Skift Take

How do airline network planners determine where to restart routes when no one is flying after Covid-19 destroyed assumptions about consumer habits? Enter Google with its huge data set about consumer whims — maybe not the ultimate decider about airline flight schedules, but another factor to weigh.

Google is rolling out a new tool that provides airline partners with search data that carriers are using to help decide which routes to restart and when.

Unlike existing data from Google for airlines about their own performance across Google products, the newly provided data provides a market-wide view of consumer intent based on flight searches regardless of airline.

Lufthansa and Air France were two partners willing to go on the record about their use of the tool, which is a supplement to performance information already existing in the Google Flights Reporting Center, and airlines’ own data resources.

Dozens of airlines and online travel agencies, and more recently hotels and car rental firms in every region of the world are using the new data tool, Demand Explorer, according to Gianni Marostica, Google’s managing director of business development for travel. He spoke Thursday with Skift exclusively about the new tool, which was rolled out in mid-March.

“Flight Demand Explorer has been a tremendous addition to our internal data to get a clear picture of the current flights market,” said Maximilian Vietmeier, manager of online strategy at Lufthansa Group. “Understanding demand across the globe at route-level allows us to make informed decisions about which routes we will restart first.”

The Germany-based airline said a few weeks ago that it planned to offer flights to 70 percent of its intercontinental destinations by September and 90 percent of its continental destinations.

Air France has used Demand Explorer to supplement its own data across departments such as revenue management, sales, and network planning.

“Demand Explorer information is key for us to follow the travel industry demand trend,” said Julien Mallard, e-acquisition director at Air France. “It allowed us to anticipate market recovery and to focus our actions. It was also broadly used by the different commercial entities (revenue management, sales and network planning), and enables us to have an aligned view on the market situation.”

Air France-KLM predicted in early May that it would slowly ramp up flights this summer, but its volumes might still be 80 percent lower in the third quarter, which ends September 30, according to the Associated Press. [Update: In mid-June, Air France predicted it would operate 80 percent of its network this summer.]

Complex Route Decisions

The tool enables partners to filter Google search data by origin based on signals such as IP addresses to determine which potential routes are generating increased demand. Airlines can search by city pair or country to country. Unlike Google’s current data-sharing with partners about their own performance across Google products, including Google Flights, Google Ads, and when Google powers flight-shopping on airlines’ own websites, the new tool offers them anonymized and aggregated Google search data covering flight searches regardless of airline.

To be sure, network planning is highly complex, and Demand Explorer is merely another tool in the arsenal, said Google’s Marostica.

“Planners take new routes seriously, often studying them for months – or even years — before recommending them,” Brian Sumers, Skift senior aviation business editor, wrote in 2017. “They examine as much information, from census data to migration patterns, as they can. They also look at how many passengers already fly between two cities, perhaps with a connection on another airline. And they might even look at road data to determine whether they can coax some travelers to fly rather than drive.”

Network planning decisions are “super complex” for airlines at any juncture, but when you “throw in what’s happened recently” with travel restrictions and travelers loathe to board airplanes, generating another data layer about demand patterns can be valuable, Marostica said.

Google has long provided airline partners with data about their own performance across Google Flights, Google Ads and flight-shopping when it powers their websites.  But the coronavirus crisis accelerated Google’s development efforts and prompted it to introduce the new tool in mid-March.

ITA Software Legacy

Marostica is the former chief commercial officer of ITA Software, which Google acquired for $700 million in 2011. One legacy of that transaction is that Google still powers flight-shopping on about a dozen airline websites, including Air Canada, Delta, American, United, Iberia, Latam, Turkish, China Southern, and China Eastern. Other Google flight-shopping partners include companies such as Northrop Grumman, Sabre’s GetThere corporate booking tool, and StudentUniverse.

Airlines selling tickets have tons of booking data, which figure into route decisions. In contrast, Google’s new tool provides data that are “super upper-funnel” concerning travelers inclinations when they are in the initial stages of planning a trip, Marostica said.

Google is not the merchant of record for flight bookings, but still there is quite a bit of data about travel intent that partners can use, he added.

Online travel agencies, meanwhile, are using the new tool for marketing purposes, Marostica said.

Google had intended to introduce the new tool later this year, but Covid-19 accelerated that timetable.

While Demand Explorer pertains to consumer intent about flights, Google could possibly expand or develop another tool based on hotel queries in Google search, Marostica said.

Update: This story has been updated to include an Air France statement about its network plans for this summer.

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Tags: air france, coronavirus, flights, google, lufthansa

Photo credit: A Lufthansa cockpit in 2017. Lufthansa is among the airlines that have recently used newly provided data from Google about consumer intent to help make decisions about network planning. Lufthansa

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