ITA Software by Google has taken a fresh approach to spotting threatening bugs and data flaws in its flight search product: crowdsourcing.
Anyone with a complaint about ITA Software's flight search products for consumers -- the airfare search engine Matrix and the mobile app On the Fly -- can sound off in a dedicated Google forum.
The forum isn't new. It's been around since 2012, after Google acquired the company.
Yet it's still notable because ITA Software remains unique among travel technology companies in taking this crowdsourcing approach to a key product. (Though TripAdvisor does have forums for airing complaints, too.)
Whenever its halo slips, a digital strike force can respond
In the past year, there have been about 40 complaints a month on average. A look at the complaints posted in the forum finds a few trends.
Data flaws are one type of complaint. Recently a user griped that Nicaragua's Noriega Airport is missing from the database.
An ITA Software representative responded to some of this and other "missing airport" complaints in the past month by saying, "We are hoping to roll out an updated airport database soon."
Sometimes fares are incorrectly displayed, such as a recent Matrix goof in which fares listed as $25,000 were in reality $2,500.
Product design issues drive a different category of user feedback.
Case in point: one traveler was confused about how to use Matrix to search by specific or a range of fare codes. An ITA Software representative was able to explain the special codes that can be used in search to fetch more precise fare results.
In another case, a user complained about a restriction that had been placed on the number of stops that can searched, because it distorted results. ITA Software responded by lifting the restriction.
In another example from the forum, a user pointed out a bug in Matrix in which the routing codes generated an error message from the search "Round-trip tab, SFO to HKG, routing code c: dl + in both directions, calendar of lowest fares starting 1/10/13, 3-4 nights."
The company was able to address the bug.
Why turn to crowdsourcing?
Bugs and data flaws are an inevitable part of any flight search tool, not just ITA Software's. The "combinatorics" of computing and searching fares in less than 10 seconds can be an overwhelming challenge.
For instance, there are 25 million flight combinations for a round-trip between Boston and Los Angeles with one day travel windows, according to the company. Such complexity can lead to errors.
The argument for crowdsourcing solutions to software development is tied to the so-called agile development methodologies.
Receiving regular shots of user feedback is a way to continuously diagnose and prioritize your problems and course-correct efficiently, say advocates of agile development.
Not a wholehearted embrace of crowdsourcing, though
ITA Software's flight search is just one of its products. It's worth noting it hasn't crowdsourced fixes to, say, its customer relationship management (CRM) platforms that it sells to airlines.
For example, you won't see any public discussion about its QPX software suite, which powers the back-end flight search and merchandising capabilities of many of the largest US airlines including American, United, Continental, and Southwest Airlines, plus functionality at consumer sites like Orbitz and Kayak.
You won't hear a peep, either, about the tools it is building to improve American Airlines' "direct connect" IT infrastructure.
(Google's Flight Search tool, which is powered by ITA Software, has a separate forum -- in the broader Google product questions forums.)
Opening yourself up to public criticism has its perils.
A complaint about the information for flights on Turkish Airways elicited this response from the search giant: "Yes, we are aware our availability info for Turkish Airlines is often incorrect."
That probably is an embarrassing admission for both the search giant and the airline.
While anyone can make one-off mistakes, it takes bravery to entertain the idea that there's something significantly flawed with your product more broadly.
Such a broad complaint is easy to find in the forums. The most consistent gripe is that ITA Software displays fares that aren't actually bookable through other sources. (The company doesn't facilitate consumer booking directly.)
The company has yet to add a feedback section where users could report if they were able to actually obtain ITA fares from travel agents or directly at airline websites. That would address a critique of the company's very heart, it's raison d'être.
Not every company is willing to embrace such criticism in public. Which is why crowdsourcing bugs probably hasn't caught on with other online travel brands -- and will likely stay limited at ITA Software, too.