Orbitz Takes Flight

Orbitz is a new travel site that uses some seriously powerful search technology to help you find the best possible flights for a trip.

What makes Orbitz unique is that it goes beyond the Computer Reservations Systems (CRS) used by most travel agents and online reservation systems like Travelocity and Expedia. The site has agreements with more than 450 airlines worldwide, and is able to scan more than two billion possibilities in seconds with its advanced search engine.

The Orbitz search engine is the ITA Software Flight Search Engine, developed by computer scientists from the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While other sites allow you to search by lowest fare, specific dates, or particular airlines, Orbitz goes far beyond this with a whole array of options for controlling your search.

For example, you aren't limited to just one departure and arrival airport. Orbitz allows you to search for flights within 25, 50 or 100 miles of the airports you specify. You can also specify the number of stops you're willing to make, limiting results to non stops, flights with one stop or less, or allowing flights with any number of stops to be included in your results.

One of the features I particularly like is the "Who's going?" option. Most travel Web sites assume that all travellers are adults. But many airlines offer discount fares for children and senior citizens that you usually have to call to find out about. Another problem is that federal regulations dictate where kids in car seats must sit in an aircraft, so it's generally impossible to book these "special situation" fares online. But Orbitz handles these cases with aplomb.

The top part of the result page displays graphic icons for the airlines offering flights that meet your criteria. If you like a specific airline, you can click on the icon to eliminate flights from all others.

The bottom part of the result page displays all available flights, even those not in your preferred time range, automatically sorted by price, from lowest to highest. It's easy to re-sort available flights by departure and arrival time, or by duration of flight, with a simple click on the appropriate tab. Flights that fall within your preferred time range are highlighted in blue.

Unlike many competing sites, Orbitz can also scan for "webfares," which are generally only offered on airline sites and aren't available to most online travel sites.

One of the more surprising aspects of Orbitz is its parentage: The site is the offspring of a joint effort by American, Continental, Delta, Northwest and United Airlines. The companies have invested $145 million so far in an effort to make Orbitz one of the most fully-featured and comprehensive travel sites on the web.

Despite being owned by competing airlines, Orbitz is a full-service travel agency, offering all of the services you'd expect from a booking agent. And this has its competitors hopping mad.

Travelocity, Expedia and American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) are adamantly opposed to Orbitz. They contend that Orbitz is a thinly veiled attempt to monopolize online ticket sales. One way they can do this, the critics charge, is by offering their best deals exclusively on Orbitz.

Nonsense, say Orbitz executives. Orbitz will likely find the best fares for consumers thanks to its superior search technology, not because the airlines have cut special deals with Orbitz. And the airlines pay Orbitz commissions and fees just as they do to other travel agents. There is no economic incentive for the airlines to offer better fares via Orbitz than they would on their own sites -- just the opposite.

And the airlines cut all manner of deals apart from Orbitz anyway. Corporations and other large customers negotiate lower fares with airlines. So do competing online travel agencies. For example, CheapTickets.com claims to offer exclusive airfare specials -- over 1 million unpublished airfares that can save you up to 40% -- but only if you call them on the phone!

The next time you're searching for airline reservations, give Orbitz a whirl. You'll likely be surprised at the number of options that pop up that you won't find at other online travel sites -- at least until they try to catch up to the technology that powers searching at Orbitz.


ITA Software Flight Search Engine

If you're uncomfortable using a service sponsored by the major airlines, you can use ITA's search software at its own site.

Flight Tracker

The Trip.com's flight tracker provides you with near real-time information on the progress of in-flight aircraft, using information gathered directly from the cockpit of the plane. The graphical version even shows an icon of a plane flying above a map, with dials displaying altitude, direction, and airspeed.

Search Headlines

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About the author

Chris Sherman is a frequent contributor to several information industry journals. He's written several books, including The McGraw-Hill CD ROM Handbook and The Invisible Web: Uncovering Information Sources Search Engines Can't See, co-authored with Gary Price. Chris has written about search and search engines since 1994, when he developed online searching tutorials for several clients. From 1998 to 2001, he was About.com's Web Search Guide.