When Nikil Viswanathan created a website to automatically check himself in to his flights on Southwest Airlines in January, he did it so that his mother wouldn't have to remind him anymore. But the Stanford computer-science graduate's 45-minute project has now garnered a cease-and-desist demand from the airline's attorneys.
The side project was originally intended for his own use, said Viswanathan, 25, who graduated with a master's degree in computer science from Stanford University two months ago. But thousands of people found it anyway, suddenly spawning nearly 10,000 visits in two weeks, stories about it on online travel blogs and even a job offer from online travel site Expedia.com, he said.
On Wednesday, Viswanathan will take the site down so that he won't face a lawsuit from Southwest, he said. He is not the first person to be threatened by Southwest for offering automatic check-in services that get travelers A-list boarding passes. The airline has filed multiple complaints in U.S. District Court to shut down other sites, which were businesses charging a fee for their automated service, according to federal court documents. (Viswanathan's does not.)
Southwest Airlines has "open seating" rather than pre-assigned seats. Travelers receive a boarding pass upon check in that places them in "A," "B," or "C" groups, with numbers from 1 to 60 in each letter category. Customers line up at the gate and are boarded by their group letter and number, at which point they choose their own seats. The process leaves the Johnny-come-lately types with the least desirable seats. Everyone hopes for the A-list designations, which afford the earliest boarding and best seating.
Some A-list seats are already reserved for people in categories such as BusinessSelect class or if they paid $10 for 36-hour-advance EarlyBird Check-In. Then online check in is opened up to the balance of travelers 24 hours in advance.
With Viswanathan's website, CheckInToMyFlight.com, if someone has booked a flight for Friday at 5 p.m., for example, the site will check him or her in automatically on Thursday at 5 p.m., he said.
"You immediately get a really, really good 'A' boarding pass when most of the time people would get a 'B' or 'C' boarding pass," he said.
The only problem? Southwest doesn't allow computer programs to access or use their website as part of its terms of agreement. Automatic check-in sites compete directly with the airline's EarlyBird program, according to the federal lawsuits. In addition, check-in websites bypass Southwest.com, depriving the airline of opportunities to target advertising and sell other products to website visitors, the company claimed.
A Southwest spokesman could not be reached for comment.
In its cease-and-desist letter, Southwest claimed that Viswanathan is running a commercial enterprise, which he denies.
He says on his website that it is "Free! (If you want you can buy me a Jamba Juice!)"
The whole website started as a practical solution to his newfound need to check in to his flights, he said.
"My mom has checked me in throughout my whole life. She told me, 'You're about to graduate. It's time for you to do things on your own in the real world,'" he said.
In January, when he booked a flight to visit his sister in Pennsylvania, Viswanathan said his mother called repeatedly to remind him to check in early online, but he kept forgetting. Looking for a way to not have to remember, he decided to see if he could set up an automated system, he said.
While he and his sister waited to go to a party, he took 45 minutes to set up the program. A few weeks ago he returned to refine the software and turn it into a website. After posting his project on his Facebook page, 100 of his friends "liked" it. He was initially surprised by the response.
"I thought no one would care about it," he said. But he was inspired to officially launch the website on Oct. 2.
Then came the surprise. Hacker News listed his site at the top of its news page, where it remained for a time. In one day, 5,000 people came to the site, he said.
"Lots of people I didn't know were 'liking' it on Facebook and Tweeting about it," he recalled.
The director for worldwide engineering at Expedia.com emailed him with a job offer. Then the blogs Travel By Points and millionmilesecrets.com wrote about CheckInToMyFlight on Oct. 16 and 17.
"It blew my mind," he said.
By this time, however, his website had caught the attention of Southwest. On Oct. 18, the airline emailed him the cease-and-desist letter.
It wasn't a complete shock, but it still made him sad, he said. Over the life of the program, it had checked 600 people in to their flights, with another 750 or so check-ins still in the queue.
"This has been my pet project," Viswanathan said, noting that he wasn't even able to use it himself, given that he hasn't flown recently.
Nonetheless, he takes the website's demise philosophically. He understands that he can't violate the airline's user agreement. But he isn't quite sure what to do about the people who signed onto the website and scheduled check ins for future flights. Some of those people have set up check ins through April 2013, he said.
"Will Southwest be okay with me honoring the existing check ins, or do I email everyone and tell them I'm not allowed to check them in anymore?" he said.
He also wants to talk to Southwest about the legality of checking in travelers who don't have the time and would pay to have someone do it for them, he said. If a person hired a third party to manually check him in at 24 hours -- rather than using a website -- would that be a violation of Southwest's terms, he asked rhetorically.
But mostly, Viswanathan said, he just "wants to build stuff."
He has already helped build a successful events calendar while at Stanford that is used by many students and has spread to other schools. This past summer he worked internships as a product manager for Facebook. (Previous summers included product-management internships at Microsoft and Google), and in summer 2011 he started his own company.
But he turned down both a full-time product-management position at Facebook and the Expedia job. Instead, he wants to create his own company and is currently focusing on building a site that helps people reach their full potential and exceed their goals in life, he said.