Sometimes airlines think they are doing something really innovative, but the most impressive part of all is overlooked for something more mundane but which is touted as the next big thing. I suspect AA’s new Search By Destination Ideas may fall into this category.

What I am about to write relies heavily on earlier thinking I have done on the future of travel search (see here and here) and also the recent discussions I have been having with various people in the industry about the major trend approaching that will see the merging of pre-shopping and shopping; and the significant implications this will have for airline websites in future. I don’t have enough time to go into that topic in detail here, but definitely ask me about if we meet. For now, let’s look at the concept of what is a “family destination.” In the past I was mildly critical of airlines using Family as an attribute in destination inspiration and American has also fallen into this trap. Despite all the cities listed in the screen on the right, I could not find any reason or justification for why these destinations were considered family friendly. But the bigger point is who cares. Why is anyone persisting with the notion that arbitrary classification using a one size fits all model is the way forward with travel inspiration? Time to repeat something I wrote months ago

To put it bluntly, today’s attributes have a long long way to go before we are at the end game. For example, today I can search by attributes listing museums as my preference. But are there really more than a handful of airports that don’t have at least one museum in the major city or town that they service?  What would be much more compelling would be to put in my maximum price, and have each destination returned with a flight, a hotel (that I could vary by star level using a slider) and one entry ticket to a temporary exhibition at a local museum.  As Stephen Joyce from Rezgo wrote about his hopes on sponsoring the PhoCusRight report:

We will also see large OTAs and distributors looking for ways to connect with suppliers in a big way. This will put pressure on application developers to build systems that easily connect to these distribution channels

So destination content is one part of the puzzle. Another part is more attributes that aren’t dependent upon human whim. I saw one attribute that could be selected was children. What makes one destination more child friendly than another without any knowledge of the ages of the children or what they like is utter guess work. Attributes like this lack credibility and take up valuable screen real estate for no apparent gain. Much better attributes would be things that could interact with a slider, and that also could be populated with data sources that were automatically updated rather than manually maintained. Average temperate at that time of the year, chance of rain, days of sunshine, water temperature – or maybe something really edgy like safety (aka muggings/murders per head of population) or even average age of other people that flew to this destination (difficult to be accurate in domestic). They are all off-the-top-of-the-head ideas without even giving it too much thought, but none are dependent upon human classification. Adding more attributes that follow these rules are potential game changers, and for airlines they have the added benefit of moving their presence to the left of the Bow Tie and into travel inspiration in a big way. But airlines will still be at a disadvantage relative to OTAs unless they can find a basis of competition that puts the ball back in their court – nothing I have written above is sufficiently unique to do that.

So which part of the new AA.com is the most interesting, and the part I alluded to in my opening paragraph. Take a look at the “family” results page below:

Forget the confusing order of fare families and price increments, or the color of the instant upgrade fare family being green when the cabin in the Tampa flight shows it as being First Class just like the fare family to the right, and forget that is says the default sort is by number of stops but the price order for different flights does not seem to adhere to this logic when you look at prices from top to bottom. Forget all that. The interesting part about this display is that it is taking us a step closer toward the merging of pre-shopping and shopping and any airline that doesn’t understand this needs to make sure they come to grips with it very quickly.

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