With an agreement to buy ITA Software signed, Google'sEric Schmidt isn't saying whether the new flight-search product it intends to develop would be a metasearch offering.
In a conference call with analysts and press this afternoon, after news broke of the $700 million cash deal, the Google chairman and CEO said he can't answer definitively what shape new flight-search tools would take.
But Schmidt indicated the product would include flight-option comparisons and that it would be different from anything available today.
ITA Software President and CEO Jeremy Wertheimer, who helped found the Cambridge, Mass., company in 1996, said it remains to be seen what direction the product would take, although the goal is a better flight-search experience.
Schmidt's reference to flight-option comparisons, however, sounds a lot like the business that Kayak, Bing Travel, FareCompare, TripAdvisor, SkyScanner and a slew of other metasearch companies are engaged in.
Although ITA and Google handlers stated in the shadows that Google has ruled out becoming a transaction site for airline tickets, Schmidt didn't dismiss the notion entirely, but called it "less likely."
So with the deal that's been rumored for months finally in the books, a lot of questions remain about the coming reverberations.
Schmidt said more than half of airline tickets are sold online, that he personally finds the air-ticket shopping experience frustrating and that it is "ultimately not a good user experience."
Schmidt said Google looked at the air search experience and views it as "perfect for more innovation and more investment," adding that Google, using ITA Software's QPX technology, intends to build new flight-search tools, flight-option comparisons, and then deliver consumers to websites to buy their tickets.
Schmidt argued that the Google-ITA Software combination will benefit airlines and online travel agencies by delivering to them more and better leads.
So why would Google want to buy ITA rather than license its technology, as many metasearch players, airlines, online travel agencies, corporate booking tools and other distributors do?
Schmidt said Google did a technical evaluation and concluded that a deep integration of ITA and Google technologies would be needed to accomplish Google's flight-search goals.
"So, it's really a technical answer," he said.
From ITA's perspective, Wertheimer said he believes there is a lot more work to do to improve selling travel online, and Google will provide scale and a bunch of very bright people to work with.
Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of search products and user experience, said Google will develop new flight-search tools, including flight-tracking, and feed consumers to different sites for transactions.
For example, Mayer said consumers might be able to query, where might they fly within seven hours for a given fare.
Officials assured ITA's partners that contracts will be honored.
Schmidt said he expects regulators to take a significant amount of time to review the transaction, and he believes the deal to be pro-competition and pro-consumer.
"We are pretty comfortable" about the likelihood of the deal getting approved, Schmidt said.
Schmidt acknowledged that Google had been talking to ITA for a long time and that he has known its management for an extended period.
"What they have achieved is amazing," Schmidt said.
Here's a replay of the conference call.