Earn Crypto While You Fly: Why Airline Reward Programs Are Taking to the Blockchain

Harri Weber

Harri is dot.LA's senior finance reporter. She previously worked for Gizmodo, Fast Company, VentureBeat and Flipboard. Find her on Twitter and send tips on L.A. startups and venture capital to harrison@dot.la.

​A FlyCoin ad on an airline passageway.
Courtesy of FlyCoin

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These days, more startups are looking to cash in on crypto fever by offering customer loyalty rewards through the blockchain. But how many of them also happen to run their own airline?

That’s the question posed by Josh Jones, the Los Angeles-based investor and crypto evangelist whose role in resurrecting regional airline Ravn Alaska was the impetus for his latest venture, FlyCoin. Billing itself as “the world’s first crypto frequent flier program,” the startup is built around FLY, a crypto token minted on the Ethereum blockchain that travelers will be able to earn by flying—much like traditional frequent flier miles.

To fund its launch, L.A.-based FlyCoin closed a $33 million seed round earlier this month led by Jones, who co-founded the web hosting platform DreamHost and recently made headlines after losing millions in Bitcoin through a SIM swap attack. Other investors in FlyCoin’s funding round include System1 co-founder Michael Blend, TenOneTen Ventures, 8VC, Liquid 2 and Gaingels. The startup declined to publicly disclose its valuation. (Disclosure: Jones is an investor in dot.LA)

Currently, the only way to earn FLY is by booking a flight through Anchorage, Alaska-based Ravn, which exclusively serves its home state. Later this year, FlyCoin plans to make the token available on crypto wallets and exchanges, meaning holders can exchange it for other cryptocurrencies or even cash.

Yet before FlyCoin could get off the ground, another startup had to endure turbulence amid the pandemic. L.A.-based FLOAT Shuttle (FLOAT was an acronym for “Fly Over All The Traffic”) had only just launched when lockdowns initially began in 2020; with backing from Jones and other investors, the startup airline intended to fly commuters over clogged Southern California freeways for a monthly subscription starting at $1,250.

But after the coronavirus cleared up the Southland’s notorious traffic for a months-long period, FLOAT had to look for opportunities elsewhere. It found one in the form of a deal to buy the beleaguered Ravn out of bankruptcy, resurrecting the regional airline. (FLOAT now plans to launch a sibling airline called Northern Pacific Airways, which will offer international flights through Anchorage.)

FlyCoin CEO Lenny MoonFlyCoin CEO Lenny MoonCourtesy of FlyCoin

FlyCoin was initially born out of a need to establish a frequent flier program for Ravn. Years earlier, Jones and System1 co-founder Blend had explored launching a crypto-enabled loyalty rewards business—making Ravn an opportunity to breathe life into an old idea, Jones told dot.LA. “We’re not trying to be too crazy—we’re just taking crypto loyalty tokens to airlines, and we have the advantage of having an airline,” he said.

FlyCoin’s ties to Ravn and Northern Pacific give it a vehicle through which it can build momentum for FLY. The startup aims to eventually expand the token’s reward system to other airlines, hotels and hospitality businesses, as well.

Whatever alliances it can form will help FlyCoin stand out in an emerging crypto customer rewards market. While the airline industry has dipped its toes into the blockchain, the scope of its efforts have thus far been limited—though there are ventures like blockchain platform Loyyal’s partnership with Dubai-based airline Emirates. Carriers like Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines have also pursued crypto-related efforts.

Still, the largest airline operators have relatively little incentive to innovate in the space, according to FlyCoin CEO Lenny Moon. The likes of United Airlines and American Airlines have billions of dollars in debt tied to their existing customer rewards programs, and neither company responded to inquiries on whether they plan to develop blockchain-related initiatives.

“They don’t want to disrupt the status quo,” Moon told dot.LA, also criticizing established airlines’ “walled” approach to loyalty rewards and their point expiration dates. “We’re sitting in 2022—now that we have cryptocurrency, why should we have something that is so archaic in terms of the reward system?”

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Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Genies Wants To Help Creators Build ‘Avatar Ecosystems’

When avatar startup Genies raised $150 million in April, the company released an unusual message to the public: “Farewell.”

The Marina del Rey-based unicorn, which makes cartoon-like avatars for celebrities and aims to “build an avatar for every single person on Earth,” didn’t go under. Rather, Genies announced it would stay quiet for a while to focus on building avatar-creation products.

Genies representatives told dot.LA that the firm is now seeking more creators to try its creation tools for 3D avatars, digital fashion items and virtual experiences. On Thursday, the startup launched a three-week program called DIY Collective, which will mentor and financially support up-and-coming creatives.

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Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

Christian Hetrick

Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.

Here's What To Expect At LA Tech Week

LA Tech Week—a weeklong showcase of the region’s growing startup ecosystem—is coming this August.

The seven-day series of events, from Aug. 15 through Aug. 21, is a chance for the Los Angeles startup community to network, share insights and pitch themselves to investors. It comes a year after hundreds of people gathered for a similar event that allowed the L.A. tech community—often in the shadow of Silicon Valley—to flex its muscles.

From fireside chats with prominent founders to a panel on aerospace, here are some highlights from the roughly 30 events happening during LA Tech Week, including one hosted by dot.LA.

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PCH Driven: Director Jason Wise Talks Wine, Documentaries, and His New Indie Streaming Service SOMMTV

Jamie Williams
­Jamie Williams is the host of the “PCH Driven” podcast, a show about Southern California entrepreneurs, innovators and its driven leaders on their road to success. The series celebrates and reveals the wonders of the human spirit and explores the motivations behind what drives us.
Jason Wise holding wine glass
Image courtesy of Jason Wise

Jason Wise may still consider himself a little kid, but the 33-year-old filmmaker is building an IMDB page that rivals colleagues twice his age.

As the director behind SOMM, SOMM2, SOMM3, and the upcoming SOMM4, Wise has made a career producing award-winning documentary films that peer deep into the wine industry in Southern California and around the world.

On this episode of the PCH Driven podcast, he talks about life growing up in Cleveland as a horrible student, filmmaking, Los Angeles and his latest entrepreneurial endeavor: A streaming service called SOMMTV that features–what else?–documentaries about wine.

The conversation covers some serious ground, but the themes of wine and film work to anchor the discussion, and Wise dispenses bits of sage filmmaking advice.

“With a documentary you can just start filming right now,” he says. “That’s how SOMM came about. I got tossed into that world during the frustration of trying to make a different film, and I just started filming it, because no one could stop me because I was paying for it myself. That’s the thing with docs,” or “The good thing about SOMM is that you can explain it in one sentence: ‘The hardest test in the world is about wine, and you’ve never heard about it.’”

…Or at least maybe you hadn’t before he made his first film. Now with three SOMM documentaries under his belt, Wise is nearing completion of “SOMM4: Cup of Salvation,” which examines the history of wine’s relationship with religion. Wise says it’s “a wild film,” that spans multiple countries, the Vatican and even an active warzone. As he puts it, the idea is to show that “wine is about every subject,” rather than “every subject is about wine.”

For Wise, the transition to launching his own streaming service came out of his frustration with existing platforms holding too much power over the value of the content he produces.

“Do we want Netflix to tell us what our projects are worth or do we want the audience to do that?” he asks.

But unlike giants in the space, SOMMTV has adopted a gradual approach of just adding small bits of content as they develop. Without the need to license 500 or 1,000 hours of programming, Wise has been able to basically bootstrap SOMMTV and provide short form content and other more experimental offerings that typically get passed over by the Hulus and Disneys of the world.

So far, he says, the experiment is working, and now Wise is looking to raise some serious capital to keep up with the voracious appetites of his subscribers.

“Send those VCs my way,” Wise jokes.

Subscribe to PCH Driven on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify, iHeart, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.

dot.LA reporter David Shultz contributed to this report.