Digital undivide: New Google Flights finds the best airfare, schedule, wi-fi and other tech amenities

by Harrison Chastang

The internet has made it easier to book and search for airfares, but unless you have the time and the expertise to conduct extensive internet fare searches, it’s become harder to find the cheapest fares available online.

A flight attendant helps passengers check out in-flight wi-fi.
A flight attendant helps passengers check out in-flight Wi-Fi.

A generation ago all a traveler looking for the cheapest fares needed to do was call a travel agent who was more than willing to use their time and knowledge to find and book the cheapest and most direct flight. Travel agents were willing to conduct extensive fare searches without charge for their clients because travel agents received 10 percent commission on plane tickets and other perks from the airlines.

The creation of internet based airline reservation sites like Hotwire and airline webpages forced most travel agents out of the airline booking business after the airlines stopped paying commissions to travel agents.

Google has come to the aid of fliers looking for the best air deals at a time when the nation’s airlines have announced record profits on the strength of ever increasing fees, charging extra for everything from carry-on luggage to phone reservations and certain coach seats.

In addition to fees that have generated millions of dollars for the airline industry, airline consolidation has resulted in higher fares to many destinations, cutbacks or elimination of flights from many small to mid-sized cities and higher fares for nonstop flights.

Google’s new website app Google Flights (google.com/flights) gives travelers a one-stop option to quickly search for the best fares and flight options.

Google Flights has the flight search options of most other travel websites. In addition to searching for flights specifying one way or round trip, airline, nonstop or connections, connecting city and flight time, Google Flights will provide most details for Southwest Airlines flights. Most travel websites do not return search results for Southwest because the airline allows its fares to be posted only on the Southwest Airlines website.

Google Flights will show all information about Southwest flights except for fares. It will display a list of flights by least expensive fare, shortest flight time, connecting city and whether a plane has wi-fi. A click on a particular flight includes aircraft type and whether the plane has seatback video and electric outlets.

A Google Flights search can be configured to search for cheaper fares at nearby airports. Google Flights also remembers your past flight searches and shows the most current fares from your departure city to recently searched destinations, whether you are at home or on the road.

Google’s new website app Google Flights (google.com/flights) gives travelers a one-stop option to quickly search for the best fares and flight options.

Google Flights will allow travelers to do quick detailed searches to reveal prices and routing not available from the airlines and most other travel websites.

Google Flights has the ability to search for the cheapest fares to any destination in the United States or most international destinations from your current location. This feature works by typing in the departure city on the Google Flights homepage and leaving the destination blank and either clicking return after your departure city or clicking the Google map on the homepage.

This will bring up a larger Google map that will show fares for every city that has flights from your departure airport. For example, a search on Expedia or an airline website for a flight from SFO to Dallas/Fort Worth may show a fare of $500 one way. Using the map search option of Google Flights could show a $200 nonstop fare from SFO to Austin, which is just over a one hour rental car drive or $10 bus ride to Dallas. Google Flights will also display a message if fares to your destination will be cheaper if you leave a few days before or after your original departure date.

Google Flights can also be used to save big dollars on nonstop flights. Nonstop flights tend to be more expensive than connecting flights, particularly to and from non-hub cities like Pittsburgh, where the only nonstop flight to a hub city like San Francisco may be $600 one way. Using Google Flights to research all flights from Pittsburgh will show a fare for $250 to Portland, Oregon.

A click on the Pittsburgh to Portland itinerary will show that flight is a nonstop to San Francisco, where the connection is to be made to Portland. Using that information, a reservation can be made to book the $200 Pittsburgh to Portland flight and not using the San Francisco to Portland ticket at a saving of $350. WARNING: This type of booking procedure should only be used for passengers who don’t check any luggage; otherwise your checked bags will be sent to the final destination on your ticket.

Google Flights may be a different way of searching for flights but provides options for finding the most inexpensive way to your destination not available on most other sites.

Once you get your ticket via Google Flights, make sure to bring a laptop or handheld digital device if you want to be entertained on a growing number of U.S. airlines.

The major airlines are replacing their aging fleets with new planes that have more comfortable seats, aesthetically pleasing interiors with mood lighting, larger overhead luggage bins, bigger windows and electric outlets at every seat. One thing passengers will immediately notice when boarding many of these new planes is that there are no video screens or audio plugs.

Google Flights may be a different way of searching for flights but provides options for finding the most inexpensive way to your destination not available on most other sites.

The legacy airlines, particularly United, have determined that they will save millions of dollars a year by eliminating audio and video systems in their new planes and providing entertainment only via in-plane wi-fi connections that deliver audio, video, live TV and other entertainment content directly to passengers’ laptops, tablets and smartphones.

United and other airlines believe the absence of video screens and audio outlets in their new planes will sharply reduce fuel costs and maintenance. Seatback or overhead video screens and audio systems can add 3,000 pounds to a plane’s weight.

Airlines also anticipate saving many thousands of dollars by not having to install, repair or replace broken seatback screens, which can cost as much as $10,000 each to replace and significant worktime hours to repair or replace. Other airlines such as American and Delta are currently giving passengers an option of viewing or listening to in-flight entertainment either by seatback or overhead screens or personal digital devices, while Southwest is offering passengers who bring their own digital devices the option to access Direct TV and other entertainment content via free in-plane wi-fi connection.

United currently charges passengers flying their new jets for a wi-fi connection. If that fee policy continues, passengers will have no choice but to purchase an in-plane wi-fi connection to watch movies, videos, live Direct TV or audio on United flights.

What do these changes mean to passengers who can’t afford to pay for in-flight wi-fi connections, don’t own a compatible laptop or handheld device or aren’t technologically savvy enough to use a credit or debit card to sign onto a wi-fi connection? In addition to paying another fee to the airlines, anyone who can’t to connect to an airline’s wi-fi system, forgot to charge their device or didn’t bring a power plug will have to settle for reading a book or magazine on flights with no video screens or audio plugs.

Passengers who want to avoid airlines with wi-fi-only in-flight entertainment systems have the choice of flying Jet Blue or Virgin America, airlines that don’t charge a fee for most in-flight entertainment. Both Virgin America and Jet Blue operate Airbus planes with touchscreen seatbacks that have access to live Direct TV.

Jet Blue flights offer free access to more than 100 Sirius Satellite radio channels, while Virgin America’s free entertainment systems has 3,000 songs in its audio library, video games, Google Maps flight tracking system, on demand food and drink ordering and seat to seat chat, and both Virgin America and Jet Blue have first run movies for purchase. Flying Virgin America and Jet Blue may not be an option for many travelers, however, because they fly to fewer cities and operate fewer flights than Southwest and the major legacy carriers.

Harrison Chastang, news director at KPOO 89.5 FM, 1329 Divisadero, San Francisco, CA 94115, (415) 346-5373, and kpoo.com, a historic beacon in the Black community and one of the few remaining Black owned and controlled radio stations in the country. Tune in his news show Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 5:30 p.m., his jazz shows Tuesdays at 6 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m., and his Computer Show every first Wednesday at 6-8 p.m. He can be reached at Harrison@kpoo.com.