Four years later, did Google kill flight search?


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.”)

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“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.

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“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.

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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?

Was Google Flight Search good for consumers?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org. Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • PsyGuy

    I love google flight search, when the time runs out on the consent decree, it will decimate all the other OTA’s.

  • Jim

    I am just waiting for the day that Google becomes self aware and sends the terminators after us humans…

  • PsyGuy

    They already have, they’re called lawyers.

  • sirwired

    “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.”

    I don’t get it. Google doesn’t actually SELL things to consumers… how can they “personalize the price” if they don’t actually sell anything? The final price will be based on whatever the provider you actually purchase from wants to charge.

    Until there’s even a hint that Google wants to open its own travel agency, I don’t see that anybody has anything to worry about, apart from the usual privacy concerns. Google, for all the perfectly legitimate concerns about the data it collects about you, does not actually relay that data to their business customers (who could then, in theory use that information to provide personalized pricing.)

    I don’t know the exact terms of the ITA deal, but if we don’t see any Google-run booking option on Google Hotel Search, why would we expect it with Flight Search?

    ITA has always been a data provider, never a booking engine; the data it compiles about fares is quite useless at booking time because it’s often outdated and isn’t actually tied into a GDS. This is precisely why you often see the price change when you try to book a flight; the agency was probably using outdated data provided by ITA. They do this because ITA is MUCH cheaper than data from the actual booking engines. If Google wants to book travel, we’d expect to see an acquisition of a travel agency, or maybe a GDS company. But they didn’t buy a GDS, they bought ITA.

    Lastly, Google Flight Search merely duplicated the EXACT same functionality provided by Bing. (Indeed, this was one of Bing’s headline features when it was released.) Why was their no panic when Microsoft did it? Microsoft’s intentions behind their Bing engine are identical to Google’s, even if they aren’t as successful at it.

  • VoR61

    After a trial run, I will continue using Kayak. Google Flight Search is fast but no-frills. I use the filters in Kayak nearly every time. Plus Kayak will search for flights and hotels, and provides fare alerts.

  • TonyA_says

    The real danger is the stupid consumer who shops only by price and wants everyone to kiss his or her feet. When they don’t get what they want, they use social media to intimated and shame the vendor. When that doesn’t work they come here for free help.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    100+

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    What gets me are the readers who write “if the airline gives the OP a refundcreditetc that will build good will and the OP will fly with them more” or “the airline just lost a customer because they didn’t give the OP what they wanted”. I just laugh (as well as wonder about those people) when I read those comments since most travelers pick their fares by price.

  • TonyA_says

    First of all they are lousy customers and airlines don’t need them. Second, many of those who comment for “compassion” are compassionate only when it involves giving away other people’s money (not theirs).

  • The Original Joe S

    Why doesn’t that surprise me?

  • frostysnowman

    I used it for the first time last week and found it faster with better flight info than I got on the more traditional travel sites. I was looking for info about a place that’s a little off the beaten path, perhaps that’s why Google Flight was better for me this time. I loved the graph that showed the different prices for times before and after my travel dates as well as my specific dates, and they way I could see how the ticket costs differed from one day to the next. I’ll continue to use it for research.

  • bodega3

    All I got was the times, no other dates that the ones I put in. I tried it several time. I only put in for one passenger, so it would be nice to see how many seats were available at that price as some sites do.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    How exactly would you substantiate that last part of the post?

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    True, because of the commoditization of travel. However. If a traveler has a reason to differentiate between airlines, then that will go into the decision making process.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    “pick by price” … and that’s what got us into this mess and keeps us there, ARW; few people have other criteria than price but are quick to complain about nearly anything. I think a good example is Premium Economy … often half of those seats are empty while everyone is packed into coach. The fee for PE is usually quite reasonable, but people won’t even spend that. The airlines are giving the passengers what they want.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Not necessarily. There are certain airlines (yes, I’m talking to you, Spirit), that I wouldn’t use even if the ticket was free. If I go to the history pull-down list on my browser, the only travel site, of any kind, that appears there is Southwest.

  • bodega3

    BTW, why is the poll in the past tense? They still exist.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    I agree…

    In regards to Premium Economy, I agree that it is a fair price. To me, the extra money is justified. I use to work for one company where they did NOT pay for it so I paid for it out of my own pocket.

    As I have stated several times before on this blog, my first flight was in 1984. From 1984 to 2014, the inflation rate has been
    ~2.1 (what cost a $ 1 in 1984 now cost $ 2.10). If you took a look at fares over the same time frame, fares have not kept up with inflation (the price of fuel has went up more than the general inflation rate). It is my GUESS that fares are about 50% of where they should be.

    It is simple, airlines have reduced their costs (i.e. service; put their call centers off-shore; etc) and increase fees (i.e. change fees; baggage fees; etc.) to make up for the lack of fares.

    If the public wants an airline’s call center to be based in the US; hot meals on the plane; no change fees; more leg room; etc…then they have to pay for it. The airlines need to make a profit in order to stay in business.

    A full-service airline can’t make money if it fares do not keep up with their costs.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    I agree…I don’t purchase on price…I have my preferred travel providers and I do business with them.

    However, I have seen polls, surveys and whatnot that the majority of the airline passengers based their decision on price…who has the lowest price to their destination. This is why we have the different websites that cater to the lowest fares.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    It is my suggestion that this site adds a funding tool. When an OP did NOT receive a refund; credit; didn’t purchase travel insurance and lost their value of their trip/tour; etc., the readers can click on a link where they can donate their own money that will go to the OP. I like to see how compassionate are the readers of this site.

    I get a laugh when readers post comments like “the airline should lower this fee” or “the ratefareetc. is too high” or etc. Over the years, I have run into prospective clients that told me or one of my sales teams that our prices are high and proceed to tell us what should be our prices. After a few attempts of showing the prospective client the value that we bring to the table and why our prices are what they are; if the prospective client is still insisting on naming his own price, I will ask them…does your client set your prices and this will usually get them to forward.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    That sounds very one sided. I agree that a client doesn’t dictate your prices. In the same way you don’t dictate your client’s budget.

    A business transaction is a give and take. If the prices converge great, a deal happens, if not, too bad. Recently a potential supplier wanted my business more than I wanted to give it to them. The result was a 30% discount. I negotiated hard and got the price that I was willing to pay.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Oh, I agree that most people buy on price. I think that despite the fervent wished of various folks, that’s why travel is so bad. We get what we are willing to pay for. People see no differentiation between airlines so it is logical to purchase on price alone. If however, someone has a reason to like – or dislike – a particular airline that may influence the purchase decision.

    Years ago (pre-9/11) I was treated poorly by Southwest. I was flying Burbank to San Jose. They cancelled my flight and the next one wasn’t for 4 hours. I asked to be re-routed to Oakland as that flight was leaving relatively soon. They told me I could but I had to pay an extra fee. That pissed me off.

    Never took Southwest again, when I had a choice.

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