Christopher Elliott, The Travel Troubleshooter, October 11, 2011
When Brittany Laughlin needed to fly from Chicago to San Francisco last month, she tried something new. Instead of visiting an online travel agency or an airline website, she headed over to Google Flight Search, the newest and most controversial travel site to launch since Orbitz opened its doors a decade ago.
Within a few seconds, Google showed her the perfect flight on American Airlines. She clicked on the link, which took her to the airline's page to book a ticket. "It was really clear and instantly showed results," says Laughlin, who runs a social media company in Chicago.
Google Flight Search is the result of the search engine giant's acquisition of ITA Software, a Cambridge, Mass., company whose technology powers many well-known travel sites, including American Airlines, Bing, Hotwire and Kayak. There was some concern that the acquisition would harm competition, but the Justice Department eventually approved the purchase, with conditions, earlier this year.
None of that matters -- at least in the short term -- to travelers like Laughlin. She just needed a cheap fare fast, and Google delivered. "I would use it again," she says.
So, should you consider using Google Flight Search (http://google.com/flights) for your next airline ticket purchase? The answer: a qualified "yes."
The site is incredibly fast, thanks to Google's powerful servers and the ITA technology. That sets it apart from other sites, which can take anywhere from several seconds to half a minute or more, if you're on a slower Internet connection, to yield results.
The service also offers a few interesting new features, including a screen displaying the least expensive days to fly and a variety of ways to search for flights, such as by price and destination. These aren't necessarily new to the online travel world, but Google does them in a very user-friendly way.
But Google Flight Search is as notable for its shortcomings. It offers no international flights, and several carriers, including Virgin America and JetBlue, are currently unbookable. You can't buy any multi-city or multi-airline itineraries, either. Perhaps the biggest omission is that you can't purchase tickets through an online travel agency such as Expedia, Orbitz or Travelocity.
Because of that, many critics have written Flight Search off -- at least for now. "Google Flights is useless to me," says Roni Weiss, a travel blogger and social media consultant. "Once they're international and have the functionality of Kayak, I'll take notice. Until then, I don't care."
Why would Google roll out a half-baked product? Because that's part of its corporate DNA. Internally, the process is referred to as "launch and iterate" -- release a product and then improve it over time. One example is Gmail, Google's cloud-based e-mail service, which was unveiled in 2004 and remained in "beta" -- engineering-speak for a test phase -- until 2009.
What's more, the air travelers who decry the site's lack of features are using it in a way it's not intended to be used, says Google. Flight Search is meant to be accessed in conjunction with its web search function. And flights will only show up in a search if they're available through the system, which eliminates the problem of users searching in vain for international flights, which aren't available yet. "When people search for information about travel, we want to provide the most complete results," says Google spokesman Sean Carlson. "That's our goal."
Since Google flipped the switch on Flight Search a few weeks ago, its engineers haven't made any major changes to the interface, and no big upgrades are planned for the next few months, say people familiar with the company's inner workings. But changes loom on the horizon.
"There's a lot we still don't know about what Google's approach will be moving forward," says Carroll Rheem, a director for the research firm PhoCusWright. "It adjusts and optimizes products constantly, so it is presumptive to assume that it will look the same when it does go primetime."
All this may have a familiar ring. When several airlines started Orbitz in 2001, the online travel agency also raised some antitrust concerns. The Justice Department ultimately ruled that the new site didn't threaten competition, and time has proved that decision to be correct.
But this may be different, according to Michael Goul, chair of the information systems department at Arizona State University's school of business. He has researched online competition and says that online travel companies -- and maybe their customers -- may have good reason to be worried this time. "Service platform wars are nasty -- often winner-take-all," he says. "The other travel sites should be very nervous about this expansion."
Which brings us to the long-term implications of Flight Search. It may seem like an insignificant "me-too" move by Google, but critics say that it could quickly morph into a dominant force for selling airline tickets.
That could drive competitors out of business -- and drive airline ticket prices higher, they say. "If there's no scrutiny of Google, then we could end up with a situation in five or 10 years where there are fewer travel providers," says Ben Hammer, a spokesman for FairSearch, a coalition of travel companies that compete with Google. FairSearch fears that its members may be cut out of Google's Flight Search.
"Google would become a single focal point to reach airlines and will give them incredible leverage to drive up advertising costs," says Hammer.
For now, though, there's no immediate threat, and the present iteration of Flight Search is no match for more full-featured competitors such as Kayak and Expedia. Even Google's most ardent critics admit that having more choices when it comes to flight queries is a good thing.
But what about a year from now? Will Google kill off some of the other popular travel sites we rely on today? As one who sounded the alarm when Orbitz launched -- and ended up with virtual egg yolk dripping down my face -- I'm hesitant to join the chorus of critics.
I hope I'll be right this time.
(Christopher Elliott is the author of "Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals" (Wiley). He's also the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the co-founder of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for travelers. Read more tips on his blog, elliott.org or e-mail him at [email protected]. Christopher Elliott receives a great deal of reader mail, and though he answers them as quickly as possible, your story may not be published for several months because of a backlog of cases.)