Why online airfare search is brokenNewsBy Timothy O'Neil-Dunne | April 8, 2011Share This article was originally published on With the thumbs up given to Google's acquisition of ITA Software, and as Tnooz's resident air geek, I have been looking at the issues of search for air products.In this first part, I am addressing the myths. Later I will look at the options for the next generation for search. There has been an overarching assumption amongst consumers and non-travel people that online travel agencies (OTA) find for the consumer the best prices.It is the core reason people use OTAs. But since the arrival of search, and metasearch more than five years ago, this myth has been somewhat expunged.Those who check travel frequently either on a generalist or even a specific nature, know this is a myth. And, in general, trust in the OTAs has been eroded. However the emergence of a credible trusted solution for search has been the problem.And in case you think I am going to be down on just search folk, there really is enough blame to go around.So, let’s look at the list of players who are making the thing so damn complicated:Metasearch is actually a pretty poor experience. How many times does the exit (the result which sends you onto another site) actually lead to a successful AND seamless experience all the way through?The answer is RARELY.But consumers are so punch drunk as to accept this as okay behavior, when we all know that we would not accept this type of treatment in a personal service situation. Let’s be honest… many people know this to be true.I find Skyscanner and FareCompare as the best of the bunch for search in being the most honest about trying to do the right thing.I find the others hard to work with. Airlines carry a lot of blame, but it’s seen as a necessary evil. It is against an airline's DNA to want to have basic transparency in pricing, but that does not mean that they have to accept that the daggers being thrown by the likes of the OpenAllies group are necessarily accurate.The airlines all provide the information to a greater or at the minimal level that the regulatory bodies allow. Because airline pricing is a very complicated process with thousands of possible parameters and choice options.Whenever I hear someone talking about how difficult it is to get an answer from an air search – I enjoy walking them through that process. Then they tend to get my point.The players thus far are to be applauded in making the whole process work as well as it has. However that being said, "good enough" is no longer good enough.The providers of the raw data, ATPCO, and the purveyors of the information, the GDSs, have never done a really good job, mostly due to technical limitations in the original architecture.So now there are commercial business model conflicts caused by the need for the GDSs to retain search as a lock into the legacy model.On the data source side ATPCO never has to provide a trusted result, so the interpreters of the data are left to "create" results, and then force some form of trust into them.The entrance of SITA who DOES validate its own results with a fares and pricing engine into the US market may improve things, but the jury will be out on that for a while.Travel Search 1.0 was based on the concept of an unique search (fire once and forget it) and set of results, one at a time. However that didn’t scale too well.So along came caching - an optimization technique that addresses scaling the search process. However the results can change. Caching is as inefficient as direct results in singularity.Throw in married segment logic and the demand for recognized user requests and the recipe is bound to result in trouble.Again most users think it must be just them when they see failures or inconsistent results. The issue is the number of times the result is different.So travel search is a pretty appalling experience - way worse than it COULD be and definitely worse than it SHOULD be. I can see why Google wants to (and clearly thinks it can) do a better job – not just from an economic perspective.Let me illustrate my point in just a single search I did a few weeks back. My goal was to illustrate that the same airline could have different pricing for the same product - i.e. the same seat on the same plane could be presented so many different ways and with such variations in pricing.The premise I used to think was correct was that the OPERATING carrier had the lowest fare. Even that doesn’t hold water as we can see in the attached five examples - three neutral sites and two airline sites.I chose a date of April 20 2011- in other words, more than 21 days out. But also a busy day (the week prior to Easter).I did the search on Expedia (this is an older picture, as it still doesn’t have American Airlines) and several other sites, had to modify the parameters to force the results to bring it down to an acceptable list.At the time, AA was totally out of Expedia and Orbitz. But it were in Cheaptickets still... Go figure. So when you see which site had the absolute lowest price. It was a code share on Aer Lingus (EI) with United (UA).My point here is to show that the definition of lowest fare varies and, therefore, the possibilities change.Furthermore, the exact results can vary by a significant amount. In my view this tells me that I will only get the indicative prices on an OTA or meta search and the real one on the airline’s website.Expedia:Priceline:Cheaptickets:American Airlines:British Airways:I think you get my point the pricing is just… different.In the next part, I will lay out what can be done to address the problem and where we can expect positive results and better experience for the customer.I will also have a prognosis for search and some good examples of what is happening now.