The founders of Hipmunk are today launching a new startup that is completely focused on taking over their own former product. Called Flight Penguin, it is a Chrome browser extension that simultaneously searches a number of airline websites and then presents the results in a familiar format. Rather than charging any commission or affiliate fee, Flight Penguin will charge its users $ 10 per month – it’s designed for people who travel a lot (or, since pandemic is still raging, people who will soon be traveling a lot ).
Flight Penguin doesn’t pull a punch when it comes to its rhetoric, either: it promises that there will be “no collusion” with the airline industry, noting specifically that “Some of the biggest travel sites hide flights from you in exchange for special airline favors. The site is also shooting Kayak, saying it will put that search ‘on ice’.
Hipmunk was a beloved site for travelers at the time, making it easy to compare flight costs from different airlines. Flight Penguin’s keen attitude towards other travel sites and towards the airline industry itself is probably intended to appeal to the people who used the travel site before it closed last year. The position also positions Flight Penguin as some sort of super tool for travelers in the know – at launch, users will have to sign up for a waiting list to even try it.
To use Flight Penguin, click the extension in your Chrome browser toolbar and enter your search terms – it can handle one-way and return searches for now. Hit enter and you will see a timer wheel spinning for about a minute. With that wheel spinning, the extension searches for airline websites in the background and then organizes the results. You can sort by price, timing or ‘pain’ – Flight Penguin’s term for a combination of features such as price, stops, timing, etc. At launch, Flight Penguin also lets you search for flights that you can pay for with Chase- rewards points.
In some sample searches during a demo, I saw some results that probably wouldn’t have appeared on other flight search sites – including airline results I didn’t expect and mixed airline results that wouldn’t normally match. For example, when looking to get from Oakland to Shreveport, it came up with an itinerary that combined Sprit and Allegiant, which was significantly cheaper than other options.
Adam Goldstein and Steve Huffman (now better known as the CEO of Reddit) are the only two investors – both were the founders of Hipmunk at the time. Goldstein left Hipmunk in 2018 some time after it was bought by Concur, which launched the consumer version of Hipmunk just before the pandemic hit last yearThe entire Flight Penguin team is made up of three people – the extension itself was largely coded by another Hipmunk expat, Sheri Zada. “I don’t need this to be a huge company,” says Goldstein.
Goldstein says that after he and Huffman saw Hipmunk quit, they wanted to create a flight search tool “with less headaches, with less dependence on backroom stuff.” He says they call it the “no collusion philosophy” and that his company has no relationships with airlines.
Unsurprisingly, there aren’t any airline deals as what seems to be happening behind the scenes is that the browser extension is essentially scraping the search results on each individual airline’s website. Being a browser extension, it looks to the websites like a normal user doing a normal search, when in fact it is the Chrome extension clicking the buttons and filling in the fields.
Putting a full flight search service in a Chrome extension is smart, but it does require a certain amount of trust in the company. Depending on how it is written, a Chrome extension can collect a significant amount of information about your browsing behavior.
We will have to kick the tires on the service ourselves before we can say whether it is good. A big question that looms up across the enterprise is whether the aviation industry will do anything (technical or legal) to stop the Flight Penguin extension from collecting search results from their sites.