Cool­ing his jets

A LOSS FOR IN­GE­NU­ITY: Air­line check- in web­site de­vel­oped by Stan­ford grad­u­ate shut down by South­west

The Mercury News - - FRONT PAGE -

You need to feel sorry for Nikil Viswanathan be­cause he’s not go­ing to feel sorry for him­self.

This is a guy who came up with a spiffy, free web­site that au­to­mat­i­cally en­sures you’re among the first to check in for South­west Air­lines flights — mean­ing you’re more likely to board in the first group, find am­ple over­head space and get a seat near the front so you can bolt when you land. All with­out even think­ing about it.

To­tally cool. OK, not to­tally. Not cool at all with South­west, which de­manded Viswanathan, who just earned a mas­ter’s de­gree in com­puter sci­ence from Stan­ford Univer­sity, shut down the site. He did.

“It’s a lit­tle sad that it’s over,” says Viswanathan, who en­joyed a cou­ple of weeks in the sweet sun­shine of ado­ra­tion from South­west pas­sen­gers be­fore the air­line cracked down. “I’m also a lit­tle happy be­cause I’m able to move on to other stuff.”

Yes, he has the spirit of an in­no­va­tor. When things go bad, learn and move on.

But this is all wrong. This de­railed web­site is ex­actly the op­po­site of how in­no­va­tion is sup­posed to work. In­no­va­tion is sup­posed to be open and free, cre­ative and dis­rup­tive. In­no­va­tion is sup­posed to make our lives eas­ier and be ap­plauded vig­or­ously when it does.

Viswanathan did it just right. He had a prob­lem and like so many in Sil­i­con Val­ley he turned to tech­nol­ogy for a so­lu­tion. Like in­no­va­tors ev­ery­where, he asked: “Why not?” But South­west had an an­swer: “Be­cause.”

First, the story: When Viswanathan flew east last win­ter to visit his sis­ter he con­fronted one of the chal­lenges of be­ing a South­west cus­tomer. The air­line works on a vari­a­tion of first- come, first- served for seat­ing. Those who check in first are grouped to­gether and al­lowed on the plane first to choose any seat. Those who check in later are put in a group and go on next, etc. The catch? Un­less pas­sen­gers pay an ex­tra fee they can­not check in on South­west’s site more than 24 hours be­fore the flight. So, fliers want to be right on top of it, ex­actly 24 hours in ad­vance.

While Viswanathan was in Philadel­phia with his sis­ter, a light bulb went off.

“I was just think­ing, ‘ I have an hour,’” he says. “‘ I could to­tally just write a pro­gram that au­to­mat­i­cally checks me in.’”

And so he be­gan work on Check­In­toMyF­light.com, a site that takes your pre­vi­ously en­tered in­for­ma­tion and au­to­mat­i­cally checks you in 24 hours in ad­vance — right when South­west’s web­site starts is­su­ing board­ing passes. Viswanathan’s code sat idle for some time and he tweaked it a lit­tle. In early Oc­to­ber he launched the site. He posted about the site on Face­book. Friends told friends. A tech­nol­ogy blog linked to it. Travel blogs started writ­ing about it. About 800 fliers, he says, used the free ser­vice.

“What re­ally ex­cites me and what re­ally got me pumped was I ac­tu­ally had peo­ple us­ing this,” says Viswanathan, 25, of Palo Alto. “And users loved it.”

They did. Eric Pace, a civil­ian Air Force em­ployee who lives in Wash­ing­ton, D. C., heard about the site from his wife, who knows Viswanathan’s sis­ter.

“I used it ac­tu­ally for two flights,” says Pace, 34, who flies fre­quently to visit his wife, who’s fin­ish­ing school at the Univer­sity of Texas. “They both worked per­fectly as ad­ver­tised.”

So, ev­ery­body loved Check­In­toMyF­light.com. OK, not South­west. Some fans of the site warned Viswanathan that his idea wasn’t go­ing to fly with South­west. And when Hacker News, a blog big in tech cir­cles, picked up on it one Fri­day in Oc­to­ber, Viswanathan wor­ried about be­ing sued by South­west — which ad­ver­tises with a big heart, but thinks with a busi­ness brain. “Then I found out that lawyers don’t ac­tu­ally work on Satur­day,” he says.

No, he didn’t get sued right away. But be­fore long, he did re­ceive a cease- and­de­sist let­ter, say­ing among other things that the pro­gram, which au­to­mat­i­cally in­ter­acted with South­west’s web­site, vi­o­lated the air­line’s terms of ser­vice.

“Our stan­dard line on this sub­ject,” South­west spokes­woman Katie McDon­ald tells me as she launches into an in­cred­i­bly stan­dard- line ex­pla­na­tion about valu­ing cus­tomers and touch points and poli­cies and sig­na­ture per­sonal touches, all of which boils down to this: South­west doesn’t like out­siders com­ing be­tween them and their pas­sen­gers. Noth­ing to do with money, mind you, it’s all about de­liv­er­ing that flier- friendly South­west ser­vice.

Re­ally? I ask McDon­ald. It doesn’t have any­thing to do with the fact that Viswanathan’s site could eat into South­west’s Early Bird Check- In pro­gram, which places pas­sen­gers at the head of the check- in line for an ex­tra $ 10?

McDon­ald wouldn’t say that.

Does it have to do with ad­ver­tis­ing, and the thought that fliers us­ing Viswanathan’s ser­vice might spend less time on South­west’s site mulling ho­tel, rental car and va­ca­tion pack­age of­fers?

Nope, McDon­ald says. “It’s South­west brand in­tegrity,” she says. “We don’t even al­low our fares to be sold on other sites. Ev­ery­thing that we do is through South­west. com.”

For his part, Viswanathan gets it that South­west wants to pro­tect its busi­ness in­ter­ests. But for him it all seems so 2005. Don’t com­put­ers ex­ist, af­ter all, to make our lives eas­ier?

“Com­put­ers were de­signed to do this,” he says. “Com­put­ers were de­signed to au­to­mate rou­tine tasks for hu­mans.”

He’s right. And it’s only a mat­ter of time be­fore the idea is uni­ver­sally em­braced. And when it is, you can bet that Viswanathan will be ready and wait­ing with just the thing to make your life eas­ier. Contact Mike Cas­sidy at mcas­sidy@mer­curynews.com or 408- 920- 5536.

DAI SUGANO/ STAFF PHO­TOS

Nikil Viswanathan de­vel­oped a web­site that al­lowed South­west Air­lines pas­sen­gers to check in to their flights au­to­mat­i­cally. De­spite the tool’s ef­fec­tive­ness, South­west quashed the Stan­ford Univer­sity grad­u­ate’s project.

Check­In­toMyF­light. com was launched in early Oc­to­ber and uti­lized by hun­dreds of fliers.

MIKE CAS­SIDY SIL­I­CON VAL­LEY DIS­PATCHES

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