Four years later, did Google kill flight search?

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When David Sun needs a cheap ticket, he Googles it. When James Pillow wants to fly somewhere, he doesn’t.

Googling, in both cases, refers to Google’s Flight Search
tool, which is the result of the Internet behemoth’s controversial 2010
acquisition of ITA Software, an airfare pricing and shopping
application. The deal had to be approved by the Justice Department and
was subject to a restrictive consent decree. Now, four years later,
experts and travelers are wondering whether they got a better search engine out of it.
Maybe they did.
Google Flight Search, loved by some and ignored by others, hasn’t
turned into the competition-crushing Web site that its critics predicted
it would be. Rather, it quietly evolved into a useful site for air
travelers, one that you should consider including in your next fare
search if you want to save time and money.

Sun, the president of SunBlock Systems, a digital forensics company
in Reston, Va., turns to Google’s Flight Search tool for last-minute
airline tickets. “It’s my default flight search tool,” he says. He
favors the simplicity of its interface and the way it adjusts to his
travel preferences, automatically excluding Baltimore from his searches,
for example.

“I like the way it takes me to the airline’s Web site for final
booking and payment,” he says. “Not only do I not have to worry about an
intermediary if there are flight problems, but I can avoid the booking
fees that other travel sites require for their services.”

But Pillow, who works for a sports memorabilia site in Orlando, is
unimpressed with Flight Search. “I find it very clunky,” he says. The
fact that he can’t make a direct purchase but is referred to another
site annoys him. “It will probably be the go-to tool in the future,” he
says. But “it seems very much in beta at the moment, when compared to
Expedia and others.” (“Beta” is tech-talk for “still being tested.”)

“Like all our products, Flight Search is constantly evolving to
adjust to new technologies and demands,” says Google spokeswoman Anaik
Weid. Internally, the process of improving a product over time is
referred to as “launch and iterate.”

You have to look closely to see the differences between Google Flight
Search in 2011 and today. The interface hasn’t changed vastly. At the
top of the screen, you can enter your destination. (Google tries to
guess your home airport.) You can search by stops, price, airline and
duration.

Since I first covered Flight Search in this column, in October 2011,
it has made several noteworthy improvements. You can search for
international flights and book directly through most major online travel
agencies and airlines, including two that were conspicuously missing at
launch — Virgin America and JetBlue Airways. There’s a new map that
shows live fares, which tell you what it costs to fly from your home
airport to another. If you’re trying to save a little money, click on
the little bar to find out when the lowest airfares are available.

Perhaps Flight Search’s best qualities are its speed and
comprehensiveness. It’s blazingly fast, and if you run a few searches,
you’ll find that it offers a mind-numbing number of flight options and
possible combinations, which were considered ITA’s strengths.
(Unfortunately, it doesn’t display all options: There is some Southwest
inventory, but you don’t see prices unless you click through to the
airline’s site, making a fare comparison a little tricky.)

When Google bought ITA and used its technology to create Flight
Search, competitors were worried that it would quickly put them out of
business. But four years later, the companies that had misgivings are
still here. Four online agencies — Expedia, Orbitz, Priceline (which
owns Kayak.com) and Travelocity — have a virtual lock on the American
online travel industry, with a 95 percent market share, according to
analysis by PhoCusWright.

“I don’t think that Fare Search has had much impact on consumers,”
says Edward Hasbrouck, a critic of the ITA purchase. But he thinks that
we’re not out of the woods yet. After the Justice Department’s consent
decree expires in October 2016, Google will be able to do what it
pleases with ITA, and that makes people like Hasbrouck nervous. “The
real danger is of Google dominance of personalized pricing,” he says.
“Imagine Google being able to incorporate everything it knows about you
from your use of all Google services into decisions about what price to
put on each airline ticket. Airlines or services with less info on which
to base such price personalization would have a hard time competing
with Google.”

Google Flight Search may not be the flashiest place to shop for
airline tickets — sites like Kayak and Hipmunk, which function like
Flight Search, are slicker and more feature-rich — but over time, it
could become a formidable threat to the establishment. For now, though,
there’s one thing that travelers and its critics can agree on: It’s an
online tool you shouldn’t ignore.

Sid Savara, a technical manager, recently used Flight Search to find a
fare from his home airport, Honolulu, to Los Angeles. “The biggest
benefit to me was the graph that showed me flexible options for
tickets,” he says.

Flight Search allows him to pinpoint the least-expensive fare,
letting him save money on his flight. “It ended up being a
Wednesday-to-Wednesday and was about 30 percent cheaper than the
next-cheapest option,” he says.

Other online agencies offer similar functions, but few are as fast or as intuitive as Google’s.

And that’s pretty much the takeaway. Google Flight Search didn’t blow
up the online travel industry, but it’s a useful fare-search tool
that’s fast, easy and shouldn’t be overlooked.

Kind of anticlimactic, says Keith Hylton, a law professor at Boston
University who specializes in antitrust issues. In the short term,
Flight Search has made fare searches more competitive and given
travelers better ways to find an airfare. But in the long term, Google
Flight Search “might depress innovation,” he says.

After all, why would anyone want to compete with Google?

 – Elliott: Google’s Flight Search tool

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