Slowly But Surely, Expedia Catches Up with the Times on Flight Search

For many years, shopping for an airline ticket was about two things: price and schedule. More recently, that’s been changing. Airlines have worked hard to find ways to differentiate themselves and their product offerings. While this has been great for travelers, online travel agents hadn’t kept with the times and still sold tickets as if price and schedule were the only things that mattered. Expedia is finally starting to catch up, and I wanted to know more. I spoke with Greg Schulze, Senior VP of Global Tour & Transport for Expedia, about how the company is approaching these necessary changes.

You might think that flights would be a huge part of Expedia’s business, but it only counts for about 7 percent of revenue. Still, Expedia sees it as important, and Greg explained that the company views improving flight search as a big problem to tackle. The company’s view is that the best way for it to solve this big problem was to make small changes. The team identifies pain points and then works on ways to resolve them bit by bit. Expedia is a huge believer in A/B testing where it shows different versions of the site to different users to measure performance. With over 1,000 A/B tests each year, Greg told me that they currently have about 50 different versions of the site running, depending upon who is looking at it.

Thanks to the nature of the beast, many of these tests will fail. Once something is considered a success, however, that’s when Expedia starts talking about it. So it was with great interest that I saw Expedia announce that it was improving flight search with “upgrade options,” paid seating sales, better baggage fee display, and flight scoring.

Upgrade Options
Let’s start with upgrade options. This one appears to have been really spearheaded by Delta, though it’s also turned on for Air Berlin right now. In short, you won’t see anything different in the flight search itself, but once you pick a Delta flight, you’ll see this.
Delta Upgrade Options

There are still a bunch of A/B tests going on, so you might not see this on every search, but nearly everyone should see it for one way domestic trips, I’m told. As you can see, once you select a flight, you’ll be prompted to decide which fare you want to buy. This is primarily to help Delta differentiate its Basic Economy fares from regular coach fares, but you can see that it’s also a way for Delta to help upsell into First Class. Considering the spread between First Class and coach has come down and Delta is selling a lot more First Class tickets, this seems like a wise move.

You’ll notice that Comfort+ isn’t on here. That’s because that’s not tied to the fare at all. That’s just a paid seat, so this gets us to another initiative.

Paid Seating Sales
This hasn’t launched just yet, but American, not Delta, is going to be the first participant. Coming soon, if you buy a ticket on American on Expedia, you’ll be able to pay for premium seating by selecting a seat on the seat map and then entering your credit card. (Presumably this can be done in the same transaction as the initial ticket purchase.)

This isn’t new. I believe Priceline has been doing this for at least a year or more with American, but it’s an important step. Previously, it was really annoying to have to buy a ticket one place and then go directly to the airline in order to pay for seats. Granted, this is only going to work for American at the start, but Greg says other airlines are going to join in. They just don’t have any more to announce yet.

Now, everything you’ve seen so far is a nice improvement, but it doesn’t really help with what should be the primary mission of an online travel agent like Expedia: to help people compare all flights. I can compare options within a single airline much better on that airline’s website anyway, and I can already buy prepaid seating there as well. So what is Expedia doing to actually make the comparison part easier?

Bag Options and Flight Scores
To get a sense for what Expedia is doing, you can take a look at this screenshot from a recent search.

Delta Expedia Bag Options

There are a couple of things that stand out here. First, you can see that Expedia is now showing first and second bag fees for each flight. Second, you can see a flight rating. (In this case, it’s a “Very Good Flight” with a 7.7 out of 10 rating.) That rating comes from Routehappy (Disclosure: I’m an advisor to Routehappy), but that’s all you’ll see. The meat and potatoes of why that score is what it is won’t be shown. Apparently through all their testing, Expedia has found people prefer simple directional indicators like this instead of being bogged down with details.

This, admittedly doesn’t sound very impressive. There is so much more that I want to see.

  • Let me tell you how many bags I want to check so you can show me the fare including baggage costs.
  • Give me more amenity details. Tell me why one flight is better than another.
  • Let me filter and sort by much more than the basic times and airlines that are offered today. (Greg says they are A/B testing a wifi filter.
  • Give me a clean understanding of what the change and cancellation penalties are instead of just linking to the airline’s text-based rules.

There’s so much more I want to see, but then again, this goes back to Expedia’s philosophy. There are a lot of problems to be solved, and they can’t all be fixed at once. So Expedia has set up a platform to be able to take bite-size chunks and work them through the system.

Considering how far behind the online travel agents are compared to airline websites (which aren’t exactly that impressive either), I find my perspective distorted. I’m now just happy that we’re seeing any progress being made. Expedia does seem committed to offering a more useful search. That’s good, because comparison is always going to be important, and it should be on more than just price and schedule.

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8 Responses to Slowly But Surely, Expedia Catches Up with the Times on Flight Search

  1. Gary Leff says:

    I am grateful for one thing with Expedia — local country sites and this the ability to select the country in which my tickets are issued.

  2. grichard says:

    One of your points really resonates: In any online travel site, you should be able to start a search by explaining your preferences (coach, with extra legroom, carry-on bag, one checked bag, nonrefundable), and the site should display fares net of these preferences.

    Ideally, users could make accounts that include the presence of elite FF status and branded credit cards, and the sites would take this status into account when displaying prices.

  3. Ron says:

    Am surprised at how slow the OTAs are at providing useful shopping ttools.

    No user likes “unbundled” Humpty Dumpty pricing. If I have a bag and want a meal, please compare COST between airlines, not just some idiotic “fare” which may or may attract more fees for what I have (a bag) and want (not to be hungry)!

  4. David SF eastbay says:

    The days of one fare, checking in at the airport and the agent pulling the little sticker off the seating chart and putting it on your ticket jacket for your seat and checking your bag (for free) seems more far away everyday thanks to people wanting more choices and everything becoming more complicated to do now thanks to computers.

  5. evan.thomas.doyle says:

    Google flights is my go to search for flight comparison. It’s fast and clean and offers a handful of useful filters and flight details like bag fees and wifi. And what’s best is that it lets you book directly on the airline’s site.

    • Jimmy says:

      Google Flights often doesn’t get results for Turkish Airlines (and sometimes Emirates), which is annoying since Turkish is frequently cheapest for international travel. For US domestic searches, Google Flights is great. International searches keep me using Expedia/Kayak/etc.

  6. JayB says:

    How many months ago has it been that UA said it was introducing a new united. com? It seems to have come and gone, come and gone, come and gone…is it really here?

    Display seems nice but is information really any more useful than before? When you look at the first screen, “List view” shows nonstops and 1-stops. Actually, most of these 1-stops are really connections, but we sure wouldn’t want customers to see that terrible word “connection” or “change plane.”

    The old display used to call something other than nonstop as a “flight with stops,” and you had to continue on to see whether or not a stop also included a plane-change en route. So, we now have progress?

    The OAG still calls things as “direct” flights even if you go Norfolk to Philly, via San Fran–one flight number, one flight coupon, you know. Custom of the trade, I guess!

  7. jonathan reed says:

    Why would a person actually book on Expedia. I use Expedia to see option an then I book with the airline directly. It seems to me that when you book directly with the provider, whether it is a hotel or an airline ticket, you may have more options if you need a change or a favor.

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