4 years ago

Voice activated flight search portends of tech-to-come

Siri has been shaking things up for a couple of years now, and voice-activated technologies are proliferating. Technologists are making inroads with Siri as travel agent and apps (such as Desti) have been popping up that use voice as a primary means of data entry.

While no one has delivered a smashing, rip-roaring success in regards to voice integration within the travel cycle, experiments abound as established companies look to voice activation as both a differentiator and crowd-pleaser. Voice activated features give new users a reason to try the service and delivering a better experience to current users.

The latest foray into voice-tech comes from CheapAir.com. The voice activation feature is integrated with the company’s latest iPhone and iPad release, allowing customers to use voice to search for flights amidst the 25 million aggregated fares.

The app works very simply: state your departure and destination points, date and time preferences, and the app will process the verbal input to deliver query results.

CheapAir CEO Jeff Klee:

We know that more and more travelers want to research flight options with their phones. We want to make it easy to check flights while out with friends, walking to the subway, or wherever our customers are. We’re doing everything we can to make it easier to find the lowest fares and the best flight options. CheapAir was the first travel site to let people search for fares using natural language, we were the first to show which in-flight amenities are on every flight, and now we’ve launched the first voice-activated iPhone app.

While it’s not entirely clear that customers will be engaging in voice-activated flight search while out with friends, it’s an intriguing concept. Once Siri can explain the options back to us, and engage with our answers as we seek out different options, a complete end-to-end solution may be quite compelling.

Although this isn’t something that customers specifically asked for, I think it represents a much needed step forward for flight search. When you think about it, since the first online travel sites there really have not been any major advancements in the process.

For the most part, we still have to fill out the same forms, going from field to field, with the same cumbersome calendars. This is especially tedious if you want to book on your Smartphone, as so many people now do. We don’t think we’ve solved the problem completely. There is still a ton we can do to make it better, but we do think this is a major step forward.

As far as the technology is concerned, Klee explains:

We piggy-backed off of the native iOS speech-to-text capability to handle the voice part, but we built our own semantic language parser to translate natural language text into a structured travel request query. It’s pretty sophisticated but over time will get better and better as it learns different people’s different language patterns.

We developed the natural language parser in-house. We started working on it late last summer and in September began testing it with a feature we launched on our desktop site called “Easy Search” which lets you search by typing a request instead of filling out a form. (For instance, “L.A. to JFK 4/10 – 4/12”.) We’ve spent several months refining and enhancing it, using feedback we’ve gotten from Easy Search users and now, with the voice component, we’re ready to take it to the next level.

For visual thinkers, however, this particular use-case for voice-activated search might prove challenging, given the difficulty of evaluating different options linearly rather than stacked on top of one another.

This may change quickly as the technology evolves:

Right now, we have only incorporated voice into the initial part of the process – making your request. From that point, we are still returning the flight options visually and still requiring you to use your finger and the keypad to select and purchase flights. But we are definitely looking to take things further.

Ultimately, we want to find the right balance between parts of the process that would be easier to do by voice and parts that would be easier to do with scrolling and tapping. We think that kind of integrated experience is what the future of travel technology will look like.

The functionality can be used on iPhone 4S and above in addition to the iPad 3, and is available for download at the iTunes Store.

For some added measure of forward-thought, here’s a recap of 2013 predictions we shot at PhocusWright in November 2012:

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Nick Vivion

About the Writer :: Nick Vivion

Nick is the Editorial Director for Tnooz. Prior to this role, Nick has multi-hyphenated his way through a variety of passions: restaurateur, photographer, filmmaker, corporate communicator, Lyft driver, Airbnb host, journalist, and event organizer.



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  1. Murray Harrold


    1. If you are going to talk… you may as well talk to a travel agent. We are better at dealing with “voice”. And at best the same price but more often than not come up with something better. Websites can answer a question but in travel it is rare that the traveling public ask the *right* question, in the first place.

    2. How on earth are you going to find a place quiet enough to get the message across correctly? No.1 daughter has Siri and apart from being a bit of a joke, its pretty much pointless.

    Yes, I give them kudos for trying to develop voice. Given the complexity of travel, though, the jury is still out on it’s value. Be better if techys bothered themselves with what we want and need, rather than what is a) easy to produce and b) take the view that we will produce this and see if anyone picks up on it …. That’s the wrong way around!

    Take THack for example … here is an API what can you do with it? What it should be is: Here is what is needed, is there an API that is of any use … or do we need to do it the hard way?

    Carts before horses, dear boy …. carts before horses ….

    • Kevin May

      Kevin May

      @murray – what happens if a customer wants to *talk* to someone outside of office hours?

      • Murray Harrold

        Well, if it is me (and probably a lot of other homeworkers) clients can *talk* to us any time they damn well please.

        The company I work for (as do many other agents who are serious about biz travel) have out of hours services.

        If you have n’t got an agent you can talk to “any time you damn well please” – get one. Agents have come along a bit, you know. We had to. We were told that we had to change, so we did … it’s just that a lot of suppliers, airlines and others (incl. misc. sunds techys and journos) have not caught up with us yet 🙂

        It’s airlines that give you the message “we are open from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday” – not agents. (well not good ones, anyway)

  2. Glenn Gruber

    Murray, I will say that I agree that the CheapAir solution may not provide the knowledge of a travel agent, but you should not dismiss the technology at all.

    When I spoke to the CTO of Nuance at the GigaOM Mobilize event in October, we talked about voice and travel. The potential for multi-modal input (mixing text/screen input and voice) is quite high. Typing in some text or pressing some buttons is a great way to initiate a search, but it’s less useful when trying to narrow a search or sort options. There voice can be very powerful.

    So I give kudos to the CheapAir team for giving it a try. I hope they will be successful.

  3. Murray Harrold

    Total rubbish. This will never prove better than the voice-activated, dynamic response pro-active travel itinerary determination app. The app has actually been around a while and is capable of analysing the travel request, identifying any potential issues and then providing a real-time response generating a non-siloed holistic solution through single-gateway omni-channel response mechanisms.

    Tried tested and proven.

    All CheapAir will achieve is people shouting “Paris Texas… not France” at their mobile phones whilst being stared at by mildly irritated metro passengers……

    The app? Oh Sorry… did I not mention that? It’s called a “travel agent”


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