When Breaking Travel News spoke to Bayram Annakov earlier in the year, he was excited about the future of travel.
Despite the challenges posed by Covid-19, technology was rapidly improving the experience of travellers as they move around the world.
Indeed, in hindsight, the pandemic might come to be seen as a great opportunity for the sector, forcing innovation on a sometimes-stodgy industry, he argued.
Speaking this month, the founder and chief executive of App in the Air remains a tremendous advocate for chnage, with his interests having grown to incorporate the hotel sector.
“We are now offering hotels to our clients,” he tells Breaking Travel News in London, “it has been a challenge for us, a new industry, a new offering, and there are a lot of things to learn.
“But we are creating a niche, a work in progress to build a unique value proposition for our customers.
“App in the Air now offers member rates to all but one of the major hotel groups, and this is a big step forward for our offering.”
Bayram is refreshingly honest in his appraisal, not just of the sector, but of his own company.
He continues: “Until around four weeks ago, I was telling my staff I would not use App in the Air – and this was a huge problem, if we are not the customers of our own product, then how we can convince others to use it?
“These member rates have been a major change for our business.
“The convenience of having everything in one place, hotel bookings, airline bookings, all offered through our user interface, is what will make our company succeed at the end of the day.”
There are great opportunities in the hotel sector, he explains, structurally built into the market, which App in the Air is in a position to develop.
He explains: “On a business level, the average occupancy at a hotel is much lower than the load factor on a plane; typically 84 per cent for airlines, falling to 67 per cent for an average hotel.
“Assuming most of your costs are fixed-costs, this means you have a greater amount of inventory on which you are willing to either decrease the price or increase the commission rate.
“For us, this means hotels represent a larger opportunity – but hotels are much more protective of their guests than the airlines, and this is a challenge we will have to overcome.”
The hotel sector is also a great deal more fragmented than the airline industry.
While a city may be served by a dozen carriers at most, there can be thousands of hotels, each with a unique offering – again posing a problem for App in the Air.
Annakov adds: “The hotel market has not reached maturity – perhaps 40 per cent of hotels are part of chains, while 60 per cent remain independent.
“For the groups, there is a lot of standardisation we can work with, for the smaller properties, we are reinventing the wheel each time.
“This is a good problem to solve, and we will see if we can do that.
“I am excited, solving the problems which cause issues to our customers is what we are here for.
“If we are able to sync all the data into our platform, be that from airlines or hotels, it becomes obvious why our customers should use App in the Air.
“There is also a financial benefit of up to a third of the headline price when booking a hotel; if we can bring all the prices together to secure the best one, that is a great advantage for our customers.”
The next step for App in the Air is to become an agent in the UK, with the ability to sell packages to savvy travellers booking through the platform.
“The challenge we have now is combining what we offer in flights with what we are doing in hotels.
“We are creating a legal entity here in the UK in order to get a licence to sell packages.
“We hope to be able to bring the rates we can achieve with hotels, match that with flights, and offer it to our customers.
“This is coming within the next week or two.”
The focus on hotels has not meant an end to work in the aviation space, however, with App in the Air responding to a changing market with range of innovations.
“Aviation has changed so much in the past 18-months that we have had a lot to tackle from a product perspective.
“We have been dealing with health passports, travel restrictions – the world has changed,” says Annakov.
“Our customers told us App in the Air was like their passport, they open it up, it tells them where they have been, but it can also tell them where they are going – it is the only tool they need.
“From this we built new features into the app; it logs your visas, and their expiry dates, your health passes and their validity, everything you need to travel.
“This has become even more valuable during the Covid-19 pandemic, as the amount of information you need to travel has increased.
“Eventually there will be digital passports, so App in the Air might actually become the passport at one time.”
App in the Air, which is currently used by more than six million frequent flyers, has recently expanded its range of features with the launch of a digital health passport.
Users are able to upload their Covid-19 tests and vaccine certifications digitally.
“When it comes to Covid-19, we are trying to offer two things,” continues Annakov.
“We show our customers what the restrictions are for entry, these change every day, and we keep them up to date.
“Second, we are able to show the various health certificates and visas as and when necessary.
“It is down to governments and airlines to check the legitimacy of these documents, we are not able to do so yet, it is an issue that will have to be tackled at a global level.”
Panning out and looking at the industry as a whole, Annakov is sceptical the challenges posed by Covid-19 will be overcome in time.
However, the lessons learned during this pandemic may be applicable to the next one.
“When it comes to creating a global standard for health accreditation, I cannot see this happening in a five-, seven-year time frame,” he adds.
“The challenge is that countries will refuse to share the data that is necessary for it to work.
“We cannot even share vaccine statuses internationally currently, and the interoperable data cannot be shared to make this the case.
“The airline industry will be among the first to tackle this problem, and it may lead to innovation elsewhere; it might not be in time to be useful against Covid-19, but there will be another pandemic and it may be of use there.”
He concludes: “Right now we use an average of eight websites or apps when we travel and there is a huge need for an app that can stitch those together.
“This is a huge task, but any huge task is a huge opportunity – this is our vision.
“We want to become the ‘go to travel app’ – the super-app to replace many of the others.
“The work is never done building the product, because the industry changes so much; the service needs to change to meet changes in the external environment.
“This is what excites me, even now.”
Founded by entrepreneur Bayram Annakov and his team in 2012, App in the Air is a technology company for frequent flyers and the airlines and airports that serve them.
Head over to the official website for more information.