Why an Airfare Comparison Tool from Google Could Upend Online Flight Booking

Airplane wing in flight among clouds

Airplane wing in flight among clouds

Google is rumored to be building an airfare comparison site, according to Michael O’Leary, founder of low-cost Irish airline Ryanair. The project would reportedly upend the way people find and buy airline tickets online and has the potential to steal customers away from popular flight search sites like Expedia, Kayak and Skyscanner.

O’Leary told the Sunday Independent that the tech giant has asked Ryanair to share all of its flight pricing with Google for an upcoming travel planning tool. “…When you go in, there’ll be route selections, cheapest prices and so on. Google are developing a price-comparison thing themselves,” O’Leary said.

Building an online search tool for flights is fine and dandy, but what would make such a tool from Google (if it’s truly in the works) disruptive? Its revenue model.

Kayak landing page screenshotMost flight search engines earn revenue through marketing arrangements with airlines, which often leads to bureaucracy that limits the flights search engines can display. Google’s flight search, on the other hand, would earn its keep merely through ads, allowing Google to work independently of airlines and provide flight information that’s not biased because of marketing deals. “They don’t want to have a limited or biased search. They want to be able to say they’ve screened all of these airlines on all of the routes,” said O’Leary. In other words, since Google doesn’t charge airlines to list their flights, airlines have no ground to limit the flights that appear in Google’s search results.

O’Leary believes such a search engine will “blow comparison sites like Skyscanner out of the water.” While this is very well possible, O’Leary is ignoring one huge factor: user traction. Think about it: we’d laugh if Facebook tried to mimic Snapchat. Why? Because Snapchat has already caught on as “the” ephemeral messaging service. Getting users to switch services once they’re locked in is extremely difficult, and this issue is inflated in the travel industry, where many users use flight search engines as little as once a year. How do you convince someone who already equates travel planning with Expedia to switch to a new service when that person is not actively looking for a new flight search service? It will take Google more than a big advertising spend to convince users to try its service, let alone convert to it.

Screenshot of Skyscanner's flight search tool

Darrell Etherington at TechCrunch suggests that Google could integrate its flight search tool into services that have already gained user traction, like Google’s personal assistant tool Google Now. Convenience is one way to convince users to change, but it’s not necessarily the key to success. Think about it: Google Play Music is built into Android phones, but how many people actually use it?

So is an airfare comparison tool from Google a threat to existing flight search sites? Not necessarily. It depends how Google plays its cards to convince users to switch over.

According to O’Leary, Google’s new flight search engine should launch by the end of March.

Would you use a flight search engine powered by Google?

Featured image by epSos.de

Lauren Mobertz

By Lauren Mobertz

Lauren is the former managing editor for DashBurst. One part geek, one part urban nomad, she is constantly scouting for the latest tech and world news. In the evenings you'll find Lauren running in strange places or attempting to dance salsa.