Thursday, February 02, 2006

I didn't realize finding airfares was that hard.

But it does make me feel a lot better. From a talk announcement over at [LB,UB]:
At any moment there are between 2,000 and 10,000 commercial airliners in the sky, part of a dense network that provides, for example, more than 100,000 practical paths from Boston to the San Francisco area every day. At its core, finding a sequence of flights that meets the user’s stated time constraints is a path-planning problem which can be solved with well-known techniques. But the airfare search problem is much more complex than that. In fact, the airlines’ price structure is so rich that finding the cheapest price for a simple round-trip journey is in the general case provably undecidable. Even if one bounds the size of solutions to a small number of flights there may be more than 1020 reasonable answers to a simple travel query. The problem is compounded by the fact that airline revenue management systems are constantly and dynamically adjusting the prices for each flight along a discretized scale.
Seriously though, how is this even possible ? There are a finite number of routes at any given time, and i am assuming that no one pays me to fly (I'm ignoring voluntary bumps of course), so the total path length must increase if I take longer and more byzantine routes...

Update (2/3): Michael Mitzenmacher indicates that there is more to the problem that meets the eye. In fact, he goes further:
If you have any smart students who are looking for a job in a "real-world" company, I'd strongly recommend they look at ITA software. Obviously I've drunk the Kool-Aid, but I think they'll continue to be an innovative, leading company in the travel space. And heck, how many companies do you know that even think to advertise themselves by giving a talk about the undecidable problems they are tackling!

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