All this may have a familiar ring. When several airlines started Orbitz in 2001, the online travel agency also raised some antitrust concerns. The Justice Department ultimately ruled that the new site didn’t threaten competition, and time has proved that decision to be correct.
But this may be different, according to Michael Goul, chair of the information systems department at Arizona State University’s school of business. He has researched online competition and says that online travel companies — and maybe their customers — may have good reason to be worried this time. “Service platform wars are nasty — often winner-take-all,” he says. “The other travel sites should be very nervous about this expansion.”
Which brings us to the long-term implications of Flight Search. It may seem like an insignificant “me-too” move by Google, but critics say that it could quickly morph into a dominant force for selling airline tickets.
That could drive competitors out of business — and drive airline ticket prices higher, they say. “If there’s no scrutiny of Google, then we could end up with a situation in five or ten years where there are fewer travel providers,” says Ben Hammer, a spokesman for FairSearch, a coalition of travel companies that compete with Google. FairSearch fears that its members may be cut out of Google’s Flight Search.
“Google would become a single focal point to reach airlines and will give them incredible leverage to drive up advertising costs,” says Hammer.
For now, though, there’s no immediate threat, and the present iteration of Flight Search is no match for more full-featured competitors such as Kayak and Expedia. Even Google’s most ardent critics admit that having more choices when it comes to flight queries is a good thing.
But what about a year from now? Will Google kill off some of the other popular travel sites we rely on today? As one who sounded the alarm when Orbitz launched — and ended up with virtual egg yolk dripping down my face — I’m hesitant to join the chorus of critics.
I hope I’ll be right this time.
Elliott is National Geographic Traveler magazine’s reader advocate. E-mail him at