Last-minute airfare search app Flight Tonight -- which operates like a HotelTonight for plane tickets -- has debuted in the Apple App Store.
Flight Tonight helps travelers search for the cheapest round-trip flights departing from the US or overseas within the next 2 to 24 hours.
Tnooz did a test search for flights out of Dallas. Flight Tonight kicked back a long list of truly 11th-hour fares, sorted by price.
A $301 trip to San Antonio was the best available deal on short notice. A same-day flight to Cancún was $538 -- though it required a seven-night stay.
The app is similar to Next Flight, which specializes in searches for the next nonstop flights out of any given airport -- information that's handy if you're stranded at an airport because of a canceled flight.
Yet unlike Next Flight, Flight Tonight includes booking as an option. Users are handed off to the mobile websites of online travel agencies -- specifically Expedia, Orbitz, and Travelocity -- or to those of selected airlines.
Flight Tonight is made by travel tech startup Hopper (see disclosure, below). But you'll struggle to find Hopper's name anywhere in the app because the Cambridge, Mass.-based startup is at pains to distance itself from this experiment.
Hopper's chief data scientist Patrick Surry says the company doesn't see last-minute flights as its main business.
It is instead working on a Hopper-branded app that will have broad search inspiration and booking functionality. That app without the limitation of a time window will debut "within a few months," he says.
Surry says the company merely thought it would be fun to show off Hopper's search technology by applying it to "a fun use case". The startup says its main product right now is to help consumers find the best time to book a flight.
An unlikely experiment
It was only last winter that Tnooz addressed the question of why there is no Hotel Tonight for airline tickets.
A few of the explanations were:
1. There aren't enough last-minute empty seats to give consumers enough of interest.
2. If it became successful, airlines would pull the inventory, to start selling it more creatively on their own -- eliminating the middleman on their highest-yielding product.
3. There is likely to be only moderate value offered to the customer. Consumers would be disappointed in the lack of discounts or an inability to search by destination airport. The novelty would wear off quickly.
Surry dismissed such concerns. He says that anyone who plays around with the app will be surprised at how there are actually plenty of seats available to provide some destinations out of most airports on any given day.
There's also enough affordable airfares to keep the app interesting for consumers, he argues.
And the airlines won't stop it. For one thing, the airlines don't mind filling seats that really are about to expire in mere minutes otherwise.
For another, the airlines can't cut off Hopper's data. Its fares are one-step removed as cached data, drawn via queries made each minute by consumers and agents of the databases of the major global distribution systems.
The cached fares are pulled into the app with the help of ITA Software by Google and Hopper's own algorithms.
That technique enables results to appear more quickly in the app.
But Tnooz found that that technique has its drawbacks. If people haven't recently searched for fares from an airport, then Flight Tonight struggles to find data for somewhere nearby as a substitute.
A test search for Koh Samui airport, on a small Thai island, came up with results from Penang Island instead. While Penang is the next closest option with available fares, according to the app, there's a problem in that the airport is in a different country: Malaysia.
This would only be a problem with small airports, of course.
Some quirks aside, the app promises to be a "little, light-hearted experiment", says Surry. The company is not depending on the app to become a money-spinner.
Nor is the company planning to do much marketing around the app, except for a media push.
Expect to read several trend pieces in travel publications soon about how "on demand" apps -- from Hotel Tonight for lodging to Uber and Easy Taxi for ground transportation, plus socially-enhanced recommendation tools like Foursquare and Gogobot -- have now made it possible to book a vacation at the truly last-minute -- right as you are walking out the door and embarking on it.
NB: Disclosure: Hopper CEO Fred Lalonde is also chairman of Tnooz.