Google Lifts Off With Flight Search

Google’s purchase of travel software company ITA five months ago is finally beginning to pay off with a new service. It’s called Flight Search, and while it is usable in its current form, it needs a lot more work if it’s going to beat the offerings already available from travel websites.

Google Flight Search is supposed to pop up as an option among the filters on the left-hand side of a search page whenever you enter a flight-related search into Google’s search box, such as “flights from Orlando to New York City.” Greg Sterling at Search Engine Land may have gotten that particular feature to work, but I never did. I had to go directly to Flight Search via the helpful shortcut he provided.

Google Flight Search offers a map interface; in my case, since I was logged in, it automatically entered my starting point. It offered me the option of typing in a destination or choosing it from the drop-down. The map included destination cities with dots on the actual locations, and airfares; I could get to Billings for $497, for example, or San Francisco for $339.

Just below the map, Google includes menus for departure and return dates, price range, and duration of travel. They’re not precisely drop-downs; there are arrows, and clicking on the arrows changes the values. Clicking on the left-pointing arrow in the price box, for example, lowers the price range. Lowering the duration actually lightens some dots on the map and takes away their prices; since I can’t get to El Paso, Texas, in under four hours from Orlando, for instance, when I reduced duration to that amount, El Paso stayed on my map as a white circle, rather than a filled-in blue circle, and no longer showed an airfare next to it.

Filters on the left-hand side of the page let me indicate my preferred number of stops, specific airlines, specific outbound and/or return times, and (once I’ve chosen my destination) where I can connect through. For example, I could fly from Orlando to New York, and specify that I wanted to connect through Dallas, Boston, Atlanta, or any of a number of different cities.

Once you’ve chosen your two cities, Flight Search gives you a list of possibilities. It’s a dynamic list; in other words, as you make changes, the list changes. I like the way Google handled this. For instance, when narrowing down an airline, you could choose to see flights from only one specific airline with a single click, rather than having to uncheck all the other airlines. Or if there are airlines with which you absolutely refuse to fly, you only need to uncheck the box next to their names, and Flight Search removes them from your list.

Unfortunately, right now Flight Search offers round trips only. I have friends that travel a lot, and I can tell you that this is a serious limitation. Still, since the majority of people travel round trip when they go by plane, it’s usable for most people, most of the time.

Once you’ve chosen both of the flights you want by clicking on them, Flight Search gives you the option to book them. Or at least it tries to. When I tried an Airtran round trip from Orlando to New York, it brought up a grayed out “Book” button; hovering over the button revealed the phrase “No booking listings available. Contact airline directly.” Trying the same trick using US Airways flights led to a red “Book” button which, when clicked on, took me to the US Airways web page to book the flight. Rather annoyingly, though scrolling down on that page proved that it had saved my departure and destination cities, it didn’t highlight the flights I had chosen. So I had to scroll through the selection to find and choose them again.

As Sterling notes in his description of the service, the flight listings are organic, but the booking link could be an ad. Google claims that this is the only advertising in Flight Search. “It’s not entirely clear what would happen if the selected airline were not an advertiser,” Sterling says. I think I inadvertently found out when I tried to book a flight for Airtran; I don’t get to the airline’s booking page in one click from Google. For me, that’s not a big deal, but if there aren’t significant differences in price, well, some searchers might get a little lazy.

So, what can we expect from Flight Search in the future? At the very least, I hope to see it add one-way options, and perhaps hops to multiple cities (imagine trying to plan a 12-city tour for an author marketing a book or a band performing concerts). Sterling notes that ITA’s search options include a number of capabilities that Google can use to improve Flight Search. These include an event finder to help you plan your trip around particular events; the ability to search by airport code, city, or nearby airport selector; an interactive calendar to let users find the lowest fares based on date ranges; and more. A glance at Bing’s Visual Search for Travel suggests other possible improvements, like the ability to plan a vacation around a particular theme (Adventure, History, Romantic, etc).

I’d rate Google Flight Search as a reasonable first effort, but I’m not convinced it’s a massive improvement over what you can find at sites such as Orbitz. The interactive map is a very nice touch, and the filters offer quite a bit of control. But  Google needs to address Flight Search’s limitations before it can become truly competitive with the services already available online. Of course, the service has the biggest name in search behind it – which might let it coast for just long enough for Google to make it into something special.

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