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Google Flights lumbers down the runway


This screen grab shows a Google Flights results page after typing "flights new york chicago" in the search field.

“Google Travel”: Ever since the search giant bought ITA Software, the company that powers the airfare-search technology for dozens of websites, those two words have struck fear into certain sectors of the travel industry.

If the Tuesday launch of Google Flights is any indication, there’s no need to panic just yet. Designed to combine ITA’s massive databases with Google’s super-fast search capability, the service is clearly a work in progress.

The feature is accessible via two means. Using Google’s main search box, a traveler typing in, say, “flights new york to chicago” will see a “Flights” link on the left side of the results page. Clicking on that brings up outbound-flight options, along with a map, filters and other tools. It can also be accessed directly via Google Flights.

Either way, the results demonstrate both the feature’s pros and cons. On the plus side, it is, as one would expect from Google, blazingly fast. The map also shows fares to alternative cities, a nice touch for those still considering where they want to go.

Those pluses, however, are offset by a clunky design that forces users to click back and forth to compare different flight options, non-intuitive date-flexibility tools and, for now, booking options that are limited to a handful of cities and redirect only to airline-specific websites.

Google's flight-search tool also hit turbulence on its first day when it listed New York City's World Trade Center as an airport location, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.  The World Trade Center's Twin Towers, which were destroyed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, once had a helipad — which closed in 1984.

"Our intention with Flight Search is to provide information only about active airports," a Google spokeswoman told the newspaper. "We are removing the WTC code now that we're aware of it and we will look for other airports that need to come out as well."

As Google’s Inside Search blog notes, “This is just an early look, not the final destination.” According to the blog, Google hopes to add more destinations and additional booking options — such as online travel agencies — in the future.

In the meantime, industry players fearing the Google juggernaut can take solace that users may find using Google Flights more confusing than compelling (as this correspondent did).

“I can appreciate that it’s the first iteration but I don’t think it should have been released to the public yet,” said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst with the Atmosphere Research Group. “It’s clearly a case of putting the technology ahead of the traveler.

“They need to take the flight search tool and put it back in the hangar for more work.”

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.