Google loves to have fun with their maps product, often offering up entertaining instructions like swimming across the Atlantic Ocean, riding a jet-ski between Japan and China or sailing from Seattle to Honolulu. A new feature in the latest update – currently showing only in the preview version of the site - has a much more useful addition included, even if it looks a bit like the “play” versions of the maps: flight options are now being integrated with the directions searches. Here’s a screenshot sent to me by a reader earlier this week:
Given the particular city pair the site gives an option for the driving route or flight options, including the blocked time gate-to-gate and a starting point for airfare. Obviously the airfare number will change depending on the specific flights and travel dates but it is still interesting to see the starting price point there.
Google still isn’t actually selling the tickets so there are a few extra hoops to jump through to get to the purchase point. Still, seeing the multiple data streams integrated into the single interface is a big improvement. Sure, they have train schedules from Europe integrated into their “directions” applet in the maps (Frankfurt to Munich by train) but no fare data inline (links are provided). For the Japanese train system the fare data is included (here’s Tokyo to Kyoto) but some of the details seem a bit amiss (14 minutes on the JR line is 50% more than 2:20 on the Shinkansen!?!). Obviously this isn’t the first time Google has tried to integrate the multiple streams of data into a useful view for users.
At the same time, however, it is somewhat new in a few ways. It mixes the driving and plane options in a single view rather than requiring a user to switch “tabs” in the map interface. It also appears to have the ability to push through to the Google Flights interface for more detailed searches and, eventually, pushing you off to a point of purchase with the specific details already selected. That’s a step up from the connectivity that is available today, though not a full integration (like Apple might be pursuing).
Ultimately not the biggest development in the travel world this year, but it is darn cool. It will be interesting to play with it and see how it does with routes which don’t offer non-stop service or where longer flights are involved. I hope my invite to the preview program comes soon!
Let’s say, hypothetically speaking, that you’re looking to make a splash in the travel market. Sure, you already might have some products which allow your users to display a boarding pass or track flight status, but you are always thinking bigger. You want to have a fully integrated reservations system, not just displaying bookings made elsewhere; you want to fully own the process. You’ve also got a few patents which seem overly broad in some ways, but which should cover the unified booking, management and actual travel process through a single interface. Oh, and you’ve also got more than $145 billion sitting around, looking for a useful outlet. What’s your next move?
The key component to the booking and management process is the Global Distribution System (GDS) platforms which work as the middle-men between travelers and service providers. There aren’t too many players in that space and there are plenty of reasons to be wary of their profit potential, especially from the airline side of things. Still, if you want to build a massive travel solution having your own GDS is a pretty efficient way to approach the situation. Why bother negotiating API integration and fee structures when you can simply own the whole platform? Especially when there are other, ancillary benefits which might come with that purchase?
There are arguably three major players in the online consumer market today: Microsoft, Google and Apple. In April 2008 Microsoft purchased Farecast, integrating the historical fare data and prediction algorithms into their Bing Travel platform. Google made their move a couple years later, snapping up ITA Software in 2010. The ITA platform is much closer to a full GDS than what Farecast offered, though it doesn’t have the direct-to-consumer front-end aspect of things in place. Apple has been competing with Google in many areas recently and getting a leg up in the travel space – a market with huge amounts of money (and customer affinity) in play – is not such a bad idea. The only real company in play right now is Sabre and the company is once again raising the idea of launching their IPO; if Apple wants in on the action now is the time to act.
To be fair, the patent details are mostly focused on how to use NFC or similar technologies for the passengers’ mobile devices to talk with other systems so that check-in and boarding can be handled more smoothly, not about the overall booking process. But making reservations is mentioned several times and, if history is any indicator, Apple’s desire to control the whole process makes this sort of transaction quite feasible. Building a fully integrated booking interface from scratch is a ridiculously complicated undertaking and there is very little up-side to that approach. Apple would still have to negotiate access to all the underlying data, in addition to building out the management and processing systems and user-facing interfaces. That last bit is likely something they would want to redo anyways, but the back-end stuff is major work and buying a functional version in situ is a nice way to get a head start. It is also worth noting that Sabre is a lot more than just the GDS platform. Through its history Sabre has acquired or launched many other businesses, including travel agencies, online communities (IgoUgo) and booking engines (Travelocity). Yes, buying them outright would have a significant cash cost, but getting all the parts at once rather than assembling them piece-meal means the project would be live much sooner.
If Apple is going to get into this market they’re already facing an uphill battle. Roughly 75% of the travel agency market (including OTAs) is dominated by 4 key players. To break in to that space would require a disruptive shift, the type of move Apple has embraced in the past. They could play it slow, depending on travel providers to integrate into their Passbook application but the adoption has been somewhat slow. Also, there isn’t a ton of upside for the company for depending on partners to integrate into their ecosystem; Apple likes to control the whole experience. If Apple wants in on the hundreds of billions of dollars in annual online travel revenue, going slow into the market is a bad move.
Is Apple going to buy Sabre? I honestly have no idea. But there are rumors of such circulating (I didn’t come up with all of this all by myself) and, quite frankly, it wouldn’t be the stupidest thing they’ve ever done.
It sure is fun to imagine what they could accomplish if they did, though…
When United Airlines announced last August that they’d be changing the seats on their Airbus A319 and A320 planes there was a bit of concern among their customers. The Recaro Slimline seat is a VERY basic product. It has been widely deployed in Europe (the Lufthansa Group of airlines has made it their default for narrow-body planes) and it is not particularly comfortable for flights of more than an hour or two. That can work in Europe where the hubs are more central and the flights are generally shorter. For the US market, however, it would have been a potentially unpleasant ride. A United official announced today that the carrier will be including the "comfort package" in their version of the seats. That should have many passengers quite relieved.
The new seats are manufactured by RECARO, and you may recognize the specific model from several European carriers, who feature it on many of their mainline narrow-body aircraft. However, because we fly our Airbuses over longer stage lengths than the typical intra-Europe segment, our version of the seat will have several upgraded comfort features over the base model. These include multi-directional headrests, added lumbar support, and a different seat bottom cushion with more padding and multiple layers of soft memory foam. The literature seat pocket has been moved higher, which facilitates the above increase in knee space, and there’s a new amenity pocket specifically for personal items.
The Recaro Slimline seat in service on a Lufthansa narrow-body plane; the middle seat is blocked for 'business class' service.
As part of the same announcement a scant few details on the streaming media offering were made public:
Along with Wi-Fi, the addition of on-demand streaming video will become the standard for our Airbus fleet. As a result, when these aircraft go in to have the new seats installed, the traditional audio/video system with dropdown monitors will be removed. However, these aircraft won’t “go dark”—Wi-Fi will be available on all aircraft that have the new seats. In any case, like Wi-Fi the streaming product will eventually have pricing attached to it, although we do plan to offer a limited range of complimentary content until we finalize these plans.
The 747s are also getting the streaming media option and it was previously stated that the content would be free on those planes; it is interesting to see the slightly different tack being taken with the short-haul fleet.
Finally, for the Channel 9 lovers, the IFE retrofit means that offering will disappear. That’s definitely a bummer.
The past year or so for the Frommer’s brand has been a particularly interesting one. Last August Google bought the Frommer’s series from its publisher and did so with no clear indications of what they planned to do with it. Earlier this year they quietly pulled the plug on the printed versions of the guides. And, to top it all off, this week it seems that the brand name has been reacquired by Arthur & Pauline Frommer. Well, now we know that Google just wanted the content, right?
The reported $25mm price Google originally paid isn’t all that much money and, quite frankly, might have actually been a reasonable price just to get the raw data content about all the destinations which came with the brand. But is that enough for Google to build their credibility in the travel space? Obviously the content is only as good as its most recent refresh and it can become stale incredibly quickly. Plus, Google has long been a champion of user-generated content rather than editorial content. So how does buying a bunch of content actually help them?
Similarly, does just owning the brand name mean that Arthur & Pauline can bring the guidebook business back and, once again, make money publishing them? Mr. Frommer was quoted by the AP as saying, "We will be publishing the Frommer travel guides in ebook and print formats and will also be operating the travel site Frommers.com." There’s going to be something coming, but it is hard to tell just how much content they have to work with as they restart their empire.
Best as I can figure, Google realized that an empty framework wasn’t attracting the updates from users it needed to take off as a platform. They paid a chunk of cash to seed their sites and they’re hoping that the users will take over from there to keep the information current and help it grow.
And The Frommer family hopes the name recognition is enough for one more try at building a brand again. But I don’t believe at all that print is going to be the cornerstone of the new incarnation of that company.
JetBlue has big plans for Fly-Fi, their in-flight internet service. The carrier has been working for the past couple years to get the Ka-band satellite service up and running and they’re in the home stretch, with one plane fitted and awaiting FAA approval for test flights and, eventually, formal certification. And while they might not be flying yet, that doesn’t mean that the service isn’t being tested. Thanks to this modified test truck the company is able to test the connectivity and performance from a moving vehicle.
Sure, it isn’t an Airbus A320 cruising at 35,000 feet, but it gets the job done, at least for now.
The excede product from ViaSat is known to be reliable and functional for stationary transceivers; the big leap for JetBlue, LiveTV and ViaSat is ensuring that the system remains stable when the dish is moving. This custom rig lets the companies test their operations at highway speeds. The test rig previously spent some time on the west coast and it is now doing a tour of duty in central Florida, near the LiveTV headquarters.
The company still expects to have the system flying by mid-year on their planes. United Airlines will also be using the system on part of their fleet.
I was only a bit surprised to find a wide range of choices available for award flights from New York to Northern Germany in mid-March. After all, it is the middle of winter and most spring break folks are headed to sun and surf or other more traditional destinations. We had our choice of the non-stop United flight to Hamburg or taking a connection in Frankfurt and flying in to Hannover. Given our initial destination of Hildesheim is much closer to Hannover, plus the better flight time (9pm departure rather than 5:30pm) I figured we’d take the extra travel time. Plus it meant I’d get to experience Singapore Air in their economy cabin, rounding out the full set (I did suites a couple months ago and business a year ago). So, thanks to some MileagePlus points I got us booked on JFK-FRA-HAJ with a reasonable layover in Frankfurt for breakfast and a shower in the Senator Lounge.
We got to JFK a bit early so that we could have dinner. We considered the options in the Swiss lounge in T4 and quickly decided to have a real dinner instead. There is a branch of The Palm in the terminal and, despite some previous bad experiences with other airport steakhouses, we gave it a go. Mostly because it was the only reasonable meal option there. And it was surprisingly good. It was helped by our waitress Victoria who was old-school NYC in a good way. But the food was also quite tasty. And by virtue of sitting there rather than in the lounge we got to see this guy and his sparkly backpack. All sorts of good happening there.
Once on board we were treated to the bonus of having the middle seat between us empty. We almost got lie-flat coach but I was slow to jump into the seat across the aisle. Yeah, loads were light. That was good because the space on board isn’t particularly generous down the back of the plane. There is a foot rest which mostly just got in my way, preventing me from extending my legs under the seat in front of me. And the seats are the articulating ones so the recline slides the bottom forward a bit. Reclining decreases legroom. Yuck.
On the plus side, economy class got amenity kits (socks & a toothbrush) and earplugs/eye mask were available on request from the flight attendants. Also, free drinks with the dinner service, though it was really only beer & wine. Liquor was available but not on the drink cart so the delay in having the FA go to the galley to get it made it a rather unappealing option. The meal was OK. Nothing special, really, either good or bad. I suppose that’s about all one can really hope for in coach these days.
On the plus side, Singapore has quite a selection of movies loaded up on their IFE systems. Most were relatively new releases but there were a few from the archives as well. It took three reboots for my IFE to actually work properly (others around me had similar troubles) but once it got working it was pretty good. The in-flight internet was not working, making me 0/2 on trying that product out with Singapore Air. I’m happy my plan was to sleep and not be working.
Oh, and just because I can, a laviator shot on board showing off my RouteHappy shirt.
Overall I’d say that the timing of the SQ flight was still better than the UA option I had. But seat comfort would have been better on United, especially vis a vis personal space since I can get EconomyPlus for free. The meal was maybe a smidgen better on Singapore Air but with the later departure that matters less. And United’s IFE selection is sufficient for my tastes, maybe even better if you like the classics more than current cinema. In premium cabins there are a many more reasons to favor Singapore Air over United. In economy I’m not so sure about that choice. Especially if you’ve got elite status.
A friend of mine posted on Facebook the other day that he’d be a lot more productive if every time he typed in "m" in an internet browser window it didn’t finish that entry with a link to the ITA Software website. That got me thinking about my internet browsing habits and wondering just how much of the alphabet is travel focused for me. I’d say 20 out of 26 isn’t bad. Or it is ridiculous. I haven’t actually decided which.
Here’s what my breakdown is (omitting the non-travel letters):
- B – Boarding Area
- D – Delta Air Lines
- F – FlyerTalk.com
- G – gcmap.com, home of awesome mapping tools
- H – Hipmunk.com, one of my new favorite booking tools
- I – ihg.com, home of the Intercontinental Hotel Group
- J – Jetblue
- L – loungeti.me, my airport lounge guide tool
- M – matrix.itasoftware.com, the ITA search portal
- N – newamericanarriving.com; apparently I don’t do much with the letter N since I haven’t visited that site very often
- O – Orbitz
- P – pointshoarder.com, home of our awesome podcast
- Q – qantas.co.au, my go-to resource for oneworld award searches
- R – Ryanair; I’ve only flown them once so I don’t know why this is so high up
- S – SeatGuru; I wish it weren’t true as the data is so bad, but it is there
- T – TripIt; cannot get enough of the itinerary management tool
- U – United.com
- W – wandr.me, the Wandering Aramean Travel Tools homepage
- Y – youtube, where I manage my growing collection of travel videos
- Z – zuji.com.sg; not a lot of Z activities for me
My "A" entry is loosely related to my travels, as is my "E" option. The other few aren’t but I can handle that. I do have to at least pretend to be well rounded, right??
After a soft launch just before the new year United Airlines has officially announced their in-flight wifi solution. The carrier has one 747 and two A319s currently flying with the Panasonic-provided solution and expects to have 300 aircraft fitted by the end of the year. The Ku-band satellite solution allows United to provide global connectivity rather than be limited to terrestrial services like gogo requires. There will be two speed offerings available for customers and prices will vary based on the trip duration. The basic speed service will be priced initially between $3.99 and $14.99 depending on the duration of flight, while the higher speed service will be priced initially between $5.99 and $19.99. There are no specific details on the speeds or where the distance thresholds are for the different price bands; United did not respond to a request for more specifics on those details.
There is also a FAQ available covering the details of the service and offering some interesting insight into the policies. VoIP being officially blocked is not particularly surprising; whether they actually manage to do so or not will be a different question. There are a couple items on the FAQ which are actually pretty nice to see:
- Can I switch Internet access between devices or use Internet on multiple devices simultaneously?
- You can only use your purchased Internet access on one wireless device at a time, unless you purchase access twice using separate credentials. You may switch your Internet access between two or more devices if you included your MileagePlus account information when purchasing access. Guest access is not transferable between devices.
How much data can I download and upload?
Usage is unlimited, but we may control usage to the extent that we need to in order to ensure that everyone who is connected to our network will have a good experience. These limitations will depend on the number of users simultaneously connected and how much bandwidth they are using.
Does United Wi-Fi restrict what content I may view?
United uses content filtering technology and policies as we deem appropriate to ensure the best possible inflight Internet experience for our passengers
The other interesting bit inferred from some of the FAQ questions and answers is that the company will have the ability to link WiFi usage to specific MileagePlus accounts. That’s not to say that they’re going to be monitoring purchases of flights on other airlines and penalizing passengers booking away from United but it does mean they can do things like offer discounts to certain elite tiers or offer comps to certain passengers from time to time rather easily. United has stated in the past that they want to be able to better control the purchase experience and it seems that they’ve built the infrastructure into the system to be able to do that quite nicely.
I’ve not yet been on one of the equipped planes and tracking them down isn’t particularly easy. I’m trying but not quite there yet. I am definitely looking forward to giving it a try.
Ever since Amtrak rolled out internet connectivity on their trains in the northeast corridor the response has been a mixed bag. Passengers are happy it exists in theory but the actual performance has been less than spectacular, particularly if you believe some of the many Twitter rants out there on the topic. Amtrak is trying to improve the situation but they’re faced with many challenges, not the least of which is providing free connectivity to hundreds of people while traveling up and down the coast. The latest step in the upgrade process is to upgrade the systems on the trains to support 4G service, up from the 3G network currently supported. There’s just one small problem with that plan: the route doesn’t have much 4G coverage.
Most of Amtrak’s problems stem from the fact that they are running on tracks where they stray rather far from civilization, and the high population density areas are where the cell towers are. Combine those two factors and the cell coverage isn’t all that great. So it doesn’t matter how fast the radio is on the device; if there isn’t coverage between the train and the base station things aren’t going to work so well. The other potential problem comes from having so many users on the system. Free services tend to attract more users and heavily loaded systems tend to struggle unless they are built to support that level of use. It does not seem that the Amtrak wifi systems were built that way. And upgrading to a 4G connection won’t solve that part of the problem.
The service is great when it works. But promising connectivity and not actually providing that to customers can actually hurt the business more than the offer of the service can help. Airlines are facing similar issues as they deal with upgrading the bandwidth on their planes. The gogo service can now support 4G with an upgraded radio on the planes (ATG4). Airlines are getting these new systems installed but it is not yet clear that the additional bandwidth will solve the performance issues which crop up from time to time. It will be interesting to see if either Amtrak or the airlines can solve this problem. The current connectivity provided by both is still challenging to users in many instances.
The fact that a few United Airlines Airbus A319 aircraft have the Panasonic in-flight internet kit installed is not much of a secret. The carrier has been reasonably open about the fact that the type is getting the gear installed these days. But there haven’t been any more details released. No word on exactly when the carrier expects to formally launch the service. No word on pricing. Basically no word.
A member on FlyerTalk has indicated that a flight today indicated that they were posting on the site while in-flight on one of the A319s. Based on the time of the post and the route listed it would appear that the service actually is live on ship 4002 a/k/a N802UA. There were apparently two advertised prices for the quick 3 hour flight from Houston to Washington, DC, $6.99 or $9.99 with different speeds offered as well, though not much on details there either.
The United website doesn’t indicate that this frame has in-flight connectivity yet. And I haven’t found the STC approval in the FAA database yet. But at least one person was able to use it. That’s a great step forward.
UPDATE: FlightAware shows the aircraft on the ground in O’Hare for 20 days at the end of November. That seems like when the install happened.