Cooling his jets
A LOSS FOR INGENUITY: Airline check- in website developed by Stanford graduate shut down by Southwest
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 email@example.com or 408- 920- 5536.
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