Need a flight? Just Google it

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 Web site, 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 greenlighted the purchase, with conditions, earlier this year.

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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 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 prime-time.”

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 ten 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.

(Photo: mene ame/Flickr)

13 thoughts on “Need a flight? Just Google it

  1. If Google morphs into the dominant flight search engine that will be because people find it superior to the competition.  As long as Google plays fair, then I don’t see a problem.  Besides, you can always go directly to the travel providers website.

  2. “you can’t purchase tickets through an online travel agency such as Expedia, Orbitz or Travelocity.”

    This is a feature, not a limitation. You get the advantage of a multi-airline flight search while still being able to book directly with the airline, not with a third-party agent site of the type that has been responsible for a large percentage of the horror stories on this site.

    The real shortcoming is that not all airlines are in the Google system. Let’s hope they “iterate” some more.

    1. Truly…if you want to book thru one of the online travel agencies, go ahead, nothing’s stopping you.  if you want to use google flight search, use it.  I don’t see why they would want you to go to a travel agency after going thru google … it wouldn’t even make sense.

    2. That was exactly my thought. With all of the problems that people have with the online “travel agencies” that provide zero customer service, why on earth would someone prefer to book through them if the Google site searches for flights and takes you directly to the airline’s website to book them?

      I haven’t used Google’s new product, but it sounds like it could potentially be effective for me. I will use Expedia or Travelocity to search for flights and get an idea of what is available and what prices are running, but I always book through the airline itself.

  3. If the request is very simple and standardized, then the response can be automated and indeed very quick to be displayed. I believe that this is where Google can focus, at least for the time being.

    The situation is different when the request becomes more complex: e.g. multiple stops, unexpected events like weather problems, strikes and more. In this case, an automated approach has its limits and a travel service provided by Google cannot fulfill the requests of the stranded travelers: they do not have (yet?) the expertise of a travel agent to access all of the platforms and integrate solutions such as taking the traveler to another airport, multiple stops etc.

  4. Is this nothing but a race who can build the fastest and easiest to use internet travel vending machine? After the ITASoftware purchase, Google already has the underlying data figured out, so all they need to do is make it easier to use and faster. That’s what we are seeing evolve right now. But how substantially different Google Flights and other metasearch sites like Kayak or Hipmunk will be remains to be seen. Will any of them help passengers time their purchase or forecast what the cheapest fare will be?

  5. Most people do point A to point B flying and not overseas.  For most of America, it should be fine.  I can see this being yet another mouse trap Google has built better than anyone else.

    This might become my flight search engine of choice, particularly since it takes me to the airline’s page to purchase rather than take my money and leave me twisting in the wind if anything goes wrong.

  6. Interesting; burt without international options, for me forget it.   After all the issues we read here after using Expedia, Travelocity, etc. why bother with them.  We use a variety of travel web sites to find the best range of fares, flight times etc (I am personally quite taken with the graphics of Hipmunk for example), and then go to the airline web sites.   Whereas once there were cheaper prices from the discount providers, I see none today;  buy your ticket from the airline, pay them, and take it from there.   But I do recall doing my online reservations through the Sears internet search via “EasySabre” (anyone remember that,and getting good deals on flights and above all on hotels – thanks to the offer of prices available at the time only to travel agents.   Ah, those early days, those were the good ones.

  7. Thanks for writing up my story about Google Flights. I’m an avid traveler and actually run Would love to get your thoughts on social travel and our approach sometime.
    Brittany Laughlin

  8. It’s not just international flights that Google doesn’t allow.  I live in  Eugene, OR (EUG) served by United, Delta, Horizon/Alaska, and I think some discounter going to LAS only.

    I cannot find flights from EUG to EWR, SFO, or any other destination I’ve tried.  Google insists on sending me through PDX, about 120 miles north.

    Definately not ready for prime-time.

    1. Just tried the same thing between Syracuse and Kansas City, and it tells me that flights between these destinations aren’t supported.

  9. I tested this site out today for air fares between NYC and Southern California, and I found a round trip fare for under $400, which is pretty much unheard of these days. I would definitely try this site again when I’m ready to travel. Otherwise, I just can’t afford to fly anymore, and I’d really like to be able to visit my family, all of whom live over 2,000 miles away.

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