Airhitch pioneers cybertravel

By | October 31st, 1996

Ever notice how people like to brag about being first in cyberspace? If it’s not a slogan painted across a Web site, it’s a conversation piece: “I’ve been online since 1990,” or, “We’ve had a presence since 1993.”

To all the propellerheads that think they’ve got something to talk about, meet Robert Segelbaum, online pioneer and founder of Airhitch.

His company was conceived in 1969 to provide a service that is only now catching on among large industry players. It’s a way for people with flexible schedules, particularly students, to buy cut-rate airline seats that otherwise would remain empty.

In 1965, while he was a student at Washington University in St. Louis, Segelbaum completed a summer internship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Coincidentally, one of MIT’s projects du jour was the Defense Department’s ARPAnet, and Segelbaum was allowed rare access to a Digital computer that tested early packet transfer protocols.

“I worked with people who were visionaries, whose ideas about communication didn’t catch on until a few years ago,” he says.

It didn’t take that long for Segelbaum to understand the potential of the technology. Long before the ARPAnet became the Internet, he built Airhitch around the concept of the global medium.

“The Internet makes it possible to discuss very complicated ideas with an audience,” says Segelbaum, who now lives in Martinique and consults with Airhitch. “It deals with human attention in a different way. Television breeds a short attention span, but the Internet lets you communicate a complex idea. And Airhitch is not a simple thing to understand.”

Maybe not, but plenty of people have understood. The company’s earliest efforts entailed working with the academic community, which got wired about 15 years before the rest of us. Airhitch maintained a strong presence on newsgroups and bulletin board systems and finally, this summer, launched a Web site.

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Segelbaum says the site registered 7,000 visits in August, its first full month on the Web. But the trend is upward, with visits “maybe as high as 100,000 a month at the rate things are going.”

The Airhitch home page isn’t flashy or flamboyant in the same way a Pathfinder or Travelocity site is, but it’s functional. All the instructions and disclaimers are posted in black and white and in three languages. Plus, there’s an online order form users can complete to apply for one of the company’s tickets.

Segelbaum expects the ordering utility to languish for now. “A lot of college students don’t have credit cards. And if they do, they’re afraid to put them online,” he says.

Still, he’s certain that his customers are out there. “We get 300 e-mails a day, and the burden has been primarily on me to answer them, so I know that our customers are online.” His next priority is to build a network of what he calls “ex-Airhitchers” to field some of the inquiries.

Segelbaum’s marketing efforts may lack the sophistication of a Manhattan public relations firm or the reach of a mega agency. But there’s one thing no one can take away from him. Despite numerous claims to the contrary, his was probably the first interactive travel company on the Internet.