Should Airbnb start an airline?

A recent report in Fast Company reveals friction between Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky and CFO Laurence Tosi over the possibility of an Airbnb-branded airline.

It peaked our curiosity. Should Airbnb launch an airline? Well, the easy and immediate answer is that no company in its right mind should ever launch an airline and any company that already owns an airline should re-think its life choices.

After all, the airline industry is one of the most asset-heavy industries and one of the lowest profit-margin industries in the world. It also has to contend with regulations that limit growth and competitiveness, significant labor and up-keep costs, and the fact that no consumer really ever really likes them even when they do their best.

These points seem to be at the heart of Tosi’s objections who, according to the Information, would recommend more modest forays into aviation, by integrating with Skyscanner or buying Hopper, or doing something else that makes booking flights convenient through the Airbnb app without actually having to fly passengers there.

Since the success of Airbnb to date has largely hinged on it operating without investing in properties, Tosi’s view makes perfect sense.

Still, what’s Chesky on about? What was he thinking last April when he Tweeted:


He elaborated on this a bit saying: “Three vectors: get me there faster, cheaper, better experience”; and adding: “Faster=supersonic, cheaper=electric, better experience=???”

Chesky also expressed admiration for supersonic aircraft (mentioning Boom), dirigibles (specifically Airlander), expressed fascination with the modular Transpose cabin developed by Airbus’ Silicon Valley-based innovators A3, and also mentioned VTOL (vertical take off and landing) aircraft services—or flying cars—something Uber is already actively pursuing. Airlander had a number of mentions—and, frankly, what’s not to like?

It’s possible (likely even) that Chesky was merely letting his imagination fly, but there is one business model already proposed by industry designers which would come close to an Airbnb airline, if he ever wanted to follow that path further.

The Poppi concept, developed by the Seattle-based design firm TEAGUE, which is well respected for its work in the transport and aviation sectors, is adaptable to a “virtual” airline concept.

TEAGUE touted Poppi as an airline that anticipates disruption, so it would be suitable to adoption by a disruptor.

Poppi would be a membership-based airline service, which would address cash-flow issues and evade the low-fares battle by blurring the lines on cost. Poppi could be deployed by wet-leasing the “airline” part of the “airline”; including planes and staff. This would reduce risks further.

Poppi would gift middle seat passengers (through brand partnerships) with some compensation for their hardship. TEAGUE even designed specialty onboard luggage which would fit into the seat-shell to avoid the overhead bin crush.

The most compelling element of the Poppi proposition is that it was a NEXTT-ready concept before IATA and ACI launched NEXTT.

All customer interactions would be digital including arranging for luggage pickup at home, at the hotel (or Airbnb). Customer service would be automated by bots, with instant-alerts to smart devices to manage and re-coordinate disruption. First introduced in 2015, many of the Poppi service elements are already being adopted today.

With a Poppi-styled airline Chesky might have his way and revolutionize air travel.

Of course, the safest bet is for Airbnb to remain grounded, or remotely tethered to planes by facilitating flight search for dead-leg private jet flights.

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