Facebook, at a recent travel conference in the US, suggested its role as one of being in the “happiness business”.
Furthermore, citing some internal research, an official from the omnipresent social network went on to show how the American general public actually gets a pretty big high from the process of planning travel, and that it lasts longer than the act of travelling itself.
But does this happiness extend to when consumers are searching for flights?
Some cearly do not think so. A recent article in the Detroit Free Press pointed out that airfares were not fair, and that searching for appropriate flights and fares isnâ€™t fun.
So perhaps itâ€™s time to think through the process from the consumerâ€™s perspective. In some respects, air search is still a V1.0 product. After 15+ years of being able to search for air on the internet, it really should be a heck of a lot better than it is.
Myth 1 â€“ Air search is simple and easy
Searching for flights can be a daunting task for internet users. Many providers of internet travel search products often forget that a leisure consumer may only be travelling once or twice a year.
Invariably, it is difficult to find prices and routes, and there is a bewildering array of options. To the traveler, the differences between a low cost carrier and legacy airlines mean nothing.
The intersection of fares, availability, rules, schedules and now ancillary services and unbundled products (not to mention taxes and charges) is also very difficult to understand and compare.
Users can spend hours looking at different possible options and sites. Sorting them all and finding the appropriate flight is painful, and no one really helps the user in this process. Each of the websites offering assistance â€“ and this applies to all – from direct airline sites, OTAs and meta search players offer a bewildering array of options.
There is no definitive single “right” answer that a user can trust. Mapping the possible right answers shows that inside an airline there can be two (sometimes even as many) â€śrightâ€ť answers as there are places searched.
Air search is only one part of the need from Internet Users in travel. They want/need to have global information point to point. While they may know a lot about their city of departure there is very little they know about their city arrival, with timing to get to the end destination points.
And the game is complicated as the low cost carriers can land far away from city center or a connection can be from another airport (and some airports are really confusing). Try changing terminals for example in Dallas, or Madrid?
Changing planes in JFK is never a pleasant experience and can take literally hours. And where is all this information? Is it easy and simply explained?
Hardly a happy experience. Which is why inextricably tied to myth #2â€¦
Myth 2 â€“ It doesnâ€™t matter where a user searches (the results are the same)
As a user, I look on metasearch sites, but also direct on airlines sites, and on OTAs. In mainland Europe, such as France and Germany for example, users also need to compare timing and rates between flights and the hi-speed rail eg. Franceâ€™s TGV and Deutsche Bahn’s ICE.
So, as noted in Myth 1 above, different search sources return different results. There are now four basic types of results:
- Airline results from the internal airline reservation system (eg. HP Shares)
- Cached results created by a caching engine (eg. ITAâ€™s QPX engine)
- GDS based results calculated either by a GDS based cache or by slamming the GDS system multiple times (literally on occasions hundreds) to build a result set that then are discarded
- Scraped results, in other words, results generated by someone elseâ€™s system copied and pasted into the serving siteâ€™s results.
The results, regardless of search site, are inconsistent and generate little trust for the user. Why are they different?
This leads us to the next myth…
Myth 3 â€“ Air search works
Frankly, it doesnâ€™t. For something that looks like a commodity product, an airline seat is complicated. Here is a smattering of the differences:
The brand.com website, often powered by ITA (such as American Airlines or Alaska Airlines) generates a result, but this is no longer dynamic. Meanwhile, the internal price from the call centre agent is dynamic and can be different.
Why? Because it has a different engine offering the price.
Outside airline-brand.com, we have OTAs that are powered by different cache-based engines, including ITA (powering Orbitz), and Expedia BFS, originally co-developed with Worldspan and now using Sabre-based data.
We have metasearch engines that rely on some general sources such as ITA or some that are scraping the screen results from each website (and letâ€™s not forget there are some combinations of this).
This is ugly. The core problem here is that the airline supply side wants to assess the requestor before providing an answer – but the user wants speed.
The airlines have delegated to the GDSs and others the right to legally price their product. Thus there are many possible right answers and different players calculate the “right answers” differently.
Bottom line, there is no single definitive source for air search results, so nothing works particularly well. So could a user develop trust in this environment? And so who could you trust, this leads us to Myth #4
Myth 4 â€“ Google Search is trustworthy and is a good model for air search
The magic wand theory. Google waves a stick and magically the answer appears, and itâ€™s Google so it must be accurate. Most users appreciate Google Instant for its fast speed, but users donâ€™t think too much about whether those products improve the quality of search results.
As we have seen, Google Flight search is blazingly fast but is it accurate? The first few weeks so far have shown the results to be incomplete. As of yet we are still seeing a similar metaphor to existing search sites – it adds a few bells and whistles but itâ€™s not really doing anything fundamentally different, new or better.
As Google admitted at launch, Flight Search doesnâ€™t include all US domestic airlines, or any international routes, so is not a great model for complete or useful search results in its current guise. Today, Google is also only handing off to the airlines. Will they only do that in the future? Well this leads us to Myth #5.
Myth 5 â€“ The hand-off from search to booking is seamless and never fails
There are two elements to this issue. Form one is the external handoff from the search (metasearch such as Kayak and Skyscanner or a deal site) onto an OTA or an airline site in the workflow.
The second form of handoff is from an internal (ie. within site) search to the booking function. With different logic and different interpretations of the rules depending on the site or between sites, users get different answers.
Furthermore, the state of the answer matters. With a fundamentally dynamic situation regarding state of availability and rates, rules, etc, changes to availability and rate can occur quickly.
The number of instances when a result from a metasearch to the host site fails is quite frequent. There are no statistics that have been published on the subject but having seen several large system results I can assure you the number of failures is significant.
In my own case, I do a lot of searches and see the failures all too frequently. I am sure many others have seen this too. So by now perhaps you are ready for the last myth #6â€¦
Myth 6: Flight search is merely a user interface problem?
Hipmunk, for example, has blazed a new trail by showing a different view of the flight search results. True, itâ€™s very cool, but does it solve the core problems and does it provide more trust?
Passengers have many thousands of possible combinations to contend with, and expressing those could be interpreted as a user interface problem, but itâ€™s far more complex than just the UI.
Data presentation is but one part of the situation, because air search is built on logic, data and compromise, based on rules that are not designed for implementation by a machine.
In fare rules (remember just, one component in the results) there are four major components – fare levels (prices, charges and taxes), rules (usually the 42 “mini” rule categories, some complex, some simple) routings eligible for the fare, and finally a thing called footnotes which are essentially rules one cannot express in simple “codifiable” statements.
So there you have it. Myths and ugly realities. The industry needs to do better to provide reliable and trust worthy results to the consumer. That, my friends, is a great challenge to have.