Four years later, did Google kill flight search?

antb /

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 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?

Was Google Flight Search good for consumers?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

With nearly 20 years in the industry, over 128 airport covered in the U.S. and Canada, and over 1,000 Hotel and Parking Partners-we provide travelers the best options on how to get to the airport when flying. Whether you want to; drive yourself and park near an Airport (Airport Parking), stay the night before your flight at an airport hotel and leave your car (Hotel and Parking Package), or take a shared Shuttle/Private Car/Limo to the Airport- we got you covered. The best deals can be found online, and booking a reservation has never been easier. You can explore all of our options by visiting us at,,, and

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by

Since its inception over three decades ago, G1G has continued to revolutionize the travel insurance industry by being the only aggregator to operate a customer portal, placing all of the user's primary needs in one place. We have continued to innovate and disrupt the market by reimagining the way travel insurance can be delivered to the end user in ways no competition can. Simply put, no one knows the market as well as its founders and no one else shares G1G values and mission.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International,, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend