Monday, April 6, 2009

How to search for airline travel using

You gotta like someone who can reel off the three-letter airport codes for such obscure places as Reykjavik Iceland (actually they have two airports, KEF and RKV), the Congo (BZV) and Colima Mexico (CLQ). Then perhaps it is no surprise that Bryan Cooley's latest invention,, is a nice service that figures out which airlines fly between any two city pairs around the world.

Those of us who are frequent flyers know that any business or leisure travel journey begins with the first step of a Web search of potential airlines that can carry our tired and cramped bodies squished into a coach middle seat. And while Expedia, Orbitz and their ilk are reasonably good at computing fares, they don't do as good a job of incorporating the low-cost carriers like Southwest, RyanAir, EasyJet, and others that have cropped up over the past decade. Even, which is one of my favorite sites to narrow down a search of which airlines offer service, isn't as good as Optifly in identifying the various routing paths that are available.

The site, which will launch "real soon now" according to Cooley, is the essence of simplicity. You type in your two cities that you want to travel, and it produces a Google map (or Earth) mashup showing you the connection points. "Most international trips require at least two or three flight segments," says Cooley, and this means it can get complicated. His service will also show you nearby airports too. The site still has some small bugs but works well.

But behind its simplicity lies some very sophisticated search algorithms, and as someone who studied optimization theory in grad school I can appreciate this. Cooley tells me "When you consider there over 40,000 unique flight paths, there are in excess of 100 billion route possibilities to consider for a few hops, and we can handle routes with as many as 10 hops, something that the flight booking services can't even begin to deal with."

What the site doesn't do at all is optimize for costs, but based on its route visualization and transfer points, you can do that research using the usual travel booking sites. Once you find a connection city that will work for you, you can do a better job narrowing down how you are going to book your ticket and probably get a better fare as a result. Cooley says it has saved his early beta users hundreds of dollars in ticketing fees, which is a good thing we can all agree in these penurious times.

Optifly's challenge is to stay on top of the many airline routing changes that are posted each day – while most of these are individual flights they still do change their routing and frequency of service. The site will show you which flights aren't available on certain days of the week, which gets complicated especially when you fly across transpacific and you arrive almost before you depart, or skip a day depending on which direction you fly. Once upon a time I skipped my birthday going to a speaking engagement in Tokyo – that wasn't a fun trip. Another time I celebrated my birthday on a flight to Taipei with a co-worker on our way out to Computex.

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.