CheapAir unveils semantic search for booking flights with natural language queries
Aiming to make travel search more intelligent, CheapAir.com has begun beta-testing Easy Search, a semantic search tool that allows users to pose natural language flight queries instead of choosing parameters in forms, drop-down menus, and calendars.
CheapAir claims to be the first online travel agency (OTA) in the US to embrace semantic search.
The tool can be found on CheapAir’s homepage, by clicking the Easy Search tab, which is the fourth option on the top navigation bar.
CheapAir’s search box prompts users with a leading question: “Tell us the cities and dates of your trip.”
When I tested the query “Chicago to LA on Oct 5th, back on the 10th,” Easy Search fetched adequate answers.
My query for “LGW to TYO 26oct 31st oct” was also correctly understood as “London, United Kingdom to Tokyo, Japan, October 26, 2012 – October 31, 2012.” I could then click with a button for how many tickets I needed and CheapAir retrieved fare listings.
A narrow range of possible queries
CheapAir directs customers to only make queries with cities and dates.
The site’s search box accepts city and airport codes and allows users to enter dates in any format.
A few sample searches are listed as examples, guiding users in how to use the tool and boosting the chances customers will see helpful results.
Semantic search algorithms have additional considerations of grammar and syntax along with the statistical ones of word sequence, which rely on programmers to attach extra, machine-readable code to every page of results.
Where the terminology is limited, semantic search can produce good enough results.
Yet the more open-ended a query, the greater the chance of receiving a faulty answer, as Apple’s Siri often illustrates in a different context.
Earlier this year, iXiGO.com, an Indian travel search engine, launched a natural language flight search tool. But its search results have not been as robust as CheapAir’s.
For instance, a recent search on iXiGO — “chicago denver by air” — returned the information: “Chicago (Illinois) to Denver (Colorado) does not have flight connectivity.”
A big stride for a “second-tier, but important” OTA
The move is a bold experiment for CheapAir, which has 50 staffers and says it “crunches more than 25 million fares a day.”
But the Calabasas, Calif., company has an Achilles’ heel.
Southwest Airlines, which carries more passengers domestically than any other US airline, also does not provide fares for the search engine, thought that is the carrier’s policy toward all OTAs.
Perhaps natural language queries will draw enough buzz to draw the consumer volume that forces Delta and other airlines to take it more seriously.
Sean O’Neill is a New Jersey-based reporter for Tnooz. He is also a daily contributor of consumer news to LonelyPlanet.com.
He used to work for BBC Travel, BudgetTravel.com, and Kiplinger's, and used to live in London, New York City, and Washington, DC.