New airfare search websites

Developing the "best" airfare search system seems to be the holy grail of the online travel business. At least you'd guess that from the number of "new and improved" search engines announced so frequently. Three of the latest offer some unique features, but probably not enough to get you to abandon all others. But by all means at least take a look.

One of the more interesting comes from Fareportal, which powers several worldwide CheapOair and OneTravel online travel agency websites. The big innovation is that it allows you to book those extra-cost "ChoiceSeats," as well as conventional coach and first-class seats on US Airways flights. As extra-cost coach seats go, those on US Airways are pretty minimal: All you get is early boarding and a location in the front of the cabin; legroom is the usual dismal 31- to 32-inch pitch and not truly "premium" by any rational standard. What's important about this new feature, then, isn't what it gets you right now; it's what it might do when expanded to cover other airlines -- airlines with real extra-legroom coach seats and other ticketing options, including American, Delta, JetBlue and United.

The whole question of who gets to sell extra features is a hotly contested subject these days. Airlines want to keep control of those sales so that you'll buy your ticket on their own sites, while third-party agencies obviously want to be able to sell whatever the airlines offer. It will be of increasing concern as more airlines adopt the "branding" concept American is pioneering -- a series of different coach "brands" with different feature clusters, such as seat assignment, a checked bag and exchange fee, bundled into the different brands. You can look for lots of movement among the various big online travel agencies and fare-search engines in coming months. Meanwhile, if you fly US Airways, you can arrange ChoiceSeats through CheapOair or Fareportal, as well as through the airline's own site.

GetGoing, the online agency that recently announced a unique "Pick Two, Get One" opaque air trip buying system, has another new product. "FlightFinder" not only displays fares to a specified destination but also displays potentially "more affordable" fares to nearby and similar destinations. First, enter your originating airport -- limited to the United States, for now, but including even airports as small as my home airport of Medford, Ore. Next, enter one of three access filters to a destination you want to visit: regions, experiences or countries, or even a specific city; then your travel dates. The resulting display shows a range of specific alternative airports and fares.

Asking for United Kingdom, for example, displays fares to London as well as to eight other cities, from Aberdeen to Southampton. In my test, London turned out to be cheapest. Click on the London button and the display shows a bunch of specific itineraries at the lowest fare. Asking for Hawaiian beaches gets you fares to Honolulu, Hilo, Kahului, Kauai and Kona.

All in all, it seems to work pretty well. The main drawback is the highly annoying and unnecessary requirement to register and log in each time -- a real nuisance.

Pintrips provides a "dashboard" on your browser that lets you "pin" specific flight/fare data from individual airline and OTA websites and keep the details updated. Enter your trip information once, then check out possible options and sources, and those options will remain changeable through a single click until you finally decided what to do. You can also arrange access to your pinned trips for friends and relatives. To use Pintrips, you must first install it on your primary browser. And again you go through the annoyance of registering and setting up a password. Aside from that, however, it seems to work as advertised.

You can expect continued updates, refinements, and new online features from both airlines and third-party online agencies and fare-comparison sites. I'll try to keep you posted.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins(at)mind.net. Perkins' new book for small business and independent professionals, "Business Travel When It's Your Money," is now available through http://www.mybusinesstravel.com or http://www.amazon.com)

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