A lot of people complain about the high price of flying out of Medford.

A lot of people complain about the high price of flying out of Medford.

George Hobica and his associates at Airfare WatchDog are doing something about those weighty fares — here and elsewhere.

Hobica, a former travel writer for a newspaper in Newton, Mass., began tracking fares in his region more than a decade ago then jumped to AOL after his editor moved to the online service.

After a seven-plus year run, in which he built up a sizable audience, Hobica found himself on the outs.

"I got so many e-mails asking "When are you coming back" that I started doing it — just for New York City," says the 52-year-old Hobica. "I started again two years ago and then launched what you see today (airfarewatchdog.com) in April."

Parlaying associations from his AOL days and financing the venture with proceeds from the sale of his New York condo last summer, Hobica and his 10-person staff don't just pull up advertised online ticket rates and listed specials on sites carried on sites like Kayak, Mobissimo and Sidestep. Instead, WatchDog sifts through airline Web sites and passes along fare and code discoveries relayed to them by other users.

Hobica hoped to start the site for $10,000. When the cost proved to be double that, instead of looking for investors he put together a fund-raising effort and picked up $10,000 from fans sending in nominal amounts from $5 to $100.

The site uses blogging software, gets 558,000 unique visitors monthly.

"Most people haven't heard of us," Hobica says. "But we did get mentioned in the New York Times and Money Magazine did something about us online.

WatchDog collects varying fees from directing traffic to Travelocity ($6 per reservation), Cheap Air and other sites, but it also monitors Southwest Airlines, JetBlue and Allegiant Air, the Las Vegas carrier that began flying to Medford in April.

Such airlines don't pass along the typical few dollars to referring Web sites.

"The big sites don't go to Southwest, Allegiant and Skybus," says Hobica, who runs the home-based business from his 16th-story Manhattan apartment overlooking the Hudson River. "What's the economic point? Why waste the manpower to screw yourself out of revenue? We don't make any money for listing Southwest rates, but the whole point is to have a consumer friendly and unique site."

What sets Airfare Watchdog apart from travel search engines, is the human element.

"In order to be different, we use people," Hobica says. "The challenge operationally is keeping up with all the fares and changes and having enough people to throw at fare research. We actually compare airfares on airlines that the computer programs can't, such as Southwest and JetBlue.

Just because a fare goes down a few dollars doesn't necessarily qualify it for addition to the site or e-mail blast.

"If a fare goes down 10 bucks and requires two stops, it wouldn't necessarily be worth people's time," he says.

WatchDog's fare list is based on flexible date searches — so you might need to leave a day or two early or delay a trip to trim perhaps hundreds of dollars from the fare. Taxes, fees and surcharges are not included.

One deal unearthed by Watchdog this week was a US Airways round-trip from Medford to Chicago's O'Hare Airport. A check Saturday of several search engines for Oct. 24-29 travel dates produced a best deal of $428 round-trip fare, including taxes and fees. WatchDog, however, unleashed a search that produced a $198.60 round-trip.

Airfare WatchDog sends out daily bulletins for each locale. Deals appear and disappear in rapid fashion, so the site notes non-advertised rates that can evaporate in minutes.

"At some point we want to provide individual city alerts," Hobica says. "So if you're flying to San Francisco you can see the deals right away."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or at business@mailtribune.com