The founders of Hipmunk are launching a new startup today that’s aimed squarely at taking on their own former product. Called Flight Penguin, it’s a Chrome browser extension that simultaneously searches a bunch of airline websites and then presents the results in a familiar format. Rather than taking a commission or affiliate fee, Flight Penguin will instead charge its users $10 per month — it’s designed for people who travel a lot (or, since there’s still a pandemic on, people who will imminently travel a lot).
Flight Penguin is also not pulling any punches when it comes to its rhetoric: it promises that there will be “no collusion” with the airline industry, specifically noting that “Some of the largest travel sites hide flights from you in exchange for special favors from airlines.” The site is also gunning for Kayak, saying it will put that search “on ice.”
Hipmunk was a beloved site for travelers in its day, making it easy to compare flight costs across different airlines. Flight Penguin’s spiky stance toward other travel sites and toward the airline industry itself is likely meant to appeal to the people who used the travel site before it was shut down last year. The stance also positions Flight Penguin as a kind of super tool for travelers in the know — at launch users will have to sign up for a waitlist to even try it.
To use Flight Penguin, you click on the extension in your Chrome browser tool bar and enter your search terms — it can handle one-way and round-trip searches for now. Hit enter, and you’ll watch a timer wheel spin for a minute or so. While that wheel spins, the extension is searching airline sites for you in the background and then organizing the results. You can sort by price, timing, or by “pain” — Flight Penguin’s term for a mix of characteristics like price, layovers, timing, etc. At launch, Flight Penguin will also let you search for flights you can pay for with Chase rewards points.
In some sample searches during a demo, I saw some results that wouldn’t have been likely to appear on other flight search sites — including results from airlines I didn’t expect and results that mixed airlines that typically wouldn’t go together. In a search trying to go from Oakland to Shreveport, for example, it came up with an itinerary that combined Sprit and Allegiant which was significantly cheaper than other options.
Adam Goldstein and Steve Huffman (better known now as the CEO of Reddit) are the only two investors — both were founders of Hipmunk back in the day. Goldstein left Hipmunk in 2018 some time after it was purchased by Concur, which shut down the consumer version of Hipmunk just before the pandemic hit last year. The entire Flight Penguin team consists of three people — the extension itself is largely coded by another Hipmunk expat, Sheri Zada. “I don’t need this to be a huge company,” Goldstein says.
Goldstein says that after he and Huffman saw Hipmunk was shutting down, they wanted to create a flight search tool “with less headache, with less dependence on backroom dealing.” He says that they call it the “no collusion philosophy” and that his company does not have any relationships with airlines.
It’s not exactly surprising that there aren’t deals with airlines, because 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. Because it’s a browser extension, to the websites it looks like a normal user doing a normal search, when in fact it’s the Chrome extension clicking the buttons and filling in the fields.
Putting an entire flight search service inside a Chrome extension is clever, but it does require a level of trust in the company. Depending on how it’s written, a Chrome extension can gather a significant amount of information about your browsing habits.
We’ll need to kick the tires on the service ourselves before we can say if it’s any good. One big question looming over the entire enterprise is whether the airline industry will do anything (either technically or legally) to try to block the Flight Penguin extension from gathering search results from their sites.