out to SkySquad to form an innovative partnership.

Through an agreement with the airports, SkySquad contractors are actual airport employees who work with the company on their time off. They accompany their clients through the airport and will even go buy food from the concessions stands or watch a family’s children while they check-in or use the facilities and offer translation services if needed they said.

“We actually have been focusing over the pandemic on the families that really are required to move, not vacationers, we’ve been helping a lot of passengers who are foreign service and who are required to move their families overseas. So that has been a really big niche for us over the pandemic specifically. This summer when things were really slow, those were the families that really needed our help. And they were so thankful because not only did they come with their kids, they come with like 14 bags and they are just needing us” Melnick said.

She said the families with young kids who are SkySquad’s focus customer, weren’t traveling as much as this year.

Instead SkySquad has been helping senior citizens traveling alone while staying in contact with their family members, singles with too many bags to carry and pet owners with cumbersome pet carriers. “If you show up at the airport, no one is going to say where’s your kid,” Tomseth laughed. “And for a small surcharge, we can even meet people at the rental return which is a lifesaver because you’re returning a car and have all this stuff you have to schlep twice on the shuttle.”

SkySquad rates are $49 for a solo person and $99 for its family rate because it generally takes more than an hour to get them checked in and to their gates, Melnick said. She estimates SkySquad has the potential to be a billion dollar market based on a $99 transaction in the near future.

Tomseth said SkySquad is looking to expand in airports initially across the East Coast especially to get those Northeast cities down to Florida. The company is presently talking with investors trying to raise an initial seed of $1 million to help with airport expansions, marketing, hiring staff and technology so both passengers and helpers can be matched from their phone.

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Tags: airlines, airports, coronavirus, family travel, startups

Photo credit: Airports can be overwhelming to families with young children. SkySquad was launched to help ease that anxiety. Robert Kneschke / Adobe

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