Can you trust online seat maps?
The internet revolution of the past decade has been like sideshow alley at the annual show: plenty of mugs have done their money trying to ping the clown's head in the shooting gallery.
Out of a million ideas, only a handful like Google and Ebay have hit the jackpot and gone on to become multi-billion-dollar business empires, fed by hardware and software from the likes of Apple, which briefly replaced Exxon as the world's biggest company.
One of the great travel ideas that has predictably gone on to become part of a global business empire is SeatGuru.com, which simply reproduces the floorplans supplied by airlines for each one of their plane types.
Founder and business traveller Matthew Daimler made the site more than a simple floorplan by colour-coding seats according to whether they are good, bad or indifferent.
In the internet game, all the spoils go to the winner who, by hook or by crook, has been in the right place at the right time with the right idea and the right connections to break through into the consciousness of the biggest number of punters.
So it's bizarre to note that there's a perfectly good competitor to SeatGuru.com sitting on the sidelines and swamped by the attention and critical mass garnered by SeatGuru, which is now a subsidiary of TripAdvisor.com, itself a subsidiary of online travel sales giant Expedia.com.
SeatPlans.com claims to have configuration maps from more than 150 airlines, compared to SeatGuru's 95-plus. Because SeatPlans followed SeatGuru into the online travel space, it studied its competitor's weaknesses and made sure it wouldn't repeat them.
One of those weaknesses was SeatGuru's Americanness - like so many ideas from the US, it is only vaguely interested in the rest of the world.
For example, it still doesn't list Tiger Airways and lists only A330-200 long-haul international seat plans for Jetstar.
However, while SeatGuru is spruiking all sorts of hip new "apps" that are at best peripheral and barely useful, there are more basic long-term problems with the data that has survived the "relaunch" which should have been picked up.
Blogger and former Sydney Morning Herald Aviation Editor Ben Sandilands excoriates the website in the harshest terms: "SeatGuru's new-look website is so spectacularly unreliable that it could have been brought to us by the same people who committed the Apple Maps atrocity."
Since Sandilands is a tall man, he is hyper-tuned in to issues about seat comfort and notes that the IT nerds at SeatGuru haven't noticed that the seat width in a 10-abreast economy configuration is necessarily narrower than that of a nine-abreast configuration.
"On the new American Airlines 777-300ERs, which are to drool over, it quotes the cushion width as being 17 inches in 10-across economy and also 17 inches across in its nine-across economy," Sandilands writes.
"Go to the Emirates seat map representations and we get 17.5 inches width in its 10-across 777s, but which is the same value quoted for its 10-across A380s, and its eight across A340s.
"Surely this can't be right in the Emirates A380s, which seem so comfortably wide as the same 10-across seats in a Singapore Airlines A380 which it quotes more plausibly as being 19 inches wide, which is also the width of an economy seat on a Singapore Airlines nine-across 777?"
These are basic accuracy issues but the IT nerds over at Tnooz.com think Seatguru's underarms are scented with rose oil.
"Beyond the design tweaks, the story here lies squarely in the meta," writes Tnooz.com's Nick Vivion. "Meta search is becoming ever-more popular, with TripAdvisor's flight search product now baked into the core of SeatGuru.
Users can not only search for flights right there alongside the seat maps, but can also take advantage of SeatGuru's new "G-Factor" functionality.
"G-Factor rates flights according to comfort, with three main categories: 'love it', 'like it', or 'live with it'. ...This feature allows specific-seat-seeking travellers the ability to gauge their comfort level alongside schedule, pricing and amenities."
Erm, sounds awfully like a warmed-over version of those simple ideas Nick Daimler put into the site all those years ago (2001).
The bottom line is the basic information isn't bug-free.
Says Sandilands in an email: "It is an acute reflection on the disconnection between the real world and the hard yakka of establishing facts, and the child-like belief encountered in some IT circles that you don't need to actually establish anything factorial, but harvest and reformat data without worrying about embedded errors."
Have you seen the new SeatGuru? Have you also used SeatPlans? How do you rate them head-to-head? Are seat maps part of the pre-flight info you regularly seek out before travelling? Leave a comment below.
- Sydney Morning Herald