In July 2010, Google bought a company called ITA Software, which powers many US airline reservation systems and acts as the engine under the hood of many fare-tracking websites, such as Bing, Hotwire, Kayak and TripAdvisor.
On Friday, the US Department of Justice okayed the acquisition, provided the search giant follow a few rules that prevent Google from using ITA’s information against a rival company.
So what does this mean for travellers and what can we predict about the future of airfare search?
Google will find cheap fares, not sell them
It would probably take more than a year for consumers to see changes, but the search giant will likely start showing fares the way metasearch sites like Kayak and Bing do now, allowing consumers to purchase tickets directly from the airline or through a third-party.
Fare searches will become faster and more accurate
In an apparent victory for critics of the deal, the government is requiring Google to sell to competitors a forthcoming ITA Software technology called "instant search". Since Google can't keep this slick enhancement for itself, consumers will benefit from speedier service on many sites.
Natural language search is coming
You might one day be able to type something like "a cheap fight for a family of 4 to Orlando that leaves on April 15th at 8:00AM" in a search box, and your computer will fetch relevant fare information, predicts Norm Rose, an analyst for market research firm PhoCusWright.
Smarter travel apps for mobile devices are coming
Google will probably open its fare-tracking data feeds to start-ups. This decision would allow companies to build digital tools for figuring out other relevant information, such as fees, departure times and award-seat availability.
Kayak is the biggest loser in the long-term, even though it told Fast Company that in the short-term, it won against Google. The Justice Department has protected Kayak and other metasearch sites by preventing Google from cutting it off from ITA Software's vital services. But in a year or two, it seems likely that Google will offer a similar service: scanning the fares of multiple airlines and travel booking sites at once and pointing customers to other sources for purchasing. Given that Google handles one in every three travel searches online, it will be hard for the metasearch sites to compete with it for customers.
Online travel agencies that directly sell tickets, such as Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity, may come out ahead. Google had to go through a nine-month ordeal merely for a chance to offer travel data for comparison shopping. It now seems unlikely that the gorilla of search will risk further government questioning by attempting to directly sell tickets to consumers. The diminished prospect of competition from the world's wealthiest digital company is a welcome relief to online travel agencies.