Skyscanner flying high as it hits ten million app download milestone

TRAVEL search firm Skyscanner will this week hit a major milestone of ten million users who have downloaded the firm’s “app” to their smartphone.

TRAVEL search firm Skyscanner will this week hit a major milestone of ten million users who have downloaded the firm’s “app” to their smartphone.

Gareth Williams, the chief executive, said adoption of the free mobile version of the firm’s service was ten times more successful than originally anticipated when the company launched its first app for iPhone in February 2011.

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Following a highly successful year in which the company signed a deal with Baidu, China’s largest search engine, it is on track to reach close to £30 million turnover – handling transactions on $3 billion (£1.8bn) worth of flight sales for its airline partners – and achieving about £10m in profits.

Last week, the company launched its app for the BlackBerry. Athough BlackBerry use is in decline in the West, it is one of the biggest handsets in important Skyscanner markets such as Indonesia.

Bonamy Grimes, one of the three founders of the business and the chief strategy officer, said the success of its mobile app is being driven by ease of use. Currently, users search flights on the app for “inspiration”, then make bookings using the firm’s website.

But customers, particularly in Southeast Asia – where the firm’s business is growing at its fastest – are increasingly bypassing the website altogether and booking flights direct on their phones.

Grimes said: “We find the engagement on mobile is so much higher. When you are using your mobile it is often in a more social context. That gives you more opportunity to show somebody the options on the phone and discuss it, which gives us much greater word-of-mouth usage – and therefore it is growing. “On Monday we had 400,000 search sessions through mobile apps. That is quickly catching up with the website. If it continues at this rate it will overtake it.” Williams said the app already makes up a third of the company’s traffic and “towards that” of revenues.

Williams added: “There are a number of these markets where there are more people using our service on mobile devices than on PCs. In many ways Asia is leading the way ahead of Europe.”

The company was founded in 2001 as a simple web tool to solve the problems the founders were having with their own travels. Williams’ brother was doing a ski season in the Alps and he found it difficult to find out which airlines flew where, when and at what cost.

“We built a tool that worked for us and we decided to build a business out of it,” he said.

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In 2008 the firm raised £2.5m from venture capital firm Scottish Equity Partners (SEP). “That was the point at which our focus changed from budget airlines in Europe to every flight worldwide,” said Williams.

The Skyscanner technology, which has been developed in Edinburgh – with many of the firm’s employees having been recruited from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics – currently handles 650 million flight prices every day. The system uses real time information from 600 airlines, in 30 languages and a range of currencies.

The company is on track to consolidate its three Edinburgh offices into one at Quartermile, which is appealing to Williams because of its proximity to the university and the emerging “silicon bridges” area of the city popular with other web technology oriented start-ups.

The next development for Skyscanner is to integrate its flight search with emerging market rail systems – including the massive and labyrinthine Indian network. And while the firm has been busy expanding its presence in Asia, Williams also has ambitions to open an office in the US.

“Most of what we want to do is fundable through cash flow,” he added. “We may in a couple of years seek to raise a war-chest, either for acquisitions or marketing drives.”

The Edinburgh company has also unveiled its first major sports sponsorship. Skyscanner is backing Scottish racing cyclist Graeme Obree in his attempt to break the British and world human-powered bicycle speed records.

Williams said Obree was a “cycling legend”. “Like us, he continues to conquer the world from a base in Scotland.”