Archive for April, 2008

EF changes in features and data over time

Recently on FlyerTalk a forum for frequent flyers and business travelers (many of whom are ExpertFlyer subscribers) there was some discussion about the features of ExpertFlyer and information that we do or don’t have.  We want to set the record straight on some issues, and instead of posting a long reply on FlyerTalk, we’re posting it here.

As people have pointed out, the loss of the PNR’s and X/R upgrade inventory at 100 hrs was an AA business decision and nothing that we technically did or can do to bring it back that is within our control.  Yes, we are in communication with AA and other airlines about a myriad of issues, that doesn’t mean however that they will always give us everything we want, in any kind of a timely manner, just because we ask. After all, we’re talking about multi-billion dollar corporations who’s biggest concern at the moment is trying to stay profitable and out of bankruptcy.  Unfortunately, these issues are not on the top of their to-do list and understandably so, even if we don’t agree with it.

Over the last 3+ years, ExpertFlyer has evolved both as a company and a service.  We’ve all been learning together along the way and when we realize a mistake, we try to correct it.  However, the airline/travel industry is also learning about ExpertFlyer and its subscribers and how it affects their business, sometime this can lead to good things, sometimes bad, but either way we roll with the punches and move on. This means that there may be things that we’ve had in the past that we don’t have now. This also means that there will be things in the future that we gain access too that we haven’t had in the past.  Either way, you are always encouraged to evaluate ExpertFlyer, and its membership options, on what we are today.  If loosing a certain function or piece of information leads you to cancel your membership, we’re sorry to see you go but we understand. That being said if you continue your membership because you are hopeful that a certain feature or piece of information might return, please realize it may not.  We don’t promise that we can implement this feature or get that piece of information until we officially announce it.  We can only promise to try our best to do so.

As for the reasoning behind the split of fare and award/upgrade availability into two different functions, this was done for several reasons.  The first of which is that new ExpertFlyer users simply could not understand how to use the tool to get hidden award/upgrade information.  When you think about it, the concept of hidden vs. non-hidden availability is a throwback to the capacity constraints of the 30 year old mainframes that the airline reservation systems are built on.  Why should we assume that someone in 2008 would be willing or want to understand why this is and then learn how to properly formulate a query to get different data in different situations?  It just wasn’t intuitive, and frankly, the adage of KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) has merit for a reason. So we decided to make it simple.  However, we were mindful of how users who have been around for a while would react to the change, which is why we tested the change with a set of beta users who used the new Award & Upgrade tool before its release.  They gave us some invaluable insight that allowed us to make improvements to the feature to allow for a minimal change to the existing user experience.  For example, on the Award & Upgrade search form there are 3 “Other Fare Class” boxes that let you put in non award/upgrade classes to see along side with the award/upgrade classes just as before.  Another example is that with the Flight Availability search, if you specify a single airline that happens to be one of the ones we have award or upgrade data for (like AA) a link will appear at the top of the results page that says “Search for Awards & Upgrades for …” that will send you to the Award & Upgrade search page with all of the search criteria pre-filled except for the classes, exactly as when before one would do an initial Flight Availability search with no classes specified, then did a Refine Query to then specify the hidden classes.  Same amount of steps, same result.

The second reason being that, to put it bluntly, it was an absolute nightmare to maintain the competing technical requirements of retrieving hidden vs. non-hidden data for various airline/class combinations and have it all work in a uniform way.  Because of how the GDS’s work, we have to query them in different ways to get different sets of data, however as a by-product this caused confusion with the results. The permutations of airline, hidden vs. non-hidden classes, and the multiple access methods we have to get any given piece of data were unsustainable.  For example, searching for F class for an AA flight by specifying or not specifying the class would produce different lists of flights as the system treats specified classes as hidden and used different methods to obtain the data.  People did not understand this as they were using the class fields as filters, expecting to see the same flights, when that wasn’t their intended purpose.  This disconnect caused frustration and confusion, we understood why it was happening, but unless you have direct experience programming against a GDS it would seem that the error is on our side when in fact we’re just showing the data we’re given. Creating the Award/Upgrade tool solved that problem as well.  Also this will allow us to refine both the regular availability and award/upgrade availability in a way that we couldn’t do before as one data source may have better award/upgrade information while another better regular availability information.  Now that they are separate tools we can pick and choose the best source for the type of data needed.

Also, as to the comments of inconsistencies in the results, we should make it clear that the returned results didn’t actually change from the old way to the new way. The same search would yield the same exact classes returned for the given flights shown.  The difference now is that when a non-hidden class is specified along with hidden classes in the search, we use the “normal” method to get the non-hidden class data (as this is way more efficient when retrieving multiple non-hidden classes) will return more flights.  Why is this you ask? Because the method to retrieve hidden classes has an issue, on the GDS itself, where if there are too many flights with 0’s for the class you are search for, after the first 2 or 3, the rest of the flights for the day won’t be shown.  This is why the technique of changing the time of day forward will sometimes show more flights if availability in the class is scarce.  There is nothing we can do to change it as it is a fundamental issue with the GDS host itself.  This is also why on a multiple hidden class search, you’ll see the first 2-3 flights returned having most or all of the classes searched for listed whereas the later flights will only have 1 or 2.  Since each hidden class is a separate search on our end, and different flights will be returned for the different searches, this is how the data looks when stitched together.  But this isn’t anything new; it’s just more noticeable now.

For the record, we’ve had many compliments on the new Award & Upgrade search tool. It seems to be a success and we’re already seeing greater user satisfaction from its use. Yes change can take some getting used to, but it also leads to good things that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible (we’re working on a few of those right now).  However, constructive criticism is always welcome. The best feedback is when our users give us specific examples of what steps you are taking to accomplish a task on ExpertFlyer and how you think it is faulty and could be improved.  We can’t always incorporate everyone’s suggestion, but we will always listen to them.

Of course, ExpertFlyer is the successful service it is today due in no small part to the feedback and suggestions of our users, so keep them coming.  As always, you can contact us with feedback, suggestions, or otherwise from our About Us page.

US Air and United Seat Map fixes

Today we fixed a couple of long standing seat map bugs.  First, most of the US Air seat maps were not showing available seats properly.  This was due to the data we were receiving from the reservation systems being, to put it nicely, out of specification with how the data should have been.  We figured out a work around that seems to have solved the problem.

As we were solving that problem we came across another issue where in some cases a seat that was tagged as both “Occupied” and “Premium Only” was being shown as Available with the Premium Only designation when it should have been shown as Occupied.  This was especially evident on the United p.s. cabins where all the seats are designated “Premium Only”. We thought it was a little odd that every seat on tomorrow’s JFK-SFO flights in p.s. were empty.  So they are now accurate and usable as well.

New Features – Award & Upgrade searching and Get More Availability

Today we’re introducing a new search tool on ExpertFlyer – Award & Upgrade Availability Searching.  Now as you all know, we’ve had the ability to get award and upgrade inventory for certain airlines for a while now, but let’s face it, we didn’t make it easy.

Up until now new users had to look at a chart of the airlines we support awards and/or upgrades for (found here) to find the class code of what they were looking for, then they had to look to see if the class was “hidden” or not (a throw back to the archaic 30 yr old mainframes that the airline reservation systems run on).  Once they knew this information, they then had to remember to, if the class was “hidden”, do a Flight Availability search specifying only that airline and the classes they wanted to search for.  A little confusing.

Well now all that is gone and we’ve made a drop dead simple way to look up award and upgrade inventory information for any airline we support, no guessing, no looking stuff up, just easy.  Now the folks who have been using ExpertFlyer for a while may be used to the old way of doing things, but in the long run separating our the Award and Upgrade searches into a separate function will help us improve the overall functionality of the site in the long run.

We’ve also made a couple other changes, below is the email we sent out to all our users today that has the details:

Dear ExpertFlyer Subscriber:

As part of our policy to continually improve the ExpertFlyer experience, we are proud to announce several new additions to ExpertFlyer. Specifically, the following improvements and additions have been made:

  • The introduction of new service feature: Awards & Upgrades. This allows direct access to available award and upgrade inventory without having to know or remember specific inventory codes. This also allows us to facilitate additional award and upgrade inventory from more varied sources in the future. Keep in mind the data is not different; it is just a different way of accessing and presenting the information. Both hidden and non-hidden award and upgrade inventory for available airlines is viewable through this feature.
    • To help make this new feature speedier for you, you can set an optional default airline to search for awards and upgrades. Go to My Account, click on the Preferences tab and enter your preferred airline code in the first box. These will then be used as default fill-ins every time you do a search in Awards & Upgrades and Flight Availability. Additionally, you can add two more airlines codes that will be use only for Flight Availability searches.
  • Inside of this new Awards & Upgrade search feature we have added the ability to search for three (3) classes of any type paid-for revenues you want using the new Other Fare Class feature.
  • For the existing Flight Availability search feature, searching for hidden award and upgrade classes will no longer be available. For this, please use the new Awards & Upgrade search feature. However, non-hidden award and upgrade classes will still be available through the Flight Availability search in addition to the new Award & Upgrade search.
  • For the Flight Availability search feature we have improved upon the inventory class filter. You can specify the classes you want to search for in a free form manner with up to nine (9) non-hidden classes. “FJYBKVS”, “F J Y B K V S” and others are all acceptable input.
  • If our Premium subscribers have any existing Flight Availability Saved Queries, they will be automatically converted to new Awards & Upgrades Saved Queries if they contain any airline/class combinations (i.e. AA C inventory) that will only be viewable in Awards & Upgrades search.
  • We have added on new feature to the Flight Availability search. At the bottom of the results screen for these searches you will now see a link Get More Results which will automatically get more results in time for your search if they exist. This eliminates the need to modify your search by increasing the departure time and repeating the search to see more flights. In effect, you can see the flights for the entire day that match your search criteria without having to modify the original search criteria.
  • We have improved the calendar function used for to help you input a date. We think you will find it faster and more user friendly.

We are confident you will find these features to be a positive benefit to your ExpertFlyer experience. We are continually looking for ways to improve ExpertFlyer and look forward to your comments and suggestions.

As always, we appreciate the support you have given us over the years and thank you for your loyalty.

The ExpertFlyer Team

As always, you can contact us with feedback, suggestions, or otherwise from our About Us page.

First Post!

Welcome folks, my name is Chris and I’m one of the people behind the scenes at ExpertFlyer and I want to welcome you to the official blog.

We’ll use this blog as a forum to openly communicate with our fellow travelers not only about how we can make ExpertFlyer a better product and let you know what we’re up to as a company, but also discuss trends and happenings of the travel industry at large.

2008 is already shaping up to be a great year for us and we have some major changes right around the corner.  So stay tuned, and safe travels…