Meta-search engines and route indexing services for tracking down flight connections are becoming ever more popular. And they are the focus of some very uncritical attention from the travel media. Devotees of such sites argue that a good flight meta-search engine or route indexer can save travellers a lot of time by providing information on flight options.
False leads and poor data
That is true in principle of course. But when we reviewed a number of such services in issue 22 of hidden europe in 2008, the results were very mixed. The performance of some services was truly awful. And the wooden spoon for the most appalling false trails and misinformation went to a route indexer called Harefares which we first examined at the invitation of Kim and Scott Dejmal, the couple based in Oregon who run the site.
We have taken another look at Harefares this week, and it is still wanting. By way of example, we checked flight options from Geneva (Switzerland) to Bourges (France). Harefares suggests flying direct from Geneva to La Mole airport on the south coast of France, noting that the small airfield is just 47 km from the city of Bourges.
Too good to be true, it seems. But La Mole airport (near Saint-Tropez) is not near Bourges at all. It is 768 km by road from Bourges. Get the logic? Take a flight from Geneva and end up twice as far away from your destination as when you started.
the business model
An isolated case? We realised when we conducted the research for hidden europe 22 that it is not. Anyone can set up an online information service. With no regulatory oversight, and nobody reviewing the accuracy of the information provided by such services, it behoves the user to check, cross-check and then check yet again. The datasets that underpin such services may be woefully inaccurate - as in that case from Harefares which locates La Mole Airport in quite the wrong part of France.
Some users might take solace in the fact that most indexing services are free of charge. Some are essentially created as a hobby. The providers of some services recoup the set-up and maintenance costs by effectively promoting the airlines that fly the routes. Each time someone enters an airline or travel agent’s website through the flight indexing service, and then makes a purchase, a small commission is paid to the service provider.
In some ways, it is exactly that underlying business model that renders so many of these services utterly unreliable. Airlines that do not agree to pay for inclusion in the listings will often not be featured. Fair enough you might say, but a clear explanatory note on the search engine website would be a huge asset. That note should highlight the partial nature of the information on offer and detail which flights are included and which are not.
A new service: Zugu
Just last week, a new search engine for the UK market was unveiled to predictable media hype. We've had a quick look at the new kid on the block which is called Zugu. We were amazed that their system lists airports which no longer have any flights (for example, Coventry), but fails to include airports with scheduled services. Look for listings of the admittedly sparse air services from Oxford and the potential traveller is invited to consider instead the merits of Gloucester, Luton or Heathrow. Handling such large databases is surely not easy (not to mention keeping them up-to-date), but it would certainly be more useful for travellers if any media attention were to be matched by a thorough critical evaluation of new services.
Zugu is cagey as to its scope, unlike Harefares which makes a grand claim as to their comprehensive coverage. The Harefares blurb suggests that the site is Europe’s ‘most complete and current free route indexer’.
Zugu makes no such bold claim, but neither does it offer any clear indication as to what to expect. Now we do not fly a lot, and when we do it is usually between minor airports where the alternatives by rail or ferry would take too long. So we checked Zugu for an upcoming journey from Jersey to the Isle of Man, a route for which we know there is a daily direct flight by Blue Islands. But because Blue Islands is not part of the Zugu flock, Zugu shows no direct flights. Instead Zugu offers circuitous and more expensive routes requiring one or more en route changes of plane.
Similarly, for a hypothetical journey tomorrow afternoon from the Scottish island of Benbecula to Inverness, Zugu gives no hint of any direct flight. It offers just one option, advising would-be travellers that it will be an eight hour journey, with two changes of plane along the way. Zugu suggests that the cheapest fare is GBP 440. The truth is that there is an afternoon direct flight with Highland Airways tomorrow for which plenty of seats are still available at GBP 130 a shot.
the bottom line
The value of meta-search engines and route indexing services should stand or fall by their attention to detail. It is easy to find out which major airlines fly on European trunk routes like London to Munich or Milan (though Harefares even manages to get both those wrong). It is on lesser routes that the value to the consumer of such endeavours might properly be judged.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries