Most likely you are painfully aware of how bizarre and seemingly inscrutable the pricing schemes are for airline travel. One day you might get a fare from SF to Boston for $400, the next it’s $335, and the day after that it’s $500. Why? Well, airlines have shitloads of data about historical pricing; they understand the supply and demand curves for every market, and they know when they need to sell more seats, boost margins, or compete to win business. They take advantage of all that data to push a price at you that suits them, and they’re very, very good at leveraging algorithms to drive maximum revenue. It’s frustrating as hell to use an online service like Expedia to try to beat the airlines at their own game – it simply isn’t the right interface. Not to mention, Expedia’s real customers are the travel companies – not you.
I got a chance to talk to Farecast founder Hugh Crean earlier last week, right before I penned this missive on not being able to do reviews. And in fact, this is not a review of Farecast, as much as I wish I had time for that. However, Hugh did spend a few minutes showing me around the site, and I found what it does really interesting, though for different reasons that perhaps others might.
You can sign up for the private beta on the homepage, it’ll be out later in the year. The basic premise is neat – Farecast pays attention to the market price of all airline fares out of particular cities (it only does Boston and Seattle for now) at all times (it uses an industry data feed that, unfortunately, does not include Southwest). It then uses this data to help forecast when the right time might be for you to buy your ticket (and get the best price). In short, it’s a rip off detector for flights. Farecast leverages the power of data to put you back in charge, or at least more in charge.
What Farecast does is shift the power of information back into the consumer’s hands, and that’s why I like it. I remember when the web was young and the first car buying sites were up and running. Dealers scrambled for that early business, and I bought two cars off the web by forcing dealers in the Bay Area to compete for my business. It really felt like the web was going to change the dynamic of who was in charge in a car buying transaction – because I could force dealers to their best price, I was always going to get the best price. It felt like this would be the model in most large transactions, like travel, loans, etc. Price would stabilize, and folks would differentiate on service, relationship, and approach.
But something funny happened on our way to internet mediated bliss: the big companies figured out how to game our demand. Dealers realized they can make more profit if they cooperate and withhold pricing information from the aggregators, and the aggregators got into bed with the supply side of the equation (if you think AutoByTel or Expedia is on your side, you’re kidding yourself). Nowhere is this more true that in how an airline prices its tickets.
I like how Farecast puts the consumer back in control of the data. The interface is very slick and the idea is quite promising. So I very much wish Farecast well, and I’d love to hear about other services which disrupt other markets where access to data is so one sided.
Hugh has given me 25 invitations to the private beta, if you’re interested, let me know in comments below.
Update: Hugh has emailed me and upped my invite limit to 150. But give me some time to get them out to you….