a man sitting in an airplane with a screen and a computer

For now, planes aren’t getting any faster and realistically, seats are about as comfortable as they’ll ever be. To make travel better for all – airlines, hotels and destinations are looking to start ups and new technologies to solve problems and cure various customer “pain points” at every juncture of the journey – and perhaps even surprise and delight.

After all, travel should be about joy, not pain.

a group of people sitting in chairs in an airplane
Recognize anyone?

On Tuesday afternoon, I boarded a flight from San Francisco to London with some of the greatest investors and minds in tech, alongside British Airways CEO Alex Cruz, to hear live pitches from travel start ups looking to do exactly that. In the spirit of the present and future, all the pitches were video linked to Boeing 747 over WiFi from a location in central London, with the ability for panelists on board to interact and ask questions in real time. The wifi worked!

From founders of Pandora, the Hyperloop and WeTransfer to the team which helped create Siri, the computer mouse and HDTV itself, this was a seriously impressive group of tech entrepreneurs, all of whom are members of Founders Forum, a premier resource and community for tech entrepreneurs. They were there to help British Airways pick a winner, which will receive support from the airline in many forms to grow their big idea in the travel space ahead of London Tech Week.

Above all else, the flight was exciting, in an X-factor sort of way.

a man sitting in an airplane with a computer screen and a man wearing headphonesThough I was a non voting party, I participated in the entire experience, which involved watching 5 minute pre taped video pitches from five travel start ups. After each pre-tape, the founder of the start up appeared live on screen to take live questions over WiFi from the venerable panel.

To put it lightly: these were the best minds in tech sussing out every potential pain, gain and issue the start up may face, and it was excitingly brutal. For some of the start ups, perhaps a bit sobering too. The panels questions were honest, exacting and on point, in a way which made any onlooker instantly understand why this balanced group of male and female tech minds “are who they are”. At the best of times, the start up founders responses were equally enlightening. In the end, the list was narrowed down to three finalists.

So… why?

For British Airways, the “Pitch On A Plane” event was a continuation of the bullish support for tech and innovation, which many pundits see as having lagged at the airline until recent years, perhaps for far too long, too. Of course, it never hurts to fly tech leaders to London Tech Week, either.

a large airplane on the groundFor those that might think this was some random one off, it’s absolutely not. British Airways and International Airline Group (IAG) have long run an initiative known as Hangar 51 which incubates and assists technology and innovation start ups in air travel via a 10 week in house accelerator program. While many of the most exciting innovations are still in the proving phase, CEO Alex Cruz noted that many projects have paid off in ways customers will – and won’t see directly.

We’re talking everything from biometric boarding machines to “Minority Report” esque video scanners capable of identify everything happening at your airport gate, including visually identifying your bag using artificial intelligence and sending you a note to say that it’s made it on board – or not. Of course, there’s also the driverless airplane tows at Heathrow too.

people sitting in a terminalBut back to this flight…

This series of pitches was more broadly based on the future of travel itself, rather than the airline industry alone and it was cool to see how panelists took to the ideas. There’s an incredibly nervous and exciting energy to actually pitching something, but it’s even more magnified with the lightning round of on the spot “think fast” questions thrown out by celebs in the field. Though only 3 finalists made it through out of the potential 5, I have respect for everyone who stood up for their idea.

What were the 3 big finalists ideas?

  • Pruvo –The website aims to save travellers money even after they have booked a hotel room. It searches for hotel price drops and secret deals.
  •  Pluto – A travel insurance app that claims to be easy to understand, hassle-free and there when customers need it. “Insurance for people who don’t like insurance”.
  • Reynolds Aero – Reynolds builds engines for flying cars using a new type of gas turbine. It is extending the range of electric flight to make Urban Air Mobility possible.

After about 45 minutes, it was all over. The 5 minute pitches were in, the lightning round questions were thunderous and the three finalists above were chosen by panelist voting on wifi connected iPads on board. It was my intention to broadcast the event in flight and announce the 3 finalists, but to be perfectly honest – I fell asleep about five minutes later. Like many entrepreneurs around the world, I needed coffee, but passed out before I could enjoy one.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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