Why has Airbnb hired a global head of transportation?

8 Feb 2019

Image: © BlueBeans/Stock.adobe.com

Why has Airbnb hired Fred Reid? Hint: it’s all about the travel experience and tapping into a vast global community.

Airbnb has revolutionised the accommodation aspect of the travel experience. But the company’s decision to hire the former president of Delta Airlines as its global head of transportation suggests an interesting new pivot for the company.

Aviation expert Fred Reid joins Airbnb from his role as president of Cora Aircraft Program, a division of Kitty Hawk, where he oversaw the development of one of the most advanced autonomous electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft in the world. Prior to that, he was president of Flexjet, an independent operating unit of Bombardier, the world’s largest business aviation manufacturer.

‘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’

So, what could this mean? Is Airbnb going to get into the airline business? Will it build its own aeroplanes? Will it be chartering planes to deliver truckloads of tourists to popular destinations? Will it empower loads of like-minded passengers to charter planes themselves? Or could it be much more subtler and profound than any of those possibilities?

Air to B

The hint could be in how Airbnb has begun curating travel experiences to cities, including tastes, tours and experiences alongside a roof over one’s head.

Perhaps Airbnb is working on new ways to create an all-encompassing travel experience beyond interesting houses and apartments, taking in getting from A to B in trains, planes, automobiles, horses, camels and whatnot. For example, curating the ultimate US or European road trip, recreating the Orient Express, or following in the footsteps of Marco Polo on a motorcycle, who knows?

“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,” said Airbnb co-founder, CEO and head of community, Brian Chesky. “We couldn’t ask for anyone better to take on this monumental task than Fred, and I’m honoured that he’s agreed to work with us.”

Airbnb, which began life in an apartment in San Francisco where the founders indeed rented out an actual airbed, has attracted its fair amount of criticism and praise for upending the traditional accommodation market by allowing homeowners to rent out their properties.

It has moved in recent years to deepen the travel experience with more content and things to do, and the actual transport component offers a tantalising glimpse of what’s coming. It currently can connect a growing community of travellers to more than 5m places and projects, and it is forecasted that there will have been more than 500m guest arrivals in Airbnb listings by the end of Q1 this year.

According to Google, Airbnb is the “most-searched-for accommodation brand”.

Flight said Fred

Picture of a smiling man with white hair in a blue and pink checkered shirt.

Fred Reid. Image: Airbnb

But hiring an accomplished aviation expert suggests bigger ambitions that could involve using the power of that crowd to command new economies of scale that work in consumers’ favour.

“Airbnb and its incredible global community have revolutionised where you stay and what you can do when you travel,” Reid said.

“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. Realising those opportunities will take years and require constant experimentation.”

What Reid brings to the table – potentially – is how travel experiences could be designed in the future. He has form in this area. Reid was the founding CEO of Virgin America, shaping America’s “next-generation airline” from the ground up, including its groundbreaking inflight service and entertainment, catering quality, and interior design. He served as president of Delta Airlines and led the formation of SkyTeam, regarded as the most integrated global airline alliance. He was also the co-architect of the Star Alliance, said to be the first ever multi-airline, independently branded alliance.

“We’re going to explore a broad range of ideas and partnerships that can make transportation better. We haven’t settled on exactly what those will look like,” added Chesky.

“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.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years