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Google’s New Airfare Search System

Last week, Google unveiled Flight Search, its new airfare search system. It’s by no means complete: Consider it a beta-plus version, but you can already see it could become an important competitor. And although it really isn’t new—Google bought out ITA software, developer of the system on which many online search systems are based—Google seems bent on improving it:

  • The first thing you notice about Flight Search is that it’s lightning fast. Enter origin, destination, and dates; and with a high-speed Internet connection the resultant display is almost instant.
  • You can sort the display by clicking on any of the column headings: take-off time (the default), flight duration, arrival time, airline, route (connecting cities), and fare.
  • The display automatically limits what most of you would consider non-starter options—higher fares and longer trips—but you can display them if you wish.
  • You can also filter results by number of stops, airline or airline alliance, connecting cities, or specific departure/arrival times.
  • A ‘calendar’ icon displays a two-month graph, day by day, of the lowest fare for a future trip of the same duration.
  • A ‘limits’ icon displays a graphic matrix of fares versus flight durations on which you can move the limiting lines for both parameters.
  • The initial display shows a map with the flight, including fares to other cities, but if I’m heading from Portland to Boston, I’m not sure how useful it is to know that I could go to Vegas for a lower fare.

Once you select flights, you can link through to a site where you can buy the ticket. If all the flights you select are on the same airline, a ‘book’ button gets you directly to that airline’s booking page with your route and dates already entered. But if your itinerary involves more than one airline, all you can do is link directly to any one of the lines involved; you must re-enter your trip data.

Google says that you link directly to an airline and you book directly through that line. Many of you consider this an advantage: Your entire deal is with the airline, not with a third-party agency. Google doesn’t add any booking fees; apparently it generates its income from linking fees paid by each airline.

Flight Search is obviously a work in process. So far, it does not provide robust coverage of domestic routes. When I entered my home airport in Medford, Oregon, as an originating city, for example, the drop-down city menu said “not available.” I found the same for several other small-city airports; clearly, Flight Search doesn’t yet include them. As a ‘consolation prize,’ however, it did correctly place Medford on the map display, even though it couldn’t offer any flights there.

Flight Search also doesn’t cover any international routes—not even Canada—or provide for searching premium-class fares or even for flexible or upgradable economy fares. And, as is typical of online search engines, it does not cover Southwest, Allegiant, or some other small lines.

Will Flight Search ultimately become a ‘go to’ resource for airfare searching? That’s hard to say. The future-trip fare graph and the limits functions are certainly useful, although other sites incorporate similar features. Many of you will prefer its search system that lets you buy directly from an airline, but, again, so do several others. The blazing speed is nice, but a search is really only a few seconds slower than the many search sites with—at least so far—far more robust coverage.

In sum, Google’s Flight Search is still a work in progress. If you’re a leisure traveler between large U.S. cities, it’s certainly worth a look. Beyond that—and for business travelers—it’s a non-starter so far. But the underlying ITA technology that Google bought is very powerful and Google is a very powerful market force. Don’t be surprised if it emerges a future winner in the airfare search race.

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