In 2013, Daniel Gartenberg was a grad student at George Mason University in a psychology class called Human Factors and Applied Cognition taught by Robert Youmans, now Head of UX Research at Google. Fleet, the Virginia-based transportation technology startup for which Gartenberg is now CEO, was born from that class and more specifically, a challenging assignment that Youmans gave.
Back then, Gartenberg, along with a small group of fellow students, worked together to make a smartphone app capable of winning the Federal Aviation Association’s (FAA) yearly innovation award. This specific FAA competition, known as the FAA Design Competition for Innovative Applications of FAA Data, looked to highlight exemplary design work and creative ways of using the agency’s publicly accessible open-source data. Youmans’ finally project to the class, which dictated a significant portion of their final grade, was to build an innovative product worthy of the award.
Fleet won the award in 2013. Today, nearly two and a half years later and with Gartenberg close to completing his Ph.D, several members from the original team are working together to re-launch Fleet in full force.
A beta version of Fleet was launched in August via the Apple AppStore. Two weeks ago, a polished, updated and revised version was introduced to take advantage of the busy holiday travel season. Gartenberg told DC Inno that his app currently boasts 5,000 unique users and that there has been a spike in downloads heading into the winter.
So, what exactly is Fleet and how does it improve the flying experience?
Perhaps the best way to describe Fleet is by comparing it to Waze, in that Waze crowdsources user inputted data about driving conditions, including the placement of police cars, vehicle accidents and traffic through a map, to provide a more comprehensive and live overview of traffic conditions for other users.
“We’re really working on reducing the anxiety that’s associated with today’s travel,” said Gartenberg.
Fleet follows a similar model to Waze but instead focuses on realtime airport conditions concerning things like flight delays and the size of security lines, which can cause someone to miss a flight. The idea is that with the touch of a smartphone, a Fleet user can get a more accurate and immediate understanding of travel circumstances. With this new clarity they can also easily share the information with friends of family, who choose to “follow” their progress.
Gartenberg explained that Waze’s success and its underlying ability to effectively leverage crowdsourced travel information has long been an inspiration to him and others on the team.
In essence, Fleet users are encouraged to report what they see and experience on the ground at airports, and then this information is aggregated and disseminated, providing a more accurate picture. At the moment, the company siphons flight route data through an API created by a competitor called FlightStats before layering the crowdsourcing data overtop. The result is a more comprehensive and faster alert about a delay or early arrival.
While there are other competitors in the space, including San Fransisco-based travel itinerary startup TripIt, Gartenberg said that Fleet is the only one to leverage crowdsourcing. At the center of Fleet, beyond the hard data, is a vibrant dashboard that is easy to navigate and relatively simple to understand.
In playing with the Fleet app for the last several days and running through mock trips from nearby Dulles airport, my experience was positive. The app is smooth, well designed and does a good job of categorizing relative information, making it easy to find and understand—which is important, speaking from personal experience, when needing to make a split decision while running between two different flight gates on opposite end of the airport.
Even so, significant challenges stand in the way of Fleet becoming a go to app for flight travel. To begin, the strength of a crowdsource-centric platform is in the user base, also known as the crowd. For reference, the average American flies less than 1 time per year.
Like Waze, Fleet needs to have an active user base that is consistently using the app, reporting conditions and inputting other feedback, to make it a truly great and effective product that stands above FlightStats. But unlike Waze, which is focused on driving, people don’t travel by air as much. Which translates into an uphill battle to acquire a consistently active user base, regardless of whether its Fleet or a clone company in the future.
Gartenberg said that Fleet works around this issue by using the FlightStats API, but he also recognizes it as a problem. In time, he hopes to develop a more active marketing campaign supported by a seed funding round to attract more users. In addition, the young CEO said that Fleet will always be focused on providing a high quality user experience, lifted by the app, and that will in turn spur more downloads in time.
The Fleet team has a lot planned for the still-nascent app when it comes to development as well. Gartenberg wants to use bluetooth enabled sensors inside airports to support yet another level of accuracy, though that remains a work in progress. Also, a feature that will allow “followers” to send travelers a gift through an airport concession store will soon be available. For example, if a parent sees their traveling daughter is stranded at LAX because of a delay they can send along a “gift” via a Fleet partner that is based in the airport. With a swipe from their smartphone, a coffee or snack could be sent while the parent continues to monitor the trip. In such a case, Fleet would scoop a fee from the vendor for encouraging the purchase.
At the moment, Fleet is cash flow negative. The app is free to use and is available only for iOS. An Android app is planned for 2016. Alongside the partner-concession vendor revenue stream, the team plans to one day sell the inputted data it collects to airports so that they can gain individualized insight into how to best improve operations.
Fleet is currently a seven person company, though everyone is working part-time. The team is made up by Melissa Smith, Rob Youmans, Peter Lee, Jordan Higgins, Octavian Geagla and Vincent Mamo. Gartenberg, himself, is two months from completing his Psychology Phd from George Mason.
The startup is in the process of pitching to venture capitalists for a seed investment that would effectively enable Gartenberg and two developers to become full-time employees. Fleet has been bootstrapped to date outside of the $2,500 prize it won in 2013 via the FAA award.