British Airways became the first airline to pin the technology to its Web site, allowing visitors to not only book their flights, but find nearby hotels and car rentals on a 3D map. Once users have zoomed in on their chosen locale, the Google service provides a link through which they can make a booking back on the British Airways site.

"People have always enjoyed finding their own home on Google Earth and now they can see where they'll be laying down their beach towel or enjoying après ski before they fly," said Obi Felton, Google's head of consumer marketing.

David Soskin, chief executive of the airfare comparison site Cheapflights.com, said BA was making its Web site more functional in order to lure its customers online. "Margins in flights sales are not enormous," he said. "So in order to keep profits up it's very lucrative to go into higher margin areas, like car hire and accommodation." The airline's strategy of cross-selling such related services via its Web site is one that travel agents have already enacted.

Earlier this year, BA CEO William "Willie" Walsh said that by 2008, he wanted half of BA's sales to be made via its Web site. Currently, that figure stands at 25%. The airline is so keen to get users online that it discourages customers from making telephone bookings, by adding an extra 15 pounds ($29) charge. That "just shows you why the Internet is becoming such a powerful force in travel," Soskin commented.

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