30SecondsToFly is a new travel management solution founded by CEO Felicia Schneiderhan and Riccardo Vittoria, two innovative NYU students who met during their Fulbright year at the university. It has a new solution to business travel: its automated travel assistant, Claire. Usually, small and medium-sized businesses cannot fund a travel team or a contract with a travel agency, but Claire is an alternative to these costly ventures.

Claire is an example of artificial intelligence, but she’s as helpful as a real member of a company’s team. She can message members of your company through services like Slack, Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, and SMS, and is personalized for each member of a company. She will learn the preferences of each member of a company and offer them 4 choices that are both within their preferences and in line with company travel policy. She doesn’t only schedule trips – she also provides analytics to company CEOs and tells employees about any problem that might come up during their flights. She can tell an employee if his or her flight is delayed, for example, and an employee can text Claire and tell her that he or she needs to reschedule a flight. She can also help an employee find a hotel in the location that they are traveling to. Heads of companies are able to adjust the price threshold of the flights that are within company travel policy and restrict flights to only certain airlines or cabins. Claire also has a travel analytics dashboard, accessible to the CEOs, and can make it so that employees do not have to manually fund their travel.

30SecondsToFly’s Claire has been showing that personalization is incredibly important for travel management solutions. She is powered by machine learning, thanks to 30SecondsToFly’s co-founder, Riccardo Vittoria. 30SecondsToFly is also partnered with Jetblue. She uses neuro-linguistic processing to converse with the users of 30SecondsToFly, and a trip selection algorithm to find the best flights. 30SecondsToFly is using tools built by APLai, a Chinese company, in order to do this.

Claire’s History

30SecondsToFly was founded in 2015 by Vittoria and Schneiderhan, who describe themselves as “efficiency geeks”. They created Claire after becoming frustrated by how inefficient business flights could be. Prior to their founding of 30SecondsToFly, both Schneiderhan and Vittoria were already business innovators. This happened for Schneiderhan accidentally, as her product Black Bun turned into Blackbun Fashion in 2013. Black Bun is a hair accessory that turns fine hair into curls. Schneiderhan designed Black Bun as a solution to curling her own fine hair, but when a businesswoman friend of hers suggested that she turn Black Bun into a business, she rolled with the idea. Since then, Blackbun has become a full-fledged business with Schneiderhan as the CEO and founder and has a supply chain and a brand. The creation of Blackbun showed Schneiderhan that being an entrepreneur was what she wanted to do with her life, and since then she has been developing her entrepreneurship skills even further.

Vittoria graduated summa cum laude from the La Sapienza University of Rome and founded a spin-off of PictYourParty in Rome called Matrimoni Foto Roma, a wedding photography company. He was also a Merit-Based Researcher in Machine Learning at the La Sapienza University of Rome, supervising students using Matlab, Weka libraries, and Bloomberg data. Vittoria graduated from NYU with a Master of Science in Industrial Engineering and a 4.0 GPA, following a membership in the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Association.

Schneiderhan and Vittoria started their entrepreneurship partnership with Peekbite, a software that allowed restaurant customers to order food prior to arriving at a restaurant. The startup was an immediate success, winning the annual NYU Innovation competition. However, some restaurants working with Peekbite didn’t want to pay the fee to use the app, so Schneiderhan and Vittoria pulled the plug on the application after eight months. During their time developing Peekbite, however, Schneiderhan and Vittoria connected with many advisors from various companies and institutions such as Apple, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Singapore University of Technology and Design. Two of these advisors were professors who are experts in optimization and machine learning.

The idea for Claire began in Schneiderhan and Vittoria’s minds following the extreme difficulties Vittoria experienced when traveling to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. He needed a multiple-destination flight that took him from Seattle to Vietnam, and it took him longer than a day to find and book his preferred flight. Vittoria was so upset by this inconvenience that he called Schneiderhan to vent his frustrations, informing her that the two needed to make business flights easier for travelers and that he believed they could come up with a solution, and thus Claire was born.

Technological Challenges

Working on Claire has been challenging, as her development requires two different forms of artificial intelligence. The first is natural language processing, which enables her to understand human speech and chat back with the user. Although there are many great NLP libraries, they need a lot of tweaking to adjust to Claire’s customer interactions.

The second component of Claire is the trip selection algorithm, which is her core and the most fun for her development team. Claire needs to learn user preferences, such as an employee consistently buying tickets from one airline or at a set price. The challenge with the trip selection algorithm is that it takes time for the company to create a large enough data set to teach Claire about the complexities of the human brain.

Thankfully, Claire has been becoming very intelligent! She can now predict a user’s preferences with a small amount of data even if they have never used her before because she compares their first set of preferences to past users. She can, for example, recognize the travel patterns of those who prefer to sit in an aisle or window seat, or those who prefer airlines that provide vegetarian meals to their passengers. Claire is a fully-automated AI assistant that can reduce the two-hour average it takes to find a good flight to thirty seconds, hence the name of the company!