Expedia launches new search engine

Upping the ante in what has become a never-ending battle over online airfare search engines, Expedia Inc. today unveiled its latest offering.

Using a new algorithm to conduct the searches, the Bellevue, Wash.-based online travel agency has added numerous pull-down menus that allow customers to tailor searches to their specific needs.

David Jones, one of the architects who built the new engine, said it took "over a million people hours" to construct the enhanced searching capability.

One of the chief promises being made by the company is that its searches will retrieve a higher percentage of available flights than its competitors.

The initial release will offer up to 900 trip combinations on domestic, coach-class seats. First class and international flights will be added in the future.

Analysts praised Expedia's latest for its usability.

Kate Rice, an analyst at PhoCusWright Inc., in Sherman, Conn., said the biggest competitor for online travel is still phone-based reservations centers.

"Anything that makes searching online less complicated is going to help," she said.

Henry Harteveldt, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., said he liked the ability to quickly modify searches, but warned that "any gain you get in this business is a temporary, fleeting one and will only last you a few months."

Expedia's main online competitor, Travelocity.com Inc., released a new search algorithm in November. And Orbitz, an airline-owned Web site set for a June launch, plans to make its business case around having the industry's beefiest, most accurate search engine.

Orbitz spokeswoman Carol Jouzaitis said, "It's flattering that they're trying to imitate our search engine."

Jones said the Expedia project began three years ago and was an effort to improve customer access to travel data, not to keep pace or gain a momentary advantage in the competitive market.

Harteveldt said he questions the value of an endless search engine war, calling it "a tough battle to win."

"You can come up with hundreds and thousands of options, but the fact is, as a traveler, I want only one thing," he said. "And it's just a matter of whether you can get me that. It's not how big your search engine is, it's how you use it."

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