Ten years ago, Julie Melnick found herself struggling to carry her toddler through the airport while juggling suitcases, a car seat and a stroller. Her husband wasn’t traveling with them, and there was no one there to help.
“I didn’t know how I was going to get through the area to my plane,” Melnick says. “I thought, there has to be a better way.”
So, she created one. Nanny in the Clouds, founded in 2012, matched families flying cross-country with nannies or babysitters booked on the same flight. When Melnick moved back to the East Coast from California, she saw a demand for a similar service in the D.C. area. Soon, SkySquad was born.
SkySquad is an airport concierge service that helps parents get from the car door to the plane door with as little stress as possible. SkySquad assistants can lend a hand during ticketing and security, push luggage or strollers to the gate and watch bags during bathroom breaks.
Then, a few months after the company launched in late 2019, the unthinkable happened: COVID-19 shut down air travel all over the world. Customers quickly canceled their bookings for the second half of March and early April, and “business came to an immediate halt,” says Melnick.
It wasn’t until early last summer that SkySquad began connecting with families again. Some were moving, while others were visiting family they hadn’t seen in months.
“We were able to help a lot of Foreign Service families who continued to travel because they had to go to their posts,” she adds.
According to an Airlines for America study, U.S. plane travel in 2020 dropped by 67% compared with 2019. Though widely available vaccines are helping bring those numbers back up, the report indicates that we might not see pre-2019 levels of travel for a few years.
But Melnick and her team are making the best of it. Chris Tomseth, SkySquad’s chief marketing officer, believes this moment could be a blessing in disguise for the startup.
“We see a ton of potential in the months ahead, May through September, as the peak summer travel rush begins,” Tomseth says.
While running a business during the pandemic was an adjustment, Melnick says it wasn’t all bad. Leading the SkySquad team from her home in Bethesda, she’s been enjoying the extra time she gets to spend with her 12-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter.
“I’ve been eating lunch with my kids almost every day,” Melnick says. “That’s really nice.”
The pandemic has had a bright side for SkySquad, too. Besides figuring out how to put COVID-19 protocols in place for staff, such as symptom monitoring, Melnick was able to slow down and focus on the bigger picture.
“That’s the silver lining — being able to develop a really great team,” she says. “I was able to spend some time on pursuing signings and great co-founders, and that was awesome.”
And clearly, it’s been working. Since its launch, the startup has grown to a staff of 34 across three airports: Dulles, Reagan and Cincinnati.
Through it all, Tomseth says Melnick has been fantastic to work with.
“Julie has this really infectious enthusiasm,” he says.
The pair met on LinkedIn, and Tomseth, who has experience in hospitality and travel, joined SkySquad last summer as an advisor. He and Dave Osborne, another former advisor, officially came on board as co-founders in December 2020.
Tomseth points to Melnick’s energy going into meetings with potential big clients and partners as a show of her passion for SkySquad. Even when things are uncertain — like during the pandemic — Melnick’s attitude is positive, Tomseth says.
“That’s really important in being a successful entrepreneur because there’s going to be ups and downs, and you have to be able to roll with the punches,” Tomseth says. “She’s great at that.”
The company is in talks to expand into more airports by the end of this year, Tomseth says. Melnick is interested in working with airports in the Northeast, and they’re also considering partnerships in Florida, so people escaping the cold winter weather can get a helping hand.
Melnick stresses that SkySquad isn’t only for busy families: Seniors or people with mobility issues use the service, too.
She recalls a story about a 54-year-old man who was terrified to get on his first-ever plane ride. SkySquad staff helped him the whole way and made his journey smoother.
“A service like ours really fits the need of physical support, of carrying bags and car seats, but also that buddy in the airport — to make you feel like you’re less alone,” she says.
This story originally appeared in our June/July 2021 issue.