Law, order and tech fighting to change air travel7/22/2015
The airline industry is one of the most treacherous. Dozens of airlines have gone under or declared bankruptcy, and few of them run what can be deemed admirable operations. Case in point, on July 1, the United States Justice Department announced it was investigating the four largest domestic airlines for price collusion. Not only do they bleed us dry over baggage fees, meal fees and hidden processing charges, they might have been working in secret to keep rates high. The airlines are arguing the ticket fee game is fiercely competitive, and similar pricing is a symptom. But to the average consumer, the smoke is continually rising fees, and the fire is dropping oil prices. While the Justice Department sorts out the legality of airline ticketing practices, technology is doing its best to empower the consumer.
When raging against the machine, the smartest move is not to go screaming at your enemy but to undercut it using its own system to claim victory. In the airlines-versus-consumers war, two very different tech outfits are fighting on front lines with the consumers: tech giant Google and startup nobody Skiplagged.
Before the Internet, buying a plane ticket required flyers to call individual airlines and arduously research the cost of travel. Flyers and airlines were in the dark together as to the cost of travel from one company to the next. Now, with the Internet littered with travel sites sharing ticket prices, it’s ridiculously easy for airlines to monitor travel values against the competition. For consumers, it’s much harder. How are we supposed to know if we’re truly getting the best price for our window seat without having 10 travel websites up at the same time, magically monitoring multiple dates and departure times? It’s impossible.
Thankfully, Google has decided to juggle all those flying balls for us. To one person, trying to monitor all that information requires magic. To a mega corporation like Google, it’s simply about crunching the data. Google Flights does just that: runs the numbers and presents it in the most consumer-friendly manner. Want to see a month’s worth of travel dates at once? Google Flights. Need to run a matrix of hours, airlines and extra fees? Google Flights. If you’re locked in an ugly system, sometimes embracing it to the fullest is the best option.
But then there’s the covert operation of finding the loopholes and exploiting them. Skiplagged.com recently uncovered a thrifty travelling loophole known as “hidden cities.” Late last year, 22-year-old programming student Aktarer Zaman discovered that some tickets with layovers were grossly cheaper than direct one-way or return flights. So Zaman built Skiplagged, a site that delivers only tickets that exploit this loophole. Skiplagged travelers looking for a flight from Chicago to Los Angeles will actually buy a ticket that flies from Chicago to Los Angeles with a second leg from L.A. to an unvisited final destination. This means getting off midway through your travel, so checking luggage isn’t possible, and you need to book departing and returning tickets separately.
As valiant as Skiplagged is, the dark undercurrent to its heroics is a multi-million dollar lawsuit facing the site from the very industry it is undermining. Orbitz and United are trying to punish the site for uncovering the poorly kept hidden city secret. It seems air travel changes won’t happen by revolution, and as organized and nice as Google Flights is, it likely won’t bring about an evolution in the system. So it looks like we’re stuck waiting for the scales of justice to drop in our favor. In other words, don’t hold your breath for lower ticket prices. CV
Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. Follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb.