Google Flight Search: a dead man walking?

Bobby Healy, one of Google’s most outspoken critics, shares his opinion on what the European Commission’s fine means for flight search, and argues that a dedicated travel industry council might be needed

Last week Google was slapped with a €2.42 billion fine, its biggest ever from the European Commission. The crime in question: abusing ‘its market dominance as a search engine by giving an illegal advantage to another Google product, its comparison-shopping service’.

So, the big question now is this: Is Google liable for a similar fine for its dominance in the travel sector?

The short answer, I believe, is yes, and here is why.

1.  Google is using its search dominance to preference its own product ahead of its competitors

Try searching for ‘Flights to Barcelona’ or some other destination, and you'll find that Google Flight Search is placed ahead of Kayak, Skyscanner, and any other flight search product. It is given more prominence and is, therefore, experiencing disproportionate and unnatural growth at the expense of others. Both Kayak and Skyscanner derive their revenue by providing an air search function that presents the user with an ordered display of flights and prices. They charge airlines to then forward those customers to the direct websites. Now Google is providing essentially the same service [as these metasearches] and is capturing revenue otherwise due to Kayak and Skyscanner in the form of higher cost-per-click costs to airlines. Worse still, the customer hasn’t asked for this!

2.  Google is not selling airfares, it’s selling a shopping experience

You could argue that Google is not giving preference to its own product if you consider that the ‘product’ in question is the airfare. But Google is not an airline, so the product is, in fact, the ‘shopping experience’. And that’s what they are illegally surfacing over Kayak, Skyscanner et al. To my mind, this is exactly what the EU decision is referring to. No question!

As the European Commission official press release states: “Google has systematically given prominent placement to its own comparison shopping service: when a consumer enters a query into the Google search engine in relation to which Google's comparison shopping service wants to show results, these are displayed at or near the top of the search results."

This is exactly what Google is doing with Flight Search despite the fact that Kayak and Skyscanner are currently providing a better service. And yet, because of the way Google is showing results the display, the consumer inevitably uses it first.

Time for an industry travel council with teeth

So what is needed now? I believe the time is right for a fragmented industry to pull together and form a lobbying force to be reckoned with.

After all, Google already has its own ‘Travel Council’ – a ‘chosen few’ that it chooses to allow into Willy Wonka’s factory every year to consult behind closed doors, and to organise the industry. 

The industry needs a commercial approach with teeth that continues to call Google out on its strategy

My suggestion is that airlines and other travel intermediaries create a similar structure/event with an elected board, with a view to providing a collective, structured response that can be used more effectively than organisations like Fairsearch, which are too political.

The industry needs a commercial approach with teeth that continues to call Google out on its strategy. Within the framework of this council, industry strategists could provide examples of how to thwart dodgy practices ahead of any potential EU involvement.

Already, I can think of some issues that require consideration:

  • Why do some airlines get a free ride, and some don’t?

  • How do you keep Google from selling my trademark to the highest bidder?

  • What is the best way to retain control of the relationship with Google by harnessing practical insight from across the industry?

A word of advice for airlines

Importantly, I would suggest that airlines refrain from allowing Google free access to their flight prices and inventory. Instead they should require Google to buy this data through an intermediary that does not damage their long-term profitability and control of distribution.  

Airlines [should] refreain from allowing Google free access to their flight prices and inventory

Airlines have done this before, and I believe they could do it again. The global distributions systems (GDSs), like Amadeus, Sabre, Galileo et al, were created many years ago to protect the airlines’ interests. Something similar could be done now to protect their interests from Google. This could be a cooperative effort with multiple technology providers that are in a position to power the response.

If Google want to profit from airlines’ precious data – let them share that profit with the industry providing it. But, and this is a big but, on mutually beneficial terms.

This is an opinion by Bobby Healy, Chief Technology Officer, CarTrawler, a tech firm that works with over hundred airlines. His views are his own

ATTENTION READERS: Do you believe Google’s business is damaging yours. Do you agree that we need an industry travel council to ensure innovation flourishes in our industry? Are you already lobbying and if so how? Please share your comments on this important story below or contact the editor. The best comment wins a free executive pass to an upcoming event in a destination of your choice.


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