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9/14/2011
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Google Flight Search Now Boarding

With Justice Department antitrust suit settled, Google enters the air travel search business.

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Five months after settling a Justice Department antitrust lawsuit to permit its acquisition of air travel technology provider ITA Software, Google has launched its own flight search service.

Google Flight Search provides users with the ability to find and book air travel using Google's search engine. It's available at google.com/flights and as an option in the left-hand column of the search results page sidebar.

The service competes with other travel search engines like Bing Travel, Expedia, Kayak, and Orbitz, to name a few. Because Google is so popular as a general search engine, many specialized travel search engines fear that those planning trips using Google will not look beyond Google Flight Search when searching for air travel options. And as ITA Software customers, these travel search sites continue to be concerned about being denied access to technology they had come to depend on.

To ensure that Google isn't abusing its general search dominance or hindering competition, Google's settlement with the Justice Department requires data gathered from ITA customers to be isolated from other Google data, limits its ability to enter agreements that restrict airlines from sharing information with competing travel sites, and establishes a complaint mechanism as a way to monitor Google's behavior toward travel industry competitors.

But regulatory balancing won't help other travel search sites if Google fields a superior service. While Google Flight Search isn't there yet--Google characterizes the site at launch as an early effort--it has already surpassed the competition in terms of speed and, arguably, in terms of user interface.

Google has made speed a top priority for most of its products, which is necessary given its desire to make Web apps indistinguishable from desktop apps from a performance perspective. And Google Flight Search is fast.

"Speed is critical to all the things we love on the Web, and travel planning should be no exception," explains Google engineering director Kourosh Gharachorloo in a blog post. "Making changes to dates, destinations, and filters should be as fast as we hope you’ve come to expect from Google."

To appreciate the sophistication of Google's frontend and backend code, try pricing flights from San Francisco to New York City using Google Flight Search and Orbitz. With Google, the process is almost immediate, thanks to Google's Instant Search and auto-completion technology.

With Orbitz, you have to enter data into a Web form and submit it, and the form returns an error if enough information isn't supplied. It won't provide a default date or assume anything about your location. The user experience, design, and programming just aren't as sophisticated.

At Kayak--one of the more technically sophisticated travel sites out there--Google's entry into the market isn't being taken lightly, but also isn't seen as an immediate defeat.

"We're confident in our ability to compete, and we believe our flight search technology is superior," said chief marketing officer Robert Birge in an emailed statement. "We recognize Google is a formidable competitor but they haven't been successful in every vertical they've entered."

Birge notes that Kayak relies on multiple data sources and its own technology to meet flight search needs. Time will tell whether that's enough to keep Google at bay.

Google Flight Search only lists a limited number of U.S. flights at the moment and only includes round-trip economy fares. Google says that new features and capabilities will be released when they're ready.

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