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Ask HN: My side project. Is it useful?
81 points by tomelders on Sept 14, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 61 comments
About 3 years ago, I started work on FlightM8. For reasons that I'll simply refer to as "life falling apart" I stopped working on it. However, seeing Google Flights launch yesterday re-piqued my interest in it and I'm wondering wether I should pick it up again. So what is FlightM8?

Firstly, it's an Alpha. The data is out of date, and it's buggy. It's also on shared hosting so it may well buckle under pressure at the moment.

Here's the URL for the impatient: http://flightm8.tomelders.com/

Secondly: Here's what it does...

In a nutshell, FlightM8 tells you "who flies where". Let's say you're in London. Your boss calls and says you have to meet with Diesel Jeans on Monday. They're a big new client and they're in Bassano Del Grappa, Italy. The rest is up to you to figure out. So... How do you get from London to Bassano Del Grappa?

Well, London is pretty easy for anyone who knows it. You have Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, Stanstead, London City airports to choose from.

Bassano del Grappa?, not so easy. First of all, where the hell is it? When you eventually find it, you realise it doesn't have an airport. Here's where FlightM8 starts being useful. Search for Bassano del Grappa and you'll see that it's served by 3 airports, all within a reasonable distance. Venice Marco Polo, Venice Treviso, Verona Villa Franca.

There's not a flight search engine that I know of that would group those airports together.

Ok, so who flies to those places? This is what flightm8 was built to do. For a combination of routes you have a choice of... Ryanair, Easyjet, Air Berlin, Germanwings, British Airways, Monarch Airlines and BMI.

I'm willing to gamble you've never heard of at least two of those airlines. And two of those airlines (Easyjet, Ryanair) do not show up on flight search websites. (A quick aside, there used to be a bunch of other budget airlines in Europe that you've probably never heard of, but a lot of them went bust in the recession)

The aim is to help you 'start' your search for flights. I started work on it out of necessity because I was flying all over europe and wasting a lot of money on flights, only to be told by a local that I could have flown to an airport I've never heard of, with an airline I've never heard of for half the money.

When I heard Google had bought IATA, I secretly hoped they'd release some sort of API. I doubt that's going to happen, which makes listing prices and times of flight near impossible in terms of cost.

But here's the question: Is FlightM8 useful? Should I resume working on it?

Nice tool, good design, UX could be improved, but I like the idea.

   There's not a flight search engine that I know of that
   would group those airports together.
Not really, I always use the map feature on SkyScanner, you can see and choose a nearby airport, and you can also check if a direct flight is available. If there's one thing where your tool is different, is that you can type the name of a random place, but I find hard to believe that people would be so clueless about the place they're going to.

   And two of those airlines (Easyjet, Ryanair) do not show
   up on flight search websites
Again, SkyScanner does that, and so does a number of other flight search engines or travel sites such as Expedia, eDreams, lastminute etc. This is simply untrue.

Overall, good job, I don't see why people wouldn't want to use this.

p.s: Should you land in Verona Villafranca, come say hi! I live near there :)

I actually am landing in Villa Franca on friday, but I'll be making a bee line straight for Bassano.

As for your points, you're right. I'm out of date. To be honest, I've not checked the competition out thoroughly for a couple of years.

This is great. Nobody ever travels from airport to airport, yet every flight search engine insists that you enter departure and destination airport names instead of places you actually want to go to. How am I supposed to know what airports are nearby a place I've never been before?

FWIW, Orbitz will allow you to search for flights by city names rather than airport codes. I'm not sure how it decides what airports serve a given city, though.

Maybe Orbitz works better in US, but I just tried it with a small selection of English towns and it basically failed spectacularly. flightm8 on the other hand would happily tell me the nearest airport to Leatherhead and Whitby.

Quick criticism. Please take it as points to improve:

The UI is too complicated and confusing. I can't get my head around it. Can you simplify it?

Zooming in and out of the map with the mouse wheel doesn't work.

Too many error messages. Instead of saying "you didn't pick any destination", ask me to pick one from a list or predictive textbox.

Don't show me destinations to which there are no routes. Spending five minutes clicking around to get an error message in the end is no fun.

Don't separate the to and from locations so much visually. Tabs don't feel right for that kind of thing. Anyway, it's just two fields, just show them together.

You didn't completely carry through the concept of going from place to place, rather than airport to airport. When I search for Paris as my destination, you show me a dot on Paris the city, and couple of dots for the airports. My instinct is to click on the dot for the city, not the airports. Let me select the dot for the city.

You could make this really intuitive by getting rid of the text boxes entirely. Let me just click on the map to do everything. Click to select both start and end locations.

All good points, and taken fully on board.

If you'd like some help on the UI let me know - I would love to get my hands on this!

I think what you've got is pretty cool, but you've got some extremely stiff competition from the likes of Hipmunk, and (as of yesterday) Google: google.com/flights.

I also worry that your unique selling point (the fact that it helps to display hard-to-find airports) is difficult to word in an appealing way - who wants to go to hard-to-find airports? I'm not saying it's impossible though, but I think you'd benefit from finding a good way to word that. Good luck!

Thanks for the input. I never thought of it as being a service that offers 'hard to find airports', but rather airports you've never heard of... which for most people, is practically all of them.

But you're right, even when I was building it, I found it hard to explain it succinctly, which made me think it's trying to solve a problem that might not exist... yet it's a problem I run into all the time.

When I was looking at it, I felt like it should be something like, "Find the airports that matter". It's easy to say and it's what I actually want you to find for me. I don't care if you're finding airports I've never heard of or if you're finding the ones that are hard to find. I just don't.

I think there's something in that - how come you're running into the problem so frequently? Is the main use case that you're looking for something like people that look for flights to X and don't realise that they could save money by going to Y which is a short drive away? (E.g. a flight to Gatwick, when they could save 50% by going to Heathrow).

That's mainly it.

Also, most 'airports' are near cities, but most 'places' in the world aren not cities, but are slap bang in the middle of two, three or even four cities. So which airports serve Stoke on Trent? or Schweinfurt? or Alcanar?

Choosing airports for those locations is really something only a human can decide. I may well travel 150 miles from an airport to my destination if it's really important, but that's for me to decide.

Same problem: Google search from CID (Iowa) to Columbus OH turned up - no flights! Really?

Your search - same problem. Am I doing something wrong?

Probably not. That data is from 2009, so it's full of holes.

Great idea, I think it could be really useful.

I'd like it even more if you decrease the focus on the giant map and instead have a little form like

  |  Leaving from: ______________  |
  |                                |
  |      Going to: ______________  |
  |                                |
  |                     [Show me]  |
Let me put in, for example, Vancouver, Canada and New York City

Show me a mini map for my end points and let the rest of the screen show what flights I can take. Maybe with some controls to let me filter on things like "what car rental my company uses", "time on train from airport to city center".

Let me pick specific airports... but don't force me to.

+1 for ASCII art

Interesting; it did show me some airports and airlines I had never heard of, and I might check them out! You definitely should pick it up again!


For some reason "Airlinair" which is a French regional airline, redirects to "Airkenya" which is apparently the national airline of Kenya.

Bug noted and entered into my state of the art bug tracking system.... a text file on my desktop.

Another possible bug: when entering a location, I only seem to be shown nearby airports within the same country. For locations near borders (or in small countries) it's easy to forget the nearest airport might be in the next country. Specific examples:

* Vienna, Austria: Bratislava airport in Slovakia is closer than Linz or Graz

* Figueres, Spain: Perpignan airport in France is closer than Barcelona's).

But yeah, very useful idea (and one I suggested to Hipmunk back when they launched but I guess they're already busy enough).

yup, sometimes it works sometimes it doesn't. I'll have to change the display from "airports in that country" to "airports within x miles", possible with a slider to adjust the radius.

You may want to leave it as an option. As I understand it, Europeans can travel freely within the EU much like Americans can travel freely between states; if an American is going to Austria, is it trivial to land in Slovakia and drive/take a train across the border? (I really don't know; haven't traveled internationally since I was a wee lad.)

if an American is going to Austria, is it trivial to land in Slovakia and drive/take a train across the border?

Yes, travel visas are Schengen-wide, only residency permits are handled on a per-country basis. There's also no border post to physically stop you crossing. It's more complicated when you stay within the EU but leave the Schengen area. People get bitten by this all the time when they book flights with a stop-over in a country for which they have no implicit right of transit (e.g.: the UK).

I search for Heathrow to SFO, click "Get Prices" for the British Airways flight - and it redirects me to http://localhost/error.html

bug, noted, cheers.

I hate 'me too' comments, but this is where I'll jump in - I think it's a great idea, and would have saved me a lot of browsing/googling. Especially useful when you go to less explored areas in Europe, say East Europe, that have unknown airports, unknown airlines. Possibly two features to add on once the service is up: - Search for connecting flights - Have an option to select all airports within X miles.

There's a half baked feature in development at the time I shelved this to find connecting flights with any airline. The hope was that backpackers (for example) could plan cheap flights around the world, flying from say the UK to Australia with budget airlines all the way.

I found one problem: when I'm searching in my location (Bregenz, Austria) the closest airports would be in Germany (Friedrichshafen or Memmingen) or Switzerland (Z├╝rich, Altenrhein) - but it just shows me the Austrian airports (Innsbruck, Salzburg) altough they are far further away. Otherwise a nice idea.

Well spotted, If I pick this up again, I'll show airports based on radial distance and not country.

You've just helped me simplify the itinerary for my upcoming vacation in December! Thanks!

oooh, um... that data is probably out of date. Apologies.

That particular one happens to be up to date. I checked on the airline's website.

easy win. I'll take it.

I'm generally pretty optimistic but I feel that I should push back against the crowd a little here. Plenty of people say "I'd use it", but who will say "I'll pay for it"?

If you're not in it for the money, are you sure it's the most interesting, inspiring or needed tool/app you could be working on, given that it seems the competition may take care of this need anyway?

I've learnt the hard way that you shouldn't let sunk costs of a project sway your decision to carry on with it.

All the best whatever you decide.

Monetizing something isn't the only reason to do it. And you're right too; just because you started something doesn't mean you have to finish it either.

That said, I don't know if any of the travel sites or airlines offer any affiliate programs, but that could be an easy way to monetize your site. Show users the best airport options on your end with pricing from your affiliate sites and bounce them to the airline/travel site with your affiliate code in tow if they click on the flight.

As for the idea, I've personally wasted some time scouring for airports on Google maps and then looking up the rates on various travel sites. Sounds like your site could have saved me some time for sure.

Hipmunk's visualization is pretty badass... BUT it's one airport to one airport.

If you could draw lines from each starting point to each ending point with a price range of the flights available then you are solving a different problem.

You are visualizing that the trip from Tampa to Hawaii could be much cheaper if I drove to Orlando. If that 2 hour drive saves me $500 per ticket then it might be worth it.

Just a thought.

If I were to pick it up again, that would be the plan. However, the big roadblock is that the data for times and prices if very very expensive. And I simply don't have the resources to pay for it.

Definitely. I think it's a much needed service, particularly within Europe.

Good one! Like the idea. The UI needs some hard thinking but for a prototype it's very good. If you had a vision to actually make this happen and include all other transport options I think you wouldn't have too much trouble finding someone to throw money your way.

It determined that I was in Ireland, presented a list of irish airports and will only let me choose them as source and destination. What if i want to fly to or from another country, which in such a small country is far more likely?

As a lot of people have rightly pointed out, the UI sucks.

Basically, click the "going to" tab, and search for any village, town, city or country in the world and it will show you airports for that location.

Definitely a cool idea. The best way to fly from Manila to China is on Cebu Pacific. No flight search in the world will tell you that, because Cebu Pacific is a local budget carrier and just advertises locally.

Honestly you're asking the wrong people. Figure out who your market is and go ask them. That's really hard. I still suck at it nut I'm convinced it's the only way you'll really be successful.

I like it and I didn't find the interface at all confusing. For about 10 seconds I wondered what to do but picked it up

Like it overall, good project to say you have not completed it.

I'm always in a state of whether something is worth doing when someone as big as Google goes into the same sector but I think you are far enough along to make it a useful application.

I presume you monetize the application from airline referrals?

That was the original plan, but that wouldn't really generate much income. I did plan to add hotels, and hotel referrals pay very handsomely.

Well good luck with it. I'm in the process of scoping the market to find somewhere I can make some money. At the minute I'm looking at selling actual product but I like service software as it can be a lot "cooler" than selling products.

You got some good functionality in there, I like being able to select multiple airports very easily and I like the UI.

Sure, there are some aspects of it you could improve but in a lot of ways I am surprised you even needed to ask whether it was worth pursuing as it appears you have put a lot of hard work in already.

I would certainly use it and I would also recommend others using it once everything is back up to date too.

Flightm8 is about 3 years old now and largely unfinished. I suppose the reason I'm asking wether it's a worthwhile endeavour is because I would probably want to start again. I've learnt a lot in 3 years.

I've thought about it a lot today, and I think Google Flights looks like it's on course to offer what Flightm8 would like offer.....

I doubt that's a battle FlightM8 could win. Google has the talent, the reach and most importantly, the data. I have a Dreamhost account a book on "Pro Javascript Techniques" and rent to pay. David and Goliath battles need a killer idea. FlightM8 is just a nice idea.

Some feedback...

I told the site I wanted to go from Milton Keynes in England to Chattanooga TN. I selected the nearest airports to both (Luton and Lovell Fld) and it told me there were no routes.

Maybe if it would help out by automatically selecting different airports, gradually going farthur out from my selected points until it finds a hit, which in this case would be Gatwick or Heathrow to Atlanta.

I really love the idea. But it couldn't find any routes between OMA and CUN. Is this for direct flights only?

yup, but the data is from 2009. This is just a prototype really.

Looks really good for alpha. I like the simple layout. Being able to visualize the location I'm going from and to and the nearby airports is pretty neat. I haven't seen the competition but this is something I'd use when I travel.

Pretty much completely off topic, but Bassano del Grappa was the first place I went in Italy the first time I came here. Beautiful town and a nice area, with the mountains to the north, and the plains of the Veneto to the south.

I lived there for 4 years, which is when I started work on FlightM8. It's the only place other than New Zealand that's ever felt like home.

I miss it a lot. I'm off for a visit there this weekend however, which should be nice.

I'm an Irishman who lives in New Zealand, but I'm currently visiting the inlaws in Italy. Just flew in to Venezia (Marco Polo) this morning, and have spent some time in Bassano del Grappa in the past. It's a fantastic place and a great Mecca for paragliders. A friend used to run a restaurant there called l'Antica Abbazia several years ago, and it was frequented by all the fliers. Ah, the memories are flooding back now! Hope you managed to catch some of those fantastic thermals while you were there.

Oh, and all this OT rambling just to say well done on your side project. As others have pointed out, it's not entirely unique but it's useful and a good start.

Stop by and say hi in Padova some time. Always up for a spritz/pizza/whatever.

Well, almost always; we just bought a new house here and it's a load of work. Send email though, and I'll see what we can do if you're ever in the area.

Yes, this is exactly how I start my search for travel flight - get to know what airlines are flying from one city to another.. this tool would simplify such search a lot! Go for it, make it cool! :)

I'd say resume working on it because this was one of the things that inspired me to put together conferenceroundup.com when I came across flightm8 on Google Maps Mania

Love the idea. Would definitely use it!

This is very nice, slick UI.

Where do you get the data?

Um.... scraped it.

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