Google’s little flight search problem

Google’s little flight search problem
If you haven’t Googled a flight itinerary recently, you should try it.

Google’s Flight Search, the fledgling search engine that lets you find a ticket and book it directly through an airline, is getting better. Much better.

In recent weeks, the new service has quietly expanded the number of U.S. cities it covers. (It won’t say how many destinations are being served, except that the number has doubled.) Google has also integrated flight searches into its authoritative search results, making them easier to find and use.

When I wrote about Flight Search in the fall, it was widely regarded as a work in progress. But that work is progressing at a speedy clip. You might even say that it’s flying. “Our goal here is to develop the best possible user experience,” says Sean Carlson, a spokesman for Google.

But for whom is the upgraded Flight Search better? For customers like you and me? In the short term, yes. We get to find cheap flights through its slick and blazing-fast search engine, which is powered by recently acquired ITA Software.

For Google? Of course. A more functional site means more bookings, although the company declines to say how many tickets it has sold through this new flights interface.

For the rest of the travel industry, and particularly online travel agencies such as Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity? Maybe not.

Those online agencies want to sell their tickets through Flight Search, and although Google says discussions about including the big three agencies are “ongoing,” no agreement has been reached. Google describes these discussions as a good-faith dialogue, but some think that the online agencies aren’t a part of Google’s business plan and will never be included. Buy a ticket through Flight Search, and you’re taken straight to an airline Web site, although Google says that it’s displaying search results from online agencies on a “test” basis under some results.

Think this has no bearing on how you travel? If only.

This little squabble is a sign of a much bigger challenge down the road — one that led Google’s farsighted rivals to fight hard, but unsuccessfully, to block Google’s ITA purchase.

The problem isn’t the Flight Search of today, an emerging competitor to the big three online agencies. It’s what Flight Search could be in a year or two.

Look around at other Google products. If you need to find something online, your first choice is Google’s dominant search engine. Often, it’s your only choice. If you’re looking for a sleek, intuitive e-mail service, it’s Gmail. A place for online video? Google’s YouTube. For easy online ads? AdSense by Google.

We live in a Google world. Google holds more than a 70 percent market share among online search engines. Gmail is one of the most popular e-mail services and certainly the easiest to use. Sites such as YouTube and AdSense don’t have any meaningful competition.

To suggest that Google isn’t in travel to do anything less than dominate in the same way would be naive.

So what’s the problem? Isn’t the current system — with travel agents facilitating the purchase — inefficient and in need of a smarter approach? Possibly.

But there may be such a thing as too smart.

It isn’t difficult to imagine Google controlling most online travel purchases in the not-too-distant future. And until recently, I didn’t have an issue with that; after all, if Google can offer cheaper tickets or better flight options by cutting out the middleman, who cares?

And then, one recent Sunday afternoon, I posted a trailer for my new book, Scammed: How to Save Your Money and Find Better Service in a World of Schemes, Swindles, and Shady Deals on YouTube. Within a few minutes, the video was deleted — erroneously tagged as spam by Google. (With a title like “Scammed,” that’s an easy mistake to make.) But then YouTube pulled my entire channel down without notice. And then my Gmail account went dark. Within a few minutes, my entire digital life had been suspended.

I managed to restore my e-mail account the same day, but my YouTube channel remained offline for three days, even though I made repeated attempts to persuade Google to review the arbitrary takedown. Google eventually restored my account, but only after I contacted it in an official capacity. The company apologized for the deletion but would not offer an explanation for its actions on the record, citing its policy of not discussing individual cases.

I learned an important lesson about how important Google is to my everyday life. I can’t function without it. There’s no viable alternative to many of its services.

I can’t imagine this breathtaking dominance escaping the attention of regulators much longer. But if it does — if Google takes over travel — there could be serious and long-lasting consequences that could harm consumers and businesses. Imagine what might happen to an airline or hotel company that disagrees with the way Google prices its products when it holds a commanding market share in travel? It could be cut off from millions of customers with a single keystroke.

What if Google knocks off one or two online travel agencies, or a company such as Kayak, which searches multiple sites for flights? Where do we go when our only viable option is Google? What would happen to innovation when one company controls so much?

“Consumers would pay higher prices for airfares and other products and services as a result of Google coming to dominate the online travel market,” predicts Ben Hammer, a spokesman for FairSearch, a coalition of travel companies that compete with Google.

Do we really want to live in that world?

(Photo: Adam Freidin/Flickr)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • TonyA_says

    Why no Southwest?

  • sirwired

    I just thought I’d point out that Hotmail is much better than it once was (GMail forced it to get better) and actually has some nice features that GMail lacks.  It’s a perfectly viable alternative to GMail.  (Just as Bing is a perfectly usable search engine.)

    In any case, what you paid little attention to (even though you mentioned it) is that Google isn’t selling tickets.  It’s disingenuous to accuse it of cutting out the middle-man when the feature just rolled out, and adding the middle-man back in is a non-zero amount of work.  Have the 3rd-party sites taken up complaining that Google has stopped talking to them?  That their talks have ground to a standstill and the test program is going nowhere?

    I have a hard time getting mad at Google over a feature that makes my life easier, costs me nothing, and makes Google nothing.  (Airlines don’t pay commissions any more, and there is no affiliate program for website referrals taking you there.)

    This feature was put in not because Google really had a burning desire to put Kayak out of business.  They put in the feature because Bing had it, and Google wanted to match.

    Maybe we should hold off judgement just a little while here?

    What I would do if I were Google:
    Do exactly what they’ve done in search; display a list of results in the middle of the screen, and then let advertisers bid on ad positions in boxes surrounding the results.  )Nothing stops you from going to the sites directly.)  Consumers get a useful metasearch integrated into their search engine, agencies have an additional outlet to purchase advertising from, Google makes money; everybody wins.

  • sirwired

    Southwest doesn’t provide data to fare data companies (like ITA, which Google owns.)  This is why you’ve never seen them listed in any online agency.

    It was only recently that you could even book a Southwest ticket though a travel agent.  Getting Southwest’s IT systems into the 21st century has been a complicated multi-year project, which is still ongoing.  (And they don’t want to end up like Virgin America, where the transition has been broken for months now.)

  • TonyA_says

    In the bottom of the search display there is an AD bar:

    AD   Try this search on Expedia – Travelocity – Priceline – Cheapoair – Kayak – Orbitz

    So OTAs and click & mortars can still pay google to play.

  • TonyA_says

    I thought some of Southwest fares (except web-only fares) were available on Sabre and Galilieo GDSes. Maybe I’m wrong.

  • SoBeSparky

    Google dominates because it is better, or it buys companies (ITA) which are better.  Yes, the problems, if any, will emerge down the road. 

    That is why we have anti-trust laws and government regulation.  When those who say the government should do the least possible, when those who preach a large government is intrinsically bad, get into power, then you really have something to worry about. 

    There will be little effort at anti-trust enforcement because it is “anti-business” and therefore a “job killer.”  Just listen to the rhetoric.

  • Nancy Dickinson

    I am curious about:  
    Google eventually restored my account, but only after I contacted it in an official capacity.

    I had a problem with Google when my account was hacked while I was overseas.  I had it taken care of fairly quickly.  Other than e-mails to them, to what extent did you need to go for it to “become official”?

  • Carver Clark Farrow II

    I agree wholeheartedly.

    This article would have benefit from some economic analysis.
    continually.  It short, it accuses Google of having monopolistic behavioral tendencies.  Whether true of not isn’t the issue.  Monopolistic behavior is curbed by competition which itself is spurred by lower barriers to entry.  Ultimately Google is software and software is vulnerable to some pimply faced Stanford grad students making a better product.

    Also, it’s extremely difficult to dominate in more than tech one area and make money. Google dominates in search.  It doesn’t make money on anything else.

    Despite its best efforts, Google Checkout is a blip compared to PayPal, no single Android phone or pad competes meaningfully with the Iphone/Ipad powerhouse, Google docs is tiny compared to MS Office.

    So just because Google comes knocking doesn’t mean that its the slam dunk winner

  • KathyJ

    I, too, would like more information about this incident. It seems relevant to the rest of the article. I immediately thought of the problems Christopher had with TSA/Homeland Security, and how interesting and informative it was hearing all the details about that. This seems much more likely to happen to the average person, though.

  • sirwired

    Yes, Southwest fares are available on the GDS’s.  The query-to-booking conversion rate is pretty high for a traditional (non-online) or corporate travel agent, so the GDS/airline fees for the fare query are affordable.

    But for cost reasons, all the major online agents use ITA, et al, for initial search queries as they are much cheaper than a full-fledged GDS on a per-query basis.  (They are cheaper because they don’t provide real-time data.)  Southwest hasn’t yet hooked into ITA and their ilk, so you don’t see Southwest fare data on any generic fare-searching website.

  • TouchyFeely

    Hotmail has gotten better than GMail. 

  • MeanMeosh

    I’m not really a fan of Google, but while I (sort of) understand your consternation, I think it’s a bit misplaced.  Remember that at least for now, Google doesn’t actually sell anything.  All it does is provide you a link to the airline websites to book for yourself.  It basically does the same thing Kayak does, except I still find Kayak’s interface more user-friendly.  I don’t pretend to know how the arrangement works, but I presume the airlines pay some kind of fee per click or something.  And even then, all Google Flight Search does is return a bunch of flights, with the default result being in chronological order from earliest to latest.  So, you don’t even have certain airlines being displayed more prominently than others.  And even if Google did start giving preferred listings to certain airlines over others in exchange for a higher fee, so what?  For years, travel agents have had “preferred” arrangements with airlines to give priority to their listings.  There’s nothing stopping Orbitz, etc. from paying to play. 

    Now, if Google actually started selling tickets, and adopted a scorched-Earth policy with the airlines like Microshaft did with computer manufacturers in the day, I might be more worried.  But for now, I just don’t see what the big deal is.  If you’re offended by Google Flight Search, go to Kayak, or heck, Orbitz.

  • MeanMeosh

    Sirwired explains it pretty well, but Southwest made a business decision long ago not to provide their fares to MOST travel agents, OTAs, search engines, etc.  You might remember their advertising from a while ago, where they proudly say that Southwest fares are “only available on”.  Even today, we’re allowed to book Southwest flights at our company when traveling for business, but we have to go through a dedicated page on, instead of booking through our regular GDS-based online booking tool.  Google isn’t excluding Southwest, as much as Southwest is intentionally excluding itself.  Maybe that’ll change as part of their long-awaited revamp of their reservation system.

  • davidglass

    Isn’t Google Flight Search/ITA just a middleman as well?

    The main actors are the airlines and the Global Distribution Systems (GDS’s) ie. Galileo, Sabre, Amadeus, Worldspan, PARS/Shares etc.

    As long as the GDS’s sell the airlines flight pricing and inventory to anyone in a fair manner (ie. no anti-competitive exclusions), there will always be another Kayak, Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity type website that pops up to meet consumer demand for airline travel. The airlines will still be willing to pay a commission to get the customer.

    Google and ITA just happen to have the best interface at the moment.

  • bodega3

    Southwest has been in Sabre for almost 2 decades and by phone since they first started up in the 1980’s.

  • bodega3

    The GDS is the only nonbias fare search engine out there.  I tried Google for the second time the other day and it is awful.  All these online search engines have a bias and do not have to show you all the actual options, but the GDS is
    regulated and has to.  I have found lower fares in the GDS, other flights that the online search engines, including the airline’s websites have not shown. 

  • Christopher Elliott

    Nancy, I had always planned to follow up on my October story about Google Flight Search. 

    A few weeks ago, they pulled down my YouTube channel and then all of my other Google accounts. I think that motivated me to write this story sooner than I would have.

    I contacted Google, letting them know I was working on a follow-up story (which they knew I would be doing soon) and I mentioned this experience. 

    By then, my YouTube channel had been down about three days, and I had heard nothing — not even an acknowledgment of my correspondence — from Google. 

    About 15 minutes after my inquiry, my account was restored. A YouTube spokeswoman called me that afternoon and explained what had happened (alas, all off the record). 

    So to answer your question, contacting Google in an official capacity probably sped up the resolution of my grievance. But this story would have been written with or without my YouTube banishment. 

  • Nancy Marine Dickinson

    Ah, gotcha.  But isn’t it sad it took you being “Chris the journalist” over “Chris the disgruntled user” to get their attention?

    Too much nowadays, companies no longer pay attention to the individual, preferring instead to ignore them in the hopes they will just go away.  Why do people have to go to such lengths to have them do the right thing?

  • MarkieA

    So you don’t feel the market should be allowed to work this out? The Government should step in right away when there’s an inkling “something bad” may happen? OK, not right away. But when? When you think so? Or when I think so? Or when your neighbor think so? You see the problem – everyone has a different idea as to when “trouble” is brewing.

    I agree that the Government should take a role to protect the consumer, but let’s let the market work before we do a hatchet job on a business whose only crime is to be good at what they do.

  • cjr001

    While Google’s flight searching isn’t something to be concerned about (yet), Chris’s story about how easily his digital life was brought to a standstill IS.

    I Google search, I use Gmail. I occasionally use YouTube.

    But anything else Google, particularly Google +? Intentionally avoiding them specifically because of what Chris ran into: at any time, they could should your account down and everything connected to it.

  • TonyA_says

    That’s pretty strange since Southwest´s web shopping engine is ITASoftware’s QPX.

  • TonyA_says

    Most folks are only familiar with ITA QPX – a fare search shopping engine. But ITA also has and sells a complete line of airline passenger service systems – inventory, yield manager, reservation, reaccomodation, departure control, etc.

    But the real scary point of Chris’s article is the power that google has over his and our online lives. Think about it – I use an Android tablet, gmail, google docs, picassa, gtalk, google voice, you tube, blogger, google checkout, maps, and potentially other google products. If for some reason google does not like me anymore, I could lose my onlife life, history and files. If Senator Sherman was alive today, he probably would be screaming. BTW, Microsoft is also very powerful.

  • bodega3

    I refuse to play the electronic gaget game.    

  • Murray Harrold

    Yes, interesting, eh? But – online search can only work with what it is given, via an API or whatever… so you take these inputs and from it produce a result. How fast that may be, is bye-the-bye. What about the information coming through? As an agent, I have often referred to these sites (and I presume Google search, perhaps – though I don’t use it, being UK based, so cannot comment) as Travel search is only effective for very simple and very basic point to point travel but for anything else, one really should (still) see a travel agent – even an airline is not a lot of good for multi airline, multi-destination stuff. The meta-search type engines, of whatever search or colour, are only useful as a travel agent’s tool or crib-sheet. They save some hunting around and can be useful for benchmarking – but not much more.

    The GDS is, in the hands of a skilled user, yet to be bettered.

    As regards commission, yes airlines stopped paying that. Yet in one conversation with an airline type, I found out that they do pay … errrr….. bounty. What the difference is, is that “bounty” comes from a different budget. (!) In fact, airlines will pay “bounty” to anyone who introduces business as long as it is not someone who has dedicated their life and work to giving airlines business. Further, if Google refers a punter directly to an airline website, clients cannot get the benefit of, say, CAT35 fares… which they would only get from the likes of the online or, of course, offline travel agents. So online agents do not have to worry …. yet.

    Of course, the last thing any right-thinking airline would want, is for anyone to dominate sales – and certainly not premium sales. Airlines are not that bright, however. When they removed commission, they also removed divide-and-rule in the long term and the rather dire results of that ill-concieved decision are starting to come home to roost. If Google does manage to gain a position of dominace and if dominance of premium traffic devolves to the major business travel agents, airlines will be stuffed. The tail will wag the dog.

  • SoBeSparky

    Neither when I say so, nor when you say so, but when the law says so.  I never said the market would not work it out.  I said, “Yes, the problems, if any, will emerge down the road.”  Clearly, that allows for the possibility that there will be no problems.

    Anti-trust enforcement is dependent on the laws, and their application and interpretation by the courts, not you and I.

  • Charles B

    An excellent example of how a potentially adverse public reaction gets much more attention than an private, individual complaint. This should be in your book, Chris. :-)

  • reynard

    When I saw the laundry lists of all the Google products so many use and thought about my situation, I realized that I’ve, by chance, avoided having all my eggs in the Google basket and will now consciously keep my online “portfolio” as diversified as possible.

    I book directly with United for my flights since they are the only option in and out of where I live. I don’t use Travelocity, Expedia or any of those sites anymore, partly because of the horror stories I’ve read here. So I don’t really see myself using Google for travel, but  can see the danger in their domination without meaningful competition. One would think that the cross-industry dominance they’re getting will bring down the anti-trust dept. in DOJ at some point, but not sure what the remedy should be.

  • MikeInCtown

    its not that google flight search isn’t good for the traveller, but that when you search for flights it is the FIRST available result listed. So, even though these other sites have been searched for years and have had millions upon millions of hits, the google results show up first, dominating the reults in a supposedly fair search engine.

  • Daniel Weaver

    It may be better, but do you really want to give your email with an address? “Better than gmail” is not how most people think when they see

  • flutiefan

    Southwest has been available to travel agents for as long as i’ve been in the business.

  • flutiefan

    i really have no opinion when someone mentions their email’s domain name. what do i care? it’s an email address, not a comment on who they are as a person.