Google Flights has finally started to make a significant dent in the travel space and competitors and paying the price.
Google Flights and ITA Matrix
A decade ago, ITA Software sold to Google and then evolved into Google Flight Matrix, or more succinctly Google Flights. ITA’s Matrix took detailed ticketing data from airlines and travel agents. Its homepage advertised that there were more than three million ways to get from Boston to Los Angeles, meaning that while most engines look solely at lowest fares and fastest routes. But for those who prefer a connection in Miami and Panama City, Panama or need to see exactly how much a fuel surcharge might run, ITA was the best source of information.
ITA Matrix was the preferred source for finding flights by frequent flyers and bloggers alike. Instead of showing simplified flight search engine results from departure and arrival cities, users could utilize a number of advanced features. Advanced routing codes allowed users to find a specific flight, number of stops, short layovers or long layovers – anything they might need when searching for flights they want for specific reasons.
For many reasons, this was better than just finding cheap routes with minimal stops on the search results page.
ITA’s flaw was two-fold. The first was that they did not sell airfare so while a flyer could find what they were looking for on the site, they would have to reconstruct it elsewhere to purchase. Secondly, it was not very user-friendly, fans call it “charm” the public-at-large considered it difficult to use.
One of those flaws was that users needed to know airline codes, routing rules, destination airports, and airline policies. Users could find cheap flights on specific airlines even with complex itineraries like multi-city tickets and flexible dates but not complete the transaction.
When Google purchased ITA software, they rolled the technology into their own booking engine and made it something both robust and useful for the average flyer, while still sending most bookings to be completed on the airline’s website directly.
Significant Growth This Year
To this point, after years in operation, Google Flights has finally started to make an impact on the travel booking industry at large. A (somewhat-flawed) article in Fast Company last week indicated that Google Flights was referring more traffic to American and Delta this year in a measurable way.
“American Airlines had 840,000 monthly U.S. desktop search visits outbound from Google last year, compared to only 685,000 the year before, SimilarWeb’s data shows. Delta Air Lines was not far behind, with 835,000 in 2019 compared to 690,000 in 2018.
By contrast, United Airlines saw a slight dip in 2019 compared to 2018, while a handful of smaller airlines—Southwest, JetBlue, and Norwegian, among others—did not see significant changes.”
Even Expedia, Priceline, Kayak and Orbitz saw upticks last year from Google (they are offered as a booking method when they show the lowest available price for the route.) But of course, Southwest.com will be mostly flat as Google Flights rise as they do not export their fare data outside of their own website, forcing customers to go direct.
Google has also gotten more inventive with its search within destination markets, not relying solely on airport codes and specific routes. For example, searchers from Boston to San Jose, California may be offered a non-stop flight option or several others with traditional connections, but now they will also offer flights to Oakland or San Francisco with public transport, taxi, or bus options that may be cheaper, shorter, or more convenient.
It’s more than just a place to book your flight, it’s a place that gets you where you’re going.
Still Things to Work On
United regressed and was the only carrier to do so. Was this because the carrier was more expensive than the others? Not necessarily. United is my carrier and Google Flights is how I search for almost all of my tickets with the carrier. However, when clicking through to purchase, at least in my experience, the site instead downloads a tiny file to my computer and redirects to a blank website.
Southwest flights show up (as their scheduled flight data is a matter of public record) though they still do not allow customers to book on the site. If Google gets creative and finds a way to either work with Southwest or obtain the data, they may have a magic bullet.
Google Flights is also good at indicating when a fare is Basic Economy on some carriers and not on others, American Airlines has been one where “BE” fares show up as regular economy until clicking through to the website. Over time, this should improve as Google has done a great job expanding the product.
However, I have significant concern that airlines will either intentionally or unintentionally usurp Google’s attempt to correctly identify the class of service due to complex categorization and aging technological infrastructure.
It’s hard to pull advanced booking data that ITA displays much easier. For example, customers should be able to book by a fare class, not just by class of service, especially when looking for fares that are upgradable or earn alternate amounts of miles. They already have the data, why not add an “expert mode” for those who may have special needs?
It can still be a problem to find the cheapest flight deals in the United States as some of their flight prices show “phantom inventory” which shows one price from a departure airport to a destination but then shows a real price when the inventory is re-checked right before booking. I found this often when I used Google flights “Tokyo to Manila.”
Phantom inventory is something that every OTA faces from time to time but can be particularly frustrating for a traveler as they budget and shop for a trip. Google has an opportunity to leap past the competition by running the same price checks they would at the purchase point during the search process. There is likely cumbersome coding and delays in delivering results but many shoppers would trade speed for accuracy; after all, what good is it to have incorrect information quickly?
I have long been a proponent of Google Flights and I am happy they are beginning to make their mark. That said, the site is not perfect and will continue to evolve. I look forward to what the future holds and wonder (other than a lower stock price for now) Google’s continued dominance in the space will affect other booking sites and their business models.
What do you think? Is Google Flights starting to make an impact? Will they outmuscle Online Travel Agencies? Will Southwest ever sell on other sites?