So google is buying ITA Software. What does it mean for you, air traveler?

First of all, what is ITA Software? Briefly, it’s a technology company based in Cambridge, MA that provides the airfare search software behind such sites as Orbitz, Kayak and many airline web sites. Its claim to fame is that it digs deeper into airline reservation systems than some other technologies, and usually finds fares that are only available via the airlines’ own websites. And it allows users to do an easy flexible date search over any 30-day period.

But: It does not provide searches on Southwest AIrlines, Allegiant Airlines, Ryanair, and a few other smaller carriers. Similarly, low-cost leader Spirit Airlines keeps its best fares for

Nor can ITA calculate promo code or some other special airfares that the airlines reserve for their own web sites.

Recently, for example, US Airways tweeted fares from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv for $99 each way plus tax, summer travel. JetBlue tweets frequently as well, with $10 fares. United recently tweeted 20% off discount codes. These deals were not picked up by ITA Software. If airlines increasingly market their best deals through narrow channels, and keep them from ITA, it will further change the fare finding game. My thinking is that if airlines can figure out how to eliminate all third parties, such as profitable Southwest has done, they’ll do it.ITA also doesn’t include the “name your own price” fares you can find on sites like, which are often quite good if you don’t have a sufficiently large advance purchase window. And it doesn’t include consolidator airfares. In fact, no airfare search site includes all of these things.

So will the Google acquisition change airfare search for the better? Online airfare search “is ultimately not a very good user experience,” Google CEO Eric Schmidt said on a conference call. “There’s clearly room for more competition there.”

That’s an interesting statement. More competition? Compared to other categories, airfare search is anything but devoid of competition. Recently, TripAdvisor got into the game, as did Travelzoo with its site. That’s in addition to sites like Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, Cheaptickets, Hotwire, Booking Buddy, Farecompare, Yapta, Cheapair, and about a dozen others. ITA Software powers many of these sites already.

ITA does not sell airfares directly. It only shows what it believes the lowest fare to be on any given route, and then you need to conduct a separate search on the site of your choice to find the fare. Most people go directly to airline web sites to complete purchases, although sometimes the cheapest fare will be outbound on one airline and a return on a second airline, which is where the online travel agencies (OTAs such as Travelocity and Expedia) have an advantage, since they show fares on more than one airline. Will Google turn ITA into a fare-selling engine, in competition with its paying customers? Who can say?

Of course, Google is already in the fare search business. If you Google a term like “Boston to New York depart Dec 13 return Dec 15 2010” (try it), the top unadvertised search result will be a google-generated search box allowing you to click on many major OTA’s and meta-search sites.

But it will not actually return fares without further clicking. Perhaps at some point an ITA-generated fare result will pop up, showing the lowest price your Google search, instead of sending you to an OTA’s link.

Airfare search is such a crowded, ever-changing business, fraught with uncertainty and risks that it’s interesting that Google wants in. But I’ll have to assume they know what they’re doing.

George Hobica is the founder of Airfarewatchdog™, the most inclusive source of airfare deals that have been researched and verified by experts. Airfarewatchdog compares fares from all airlines and includes the increasing number of airline-site-only and promo code fares.

[Flickr image: tortuga767]

British Airways’ re-launched First is worth every mile

Recently, I spent $75 to get a seat in British Airways‘ new and improved first class cabin from New York to London, and although my original flight was ash-canned, I did eventually get there. And to paraphrase the Beatles, man, I did not have a dreadful flight.

To quickly explain: I signed up for a British Airways-branded Chase Visa Card ($75 annual fee) and was awarded 100,000 bonus frequent flyer miles, enough to cover the 75,000 (one-way) required for a ride way in BA’s newly-refreshed premier cabin. Heck, I don’t fly much these days, and my 56-year-old posterior isn’t as padded as it used to be, nor are my joints quite as supple, so $75 for a little comfort is just what the chiropractor ordered.

Had I actually bought that seat? Well, honestly, on my salary and at my pay grade, that would have been unlikely. It would have cost several thousand dollars-more if I paid full freight, less if I had bought a heavily discounted fare.

As it turned out, that Iceland volcano had other plans for me, and my flight was canceled. My hopes of attending a reunion at my Oxford college, where I was a graduate student 30 years earlier, were vaporized.

But last week, I was invited as a guest of BA, in my capacity as an airfare/airline pundit, to give First Class another shot.

Most air travel these days, whether to the former USSR or to Bangor, can be pretty dreadful. But not in seat 3K on a BA 777.

No one is quite sure who (Flaubert? Einstein?) first said that “God is in the details” (it’s also been said that the devil is in them too), but first class on most international airlines is already pretty fine, so the only way an airline can improve its premier product is by concentrating on the fine points.

And this, clearly, BA has done. The padding on the seats is plumper. The seats are 60 percent wider at the shoulders. The video screens are bigger. The cabin lighting is softer and prettier. The reading lights are brighter. The window shades are electronic. Each seat now comes with its own closet. The pillows are bigger. The bedsheets of a finer Egyptian cotton. The armrests disappear as the bed reclines to its fully-flat, fully-horizontal position, giving you even more room. The dedicated check-in areas are more exclusive-note the comfy easy chairs. The arrival and departure lounges are more luxurious. I particularly liked the terrace overlooking the bustle at Heathrow’s Terminal 5.

BA was in strike mode when I flew, so catering was a bit handicapped; thus I can’t say if they have improved the in-flight cuisine. I suspect they have, however (actually the substituted chicken tikka was quite good). I’ll have to wait for my next first class adventure to try the amuse bouche, and to find out if the 2004 Tattinger Champagne, normally served in First, is better chilled, or the caviar fresher.

After all, I still have those 100,000 miles burning a hole in my Executive Club account, and maybe I’ll be around for my 40th college reunion. By then that volcano will be extinct. I hope.

Farewell Browser, Airfarewatchdog watchdog

In the short years in which I’ve worked in the travel industry, I’ve been privy to a lot of introductions. Famous travelers, pundits and celebrities have all passed my desk, many with a forced, tight smile and the faint din of one handshake too many.

Few cases have brought true affection and genuine appreciation for one’s presence – and most of them were in the company of Browser, the mascot, pet and office mate of the folks over at Airfarewatchdog. High above the tower skyline of Manhattan we used to meet at the AFWD offices, productive music pumping and fares passing across keyboards of the talented, bargain searching staff.

The air in the office may have been focused and intense, but Browser had a way of mashing into a room, digging into your lap and making it known that you were noticed and loved. It was calming in a way, a release mechanism to step back from the computer, forget a few tweets and spend some real time with an altruistic, friendly creature.

Browser passed last week at a ripe age of 14 years – old for a dog perhaps, but far too young for an animal of such joy and love. You’ll be missed in the travel community, my friend.

A modest proposal: Let’s ban large carry-ons altogether

A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate last week would ban airlines from charging for carry-on luggage, according to Reuters. Two senators rightly point out that carry-ons often contain items that are “important for the safety and health” of travelers, including medication and eyewear.

But can we please keep in mind that Spirit Airlines’ now infamous decision to charge for carry-on luggage only applies to items too large to fit in the seat in front of the passenger? You can still carry on personal items for free, and that would include a large purse, brief case, or backpack into which you can stuff whatever essentials or valuables you desire. Coats, strollers, cameras, and certain other items are also carried in-cabin for free.

Let’s get real here. To avoid looking disingenuous, Spirit should simply ban carry on bags altogether rather than making them a profit center. And the US Congress should let airlines conduct business as they see fit, and if it really cares about airline passengers, instead legislate a solution to the real safety risks of carry-on luggage.

Spirit’s CEO, Ben Baldanza, with some justification, claims that the overhead bin fee will discourage carry-on overcrowding and lead to safer air travel, both for flight attendants and passengers, who are sometimes injured when lifting heavy bags into the bins and by bags falling out of the bins, despite the airlines’ constant “bags do tend to shift in flight” PA announcements.

But most likely, safety isn’t the real issue here, at least not for an airline CEO. Baldanza also suggests that the airline will be able to board and deplane their aircraft faster, which implies that Spirit will profit by faster airport turnarounds, and thus be able to complete more flights per day and earn more revenue per plane (or fly more passengers with fewer multi-million dollar jets).

Is safety the real issue here?But if safety is really the issue, then the airline should ban large carry-ons altogether, rather than charging for them. Is a carry-on that is charged $45 any safer than one riding for free? Of course not. Indeed, in the infancy of commercial aviation, there were no overhead bins at all, just hat racks into which it was forbidden to place even the smallest flight bag or other hard object. Everything else went under the seat. (OK, OK, the seats were spaced farther apart, granted.)

In any case, the US Congress should back off. If Spirit or any other airline decides to ban larger-sized carry-ons for safety reasons or to charge for them for revenue-enhanhcement reasons or to discourage passengers from using the overhead bins altogether, then that’s their business. If the government were really consumer focused, they should recognize the health hazards of large carry-on luggage and encourage airlines to ban the practice altogether, following Spirit’s model of only permitting smaller carry-ons that fit under the seat.

And there are about a thousand other things Congress should focus on when it comes to air travel, such as fixing the air traffic control system.

Then we could go back to the old model of free checked baggage, or not. But that should be the airlines’ decision. Or maybe passengers will finally “get it” that the airlines don’t want to be carrying their luggage in the first place, and they’d learn the pleasures of 5-day FedEx Ground delivery service, at least on domestic flights.

Airlines could save millions, and offer free checked baggage once again.

Although putting an end to large carry-on bags, whether free or paid, would require the airlines to hire more baggage handlers and check in staff, who are paid relatively modest wages, most likely the carriers would come out ahead by boarding and deplaning planes far faster than currently possible. It doesn’t take an airline CEO with an MBA to figure out that if every one of the thousands of flights flown in the US each day could shave 30 or 45 minutes off of their schedules by turning around quicker at the airport, then the airlines would save millions in equipment, fuel and the more expensive salaries paid to pilots, who often sit around doing nothing while passengers attempt to stuff bags in the overhead bins, blocking other passengers from reaching their seats.

With the money they save, airlines could once again offer free checked bags, just like in the good old days, when flying was fun.


George Hobica is the founder of Airfarewatchdog™, the most inclusive source of airfare deals that have been researched and verified by experts. Airfarewatchdog compares fares from all airlines and includes the increasing number of airline-site-only and promo code fares.

Once a free perk, many airlines now charge for advanced seat selection

A recent Airfarewatchdog poll revealed that after checked bag fees, the most hated airline fee is the one extracted for advanced seat selection. This used to be entirely free, but no more.

Say you log on to JetBlue’s Web site to book a flight. You choose one, you select a seat you like – paying $10 or more per leg for more room up front or in an exit row. Bang. You’re done.

Now try doing the same on – what, you want an exit row? You want to sit up front? Better have your SkyMiles number handy.

Got none? Back of the bus, sir.

Let’s say you’re on the Web once more, surfing the site of Denver-based low-fare flyer Frontier. Here, you book the lowest fare available – clever you! – there will be no getting anywhere near a seating plan, let alone any selecting of favorite aisle seats up front. Not until 24 hours before takeoff, you won’t – and then, let’s hope that all that’s left isn’t the dreaded middle seat.
Still, things could be worse – there’s Allegiant Air, which charges between $4.99 and $24.99 to anyone – anyone – who wants to get near a seat map before the day of flight. Leaving you, of course, to wonder if that Orlando flight you paid $39.99 for is going to be the worst of your life, sandwiched between two terrifyingly loud, sugar-charged children who’ve never been to Disney World (and are also recovering from nasty colds, cough cough.) Unless, of course, you cough up.

These days, flyers who don’t like surprises ought to take heed when booking a flight. Rare is the airline with an advance seat selection process that mirrors any other; what seems so sensible for one (open up the whole thing, charge an arm and a leg for the really good stuff and bring in a nice chunk of change per flight) seems so difficult for others to grasp (Southwest, which clings to its no-seat-assignments-ever rule, which its loyal customers continue to pretend to not mind.)

Policies all over the place

While it can seem as if there’s no rhyme or reason to the way each airline handles the divvying up of seats on its planes, there actually is. If you take a look at this chart, which goes over the current seat selection rules for 16 airlines, a pattern emerges – legacy carriers such as Delta and American continue to try and please their frequent flyers first, holding back the best seats (among them, exit rows) for their most loyal customers. Those that are new, new-ish or focused on low fares (and less on loyalty) tend to be a bit of a free-for-all.

Some of the legacy carriers like United, want to have it all. They want to please their long-time customers, but they also find the lure of making a buck off of premium seating too much to ignore.

Thus, on United, you have Economy Plus, featuring five more inches of legroom in the upfront rows on all domestic and international flights. Elite frequent fliers are generally given these seats automatically. However, anyone can buy in, based on availability – rates start at $9 and go up to $109 for long-haul flights. United even sells a $425 annual Economy Plus pass, ensuring you’ll always have more legroom.

Other airlines that have resisted making such bold changes are now giving in; Continental, for example, recently announced a similar program, where premium seats (including exit rows) will be made available for a fee for those who want to log on within 24 hours of departure and select them; the airline has said these seats will not be available for purchase at the airport. When last we tried, attempting to select an exit row seat within 24 hours of departure on a Continental flight yields nothing more than a rollover message instructing you to “request at check-in.” But unless they’ve changed their minds, this is probably fixed by now.

Earliest available


Can you pre book an exit row?

Premium Services


During booking, before purchase


$20, book anytime

Upgrades to business class available at set prices


During booking, before purchase



Some seats at front of economy section and aisle seats for premium customers


During booking, before purchase

$4.99 to $24.99

Yes, for a fee



During booking, before purchase


Reserved for premium customers

Some seats at front of economy section and aisle seats for premium customers

British Airways

Free at check in or from 24 hours before departure

Depends on class of service; For international economy and domestic UK, £10/$15 to chose seats from time of booking up to check-in, 24 hours before departure up to £60/$90 for other classes of service (First Class free)

£50/$75 for economy/World Traveller Plus



During booking, before purchase


Request at check in

Some premium seats available for a fee (including exit rows), book within 24 hours of departure online only


During booking, before purchase


Reserved for premium customers

Some seats at front of economy section and aisle seats for premium customers


Lowest economy fares limited to 24 hours before flight, more expensive fares anytime


Request at check in

First few rows with extra legroom free to some frequent flyer members; $15-$25 for others


During booking, before purchase


Request at check in

No, but upgrades available for sale


During booking, before purchase


Yes, from $10, depending on flight length

“Even more room” includes exit row and more spacious seats at front, from $10


During booking, before purchase


Request at check in

Some roomier front seats sold for a set fee which depends on flight length


At boarding



$10 for preferred boarding (“Group A”)


During booking, before purchase

$5 and up depending on route

Yes, for a fee

Upgrades to “Big Front Seat” from $25 per flight


During booking, before purchase


Request at check in

Economy Plus offers more leg room from $9 per flight

US Air

During on line check in


Request at check in

Some aisle and front of plane seats $5-$20, buy online from 24 hours in advance

Virgin America

During booking, before purchase


Sold as “Main Cabin Select” seats for hefty fees

Exit rows and bulkheads sold as “Main Cabin Select” for variable fees, includes free premium TV and meals

George Hobica is the founder of Airfarewatchdog™, the most inclusive source of airfare deals that have been researched and verified by experts. Airfarewatchdog compares fares from all airlines and includes the increasing number of airline-site-only and promo code fares.