Flying is the ultimate stress test for humans, depositing crumpled travelers at their destinations hungry, tired, annoyed and sore from the lack of basic modern comforts for everyone seated behind the first-class cabin. Or maybe that’s just me? Wherever you stand on the state of modern air travel, the developers of the Grab airport retail-and-food app have taken a few pain points out of travel.
The app allows travelers to order food, pay for it and be automatically reminded to submit their orders once they actually set foot in the airport, whether it’s a connection or final destination. The idea is to skip the line and have the food waiting for you when you arrive.
Two former Continental airline executives involved in that company’s early tech-based enhancements like web booking and kiosks, designed the app, which uses built-in airport maps and directories of retail and restaurant options so travelers can order food while their plane is still en route or during the great luggage bin queue upon arrival.
First launched at the Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta in 2015, Grab is the brainchild of CEO Mark Bergsrud who was the senior vice president of marketing at Continental, along with Chief Technology Officer Michael Natale, previously managing director of customer experience at United and Continental.
“The whole point of the company is to make the travel experience better and take the stress out of the airport and give people the ability to plan their trip through the airport … by having a frictionless pre-order system with pickup at the store,” Bergsrud said. “If you’re back in economy and deplaning, it takes a little while and then you have to run to the next gate and you’re going to be in a bit of a hurry to get your overhead in the bin.”
The Grab app is currently in 26 airports, 21 in the U.S. and five in the U.K., but the company’s goal is inking partnerships with all major North American and European airports in the coming years.
Does the app depend on travelers paying for in-flight wifi? Bergsrud said Grab is already embedded in the American Airlines app, which allows its travelers to use the service for free during flights. He added that it will soon announce partnerships with two other major airlines, which he said will quickly ramp up adoption and use of Grab for all travelers, whether or not they paid for add-on internet service.
“The real struggle is not building an ordering platform—there’s lots of them out there—it’s how do you engage with the customer where they are on the day of travel and make it easy for them to transact,” he added. “That’s where we think the airlines are really invaluable in making this happen, as well as partnerships with innovative airports.”
Remarking on my own discomforts and emotional bruises from recent air travel, I asked Bergsrud why the app doesn’t automatically place orders once the traveler reaches the geofence of the airport. He said the reason was due to inevitable delays, unexpected flight changes and other factors (like a particularly slow deplaning process) that can change travel plans at a moment’s notice. Instead, he likened the process to an on-demand Uber purchase with turnaround times typically in the 10- to 15-minute range depending on the particular restaurant, coffee shop or retailer.
“People can change their mind or a gate can change, so we always want to make sure the customer makes an affirmative decision, because once the order is placed it’s going into the kitchen,” he said.
Grab views super-frequent travelers as its sweet spot, but Bergsrud added that pilots and flight attendants, gate agents and other airport employees use the app, especially those with limited time for meal breaks.
“Our goal is to appeal to everyone and then find the right integration that makes it easy for folks to discover us and use us,” he said. “We want to make sure no matter where you are digitally on the day of travel, it’s easy to find us and do business with the airport and then the airports win.”