Eyeing Air Travel, Airbnb Hires Former Virgin America CEO

(Bloomberg) -- Airbnb Inc. isn’t building an airline. It’s not going to start a generic flight booking platform. In fact, years after promising to get into the aviation business, Airbnb still hasn’t "settled on exactly" what it’s doing in air travel, Chief Executive Officer Brian Chesky said in a statement.

But the startup is hiring a former top airline executive to help figure it out. Fred Reid, the one-time chief executive officer of Virgin America who most recently worked at the flying car company Kitty Hawk, is joining Airbnb as the global head of transportation, the company announced Thursday.

Eyeing Air Travel, Airbnb Hires Former Virgin America CEO

Reid has deep experience in the airline industry. He’s previously held the title of president at Delta Air Lines Inc., Deutsche Lufthansa AG and Flexjet. In 2015, he joined Kitty Hawk, which is backed by Google co-founder Larry Page. Reid’s departure is a high-profile loss for that company, which has yet to launch its hotly anticipated electric flying vehicles. It’s also a signal that Airbnb may be taking flights more seriously than previously thought.

The San Francisco-based home sharing company has made an effort to expand beyond helping tourists rent out other people’s apartments, though short-term house rentals remain by far its largest business. The company has tried to generate interest in selling activities to travelers. It dabbled in boutique hotels. And for years it has mused about getting into the air travel business.

In 2016, Airbnb announced its intention to offer a flight-related product "in the future." The same year, Airbnb considered purchasing the flight-booking website Skyscanner Ltd. but didn’t go through with it, people familiar with the matter said at the time.

Chesky’s ambitions have always been sweeping, even if the 10-year-old company’s timeline has dragged. He told Bloomberg’s Brad Stone for his 2017 book, "The Upstarts," "I want to do for travel what Apple did to the phone."

Those aspirations were spotlighted last year when the Sunday Times ran an article titled, "Airbnb founder Brian Chesky reveals secret plans to launch airline." But in Thursday’s announcement, Chesky made clear that the company would be taking a different path. "I’m not interested in building our own airline or creating just another place on the internet where you can buy a plane ticket,” he said in a statement, “but there is a tremendous opportunity to improve the transportation experience for everyone."

That leaves unanswered the question of what exactly Airbnb is planning. In the meantime, Booking Holdings Inc., now an $88.3 billion company, as well as a host of other growing internet travel services, looms large in an already crowded industry.

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