Loyalty for those in loyalty programs

ExpertFlyer cofounder Chris Lopinto.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

A decade later, an original Long Island dotcom is still flying high.

Expert Travel Services LLC, dba ExpertFlyer, went wheels-up in 2005, based on the combined thinking of three cofounders with extensive commercial-flight experience.

Chris Lopinto, the company president, was an IT expert who got into the miles and points game early. His father, John Lopinto, founded Communications Specialists Inc. in 1983, and the electronic manufacturing firm kept him in the air quite often, including frequent trips to Asia. And Joseph Lopinto, Chris’ uncle, was a longtime pilot for Continental Airlines.

In 2004, the three started kicking around ideas based on their understanding of loyalty programs, sky-miles and the like. The big idea: an online portal that would help frequent flyers use their rewards programs to the fullest, while alerting travelers when better seats and other upgrades became available.

“All three of us had experience with the travel industry, especially from a consumer point of view,” Chris Lopinto told Innovate LI. “We knew there were a lot of frequent flyers out there who would value useful travel information.”

As any frequent flyer knows, points and sky-miles programs can be a pain. An airline might share some information about its awards inventory, but thanks to capacity control and other limiting protocols, finding the right seat on the right flight is often difficult.

The “back-end, behind-the-scenes flight data” is out there, according to Lopinto, and has been since the 1960s, when airlines started managing flight inventories electronically. Reams of data on flights, seats, cancellations and more are aggregated on what he called GDS, or global distribution systems – basically, paid-access databases built for the exclusive use of professionals like travel agents, who’ve long been able to compare prices, seat availability and rewards opportunities across multiple carriers with minimal keystrokes.

ExpertFlyer’s masterstroke was to tap into that data and share it with the masses – even if the concept needed some explaining.

“At first, the reaction of the GDS people was, ‘You want to do what?’” Lopinto said. “A service that wanted the data but not to sell tickets was foreign to them.”

Lopinto – who earned a bachelor’s degree in information technology in 2002 from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate Troy and had already launched one company, Patchogue-based consultancy Hillcrest Technologies – basically built the initial website himself, though at first even he was hesitant to go all in.

“I was doing Hillcrest and started building the first version (of ExpertFlyer) in 2004,” he said. “I didn’t know what would happen, so I did both for a while. But ExpertFlyer started doing really well, and I quickly realized I couldn’t run two full-time companies.”

In 2006, Lopinto sold Hillcrest Technologies to Bohemia-based BMB Consulting and focused fully on his former side business. In addition to the wealth of personal knowledge amassed by the Lopintos, the startup leaned heavily on FlyerTalk, an old-school, circa-1990s message board populated by frequent travelers that’s still pumping today, now as the heart of a full-on digital travel hub.

“We knew from FlyerTalk that people wanted this information,” Lopinto noted. “We knew how to get it. And with my expertise in IT, we knew how to share it.”

The subscription-based startup became profitable almost immediately; a story on the front page of The Wall Street Journal’s travel section published just six months after ExpertFlyer went live “tripled our membership in just one day,” Lopinto said.

Lopinto wouldn’t reveal how many subscribers the site currently has, but did note his company – which offers free, basic and premium memberships – has been turning monthly profits ever since that six-month mark.

Among the bells and whistles: An Award & Upgrade Search that instantly lists all open awards-friendly seats across all airlines and a Flight Alerts feature that instantly pings subscribers when new awards inventory comes available. A Seat Alerts tool – which monitors a specific flight to let users know if something better than the middle seat on that 13-hour cruise to Sydney opens up – can be used once for free, with additional alerts available through a mobile app at 99 cents apiece.

Other free-version options include seat maps of specific flights – easy to find on the websites of most U.S. carriers but rare for European and Asian airlines, “which is pretty crappy,” Lopinto noted, “because if you’re going to be on a flight for 14 hours, you might want to know if there’s somewhere better to sit.”

ExpertFlyer, meanwhile, now aggregates data from multiple GDS providers, including one of the industry’s oldest: American Airlines Group’s Sabre Reservation System, which the carrier has been using to manage flight data since the 1950s.

With his family startup long-since reaching its cruising altitude, Lopinto now dedicates a portion of his time to assisting other regional entrepreneurs, primarily through the Meetup group “Started on LI,” which brings together local entrepreneurs for monthly networking, libations and discussions on common challenges.

Lopinto has spent years dealing with industry backlash – some airlines don’t appreciate having their data shared “outside the travel-professional ecosystem,” he noted – though such turbulence has always been part of ExpertFlyer’s flightpath.

Today, the firm spends more time looking ahead. In 2016, ExpertFlyer will begin incorporating flight data from new airlines (Lopinto wouldn’t say which) and will look to grow its B2B side, which helps travel agents find better opportunities for their customers.

The company is also in talks with several existing websites – “big travel names you know,” Lopinto noted – about providing aggregated data they might not otherwise possess.

Just because you fly solo, he added, doesn’t mean you can’t fly higher.

“After 11 years, we’re still unique in this,” Lopinto said. “No other website does what we do. And all the services we have, all the services we add, have a common theme of making the customer happier.”