The online travel company TripAdvisor introduced on Tuesday an ambitious redesign of its Flights search feature that will provide detailed information globally on any given flight's price - including added charges for options like extra legroom - as well as on in-flight amenities like the availability of Wi-Fi and in-seat power ports.
Underscoring the rapid growth in international travel and the demand for easily accessible comparison-shopping information, the feature will be localised for 31 countries and in 17 languages.
"Not all flights are the same; not all airlines are the same," Bryan Saltzburg, general manager for new initiatives at TripAdvisor said.
Saltzburg's understatement underlines the complexity in choices and options travellers encounter, as airlines in the United States and around the world refine a successful business model based on charging customers what they choose to pay for service, comfort and convenience.
TripAdvisor describes its redesign as a move to simplify what can be an enormously complicated shopping experience for those who book their own flights, as a growing number of business travellers do. A given search result will show all available flights, with fare comparisons and a breakdown, by flight segment, of amenities and services on a particular airplane.
Saltzburg said: "Customers will have transparency while they're making a booking decision between Flight A and Flight B, which might be the same cost. Are extra-legroom seats available for sale? That's clearly indicated on the initial results page."
Other information is presented, like seat pitch, flight on-time records, and availability of Wi-Fi and in-seat power ports, as well as seatback video and TV. Search results will also display what Saltzburg calls "candid photos" taken by customers on thousands of flights.
For many business travellers, the old days of faithfully booking the airline on which the traveller has loyalty status are waning, as airlines around the world put a price tag on many perks - better (or less-awful) coach seats, upgrades and the like - that used to be given as awards for mileage-program status. Meanwhile, as airlines have merged and begun sharing more flights through global alliances, the experience of booking an international trip, even on a favored airline, has become more complicated.
"With airline consolidation, customers have more choice of who they can fly, even within their loyalty network, while the value of loyalty programs has been diminishing year over year," Saltzburg said. Comparing and evaluating costs and services airline by airline, even airplane by airplane on specific flight segments, can be a real challenge.
He added, "We know which routes which aircraft are assigned to," on any airline's scheduled flight (though, of course, airlines occasionally change an aircraft model at the last minute). Those flying in business class, for example, would like to know that a 747-8 on a long international flight might have all flat-bed seats, while another flight might have older-style, less comfortable seats at basically the same price. "That can be a meaningful decision point" in booking, Saltzburg said.
"For business-class travelers, is it a flat seat that you're about to purchase, is it an angled flat, or a cradled business-class seat?" he said. "All are very different and can be hugely important for that flight you're going to be taking from Los Angeles to Sydney."
In all flying classes, legroom and seating comfort are by far the main considerations passengers cite when asked about the most important in-flight amenity, assuming they are given a choice.
Incidentally, as the economy improves, more business travellers are flying internationally, and more are flying up front in the expensive seats. "Since the fourth quarter of 2013, business has been really strong on both trans-Atlantic and Asia routes," said Paul Metselaar, the chief executive of Ovation Corporate Travel, a major agency that does a big business in business-class and first-class bookings. "Our clients across the board are traveling much more globally and much more in general."
Clients of a big corporate travel agency like Ovation can depend on experts to manage all details, negotiate prices with airlines and customize their bookings. Business travelers who make their own plans while staring at a screen and trying to sort through the array of choices, however, have long clamored for simplicity and transparency in what is, after all, a shopping experience.
TripAdvisor, which was spun off in 2011 by the online booking company Expedia, operates more than a dozen other travel sites. They include SeatGuru.com, which provides diagrams and evaluations of airplane seats and cabin layouts by model of plane and airline. TripAdvisor, which makes its money mostly from advertising, does not book travel. Once a choice is made, the search engine sends the customer to the airline or a global booking site.
But it does provide easy-to-see information for making those choices. TripAdvisor, for example, claims more than 100 million user-generated hotel evaluations and other travel reviews.
In booking a flight, Saltzburg said, the revamped Flights feature "will help consumers understand they can have a very different experience at the same dollar, whether it's a four-hour flight or a 15-hour one."
New York Times