A startup called Hipmunk has created a simple, attractive Web site for finding airline tickets whose default search mode is called "agony."
Unless you tell it otherwise, Hipmunk shows you only the flights with the lowest prices AND the most convenient schedules. The rest of the flights are hidden, although you can easily see them if you want to by clicking on the "worse" flights button next to each fare.
You can also narrow your search by time if you drag the site's vertical slider bars to show just a slice of the day you want to travel.
What Hipmunk is really searching is the data in Orbitz, which handles bookings for Hipmunk and is one of the few surviving dot-coms. Orbitz was started over 10 years ago by United, Continental and Delta/Northwest and was the first Web site where people could buy tickets from more than one airline.
Orbitz is in turn powered by ITA Software, which was built about 15 years ago by some MIT computer scientists who improved on the airlines' cumbersome, slow mainframe software. ITA was acquired by Google last month -- another deal that is sure to shake up the airline industry.
Hipmunk is already profitable, according to its co-founder, Steve Huffman, even though the company is only a week old. It's sold $350,000 worth of airline tickets, he says, and the software took just two months to build.
Huffman is looking for more funding for Hipmunk (his chief backer is the seed fund Y Combinator) and says he'd like to build Hipmunk into a $100 million company -- he sold his last company, Reddit, to Conde Nast before it got that big.
But he's not going to be able to reach his goal without Southwest Airlines, which has kept its costs low enough to undercut fares on the big airlines that founded Orbitz and which continues to withhold its flight data from all other Web sites.
So to find cheap airline tickets, you're going to have to continue to look in at least two places -- Hipmunk and Southwest.com.