How Travelers Could Lose in American's Web Ticket War

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Karen Bleier / AFP / Getty Images

An American Airlines jet at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport

An ongoing battle between American Airlines and online travel agents Orbitz and Expedia has played out for weeks with more fervor, unlikely alliances and backstabbing than the last season of The Apprentice. When American and Orbitz failed to reach terms on a new distribution agreement, the airline ordered its schedule dropped from the popular travel website on Dec. 21. Just a few days later, pre-empting its own distribution dispute, Expedia hid American's listings from its search results, making it difficult but not impossible to book an AA flight on the website. Then, once Expedia's agreement with American ended Dec. 31, it dropped the carrier from the site, calling the airline's strategy "anti-consumer and anti-choice."

There's no question that part of American's motivation is to cut costs, which George Hobica, founder of Airfare Watchdog, says the airline is "desperate" to do. In bypassing the online travel agents, American saves on distribution costs, but can also raise its ticket prices more easily, since its fares won't be displayed directly beside those of its competitors.

The airline may be taking a lesson from its Dallas neighbor, Southwest Airlines. Southwest requires that consumers go directly to its website to book a trip. That makes it more difficult for passengers to comparison-shop, but Southwest has won customer trust, and loyalty, by delivering consistently low fares for decades rather than make consumers hunt them down. Capturing customers on its own website also allows Southwest to get additional revenue from ancillary items such as rental cars and frequent-flyer credit cards — a revenue stream American has undoubtedly taken note of.

At the heart of this kerfuffle is American's Direct Connect, a software system it has been pushing since December 2009 that bypasses the current global distribution systems (GDS), such as Amadeus and Travelport, which travel agents and websites use to download schedules and fares. One GDS, Sabre Holdings Corp., a former American unit that was spun off in 2000, said on Jan. 5 that it will stop carrying American's flight information in August — a month ahead of when its contract with American is due to expire. Sabre's holdings include Travelocity.

Direct Connect, which Orbitz and Expedia have refused to adopt, would allow American to gain more control over its airfare search results. It all fits very nicely into American's goal to get middlemen to pay to distribute its listings, not the other way around. This way, the airline could choose, at any moment, which fares and schedules to display and promote options that could generate more revenue for the company by letting it sell add-ons like seats with more legroom. But it could also mean higher prices for travelers.

For its part, American insists that its model will be better for customers. Cory Garner, American's director of distribution strategy, highlights a perk of the system, saying customers would be able to view the total trip cost up front rather than be hit by fees on the day of travel. "Direct Connect gives customers visibility and control of their entire trip, especially the cost of the trip, as opposed to today's world, where they can see only base fares," Garner tells TIME. "Certainly there are disputes in the marketplace now, but I believe these are just growing pains."

Still, American seems willing to lose passengers to get its way. "They're taking a huge risk here," says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents corporate travel departments. In a statement e-mailed to TIME, Orbitz spokesman Brian Hoyt reported that the company has generated about $800 million in sales for American in the past year. Based on that figure, Henry Harteveldt of Forrester Research estimates that the much-larger Expedia generated about $1.6 billion in sales for American last year. (AA has total sales of more than $20 billion.) But in a Dec. 29 press release, American said it saw a year-over-year increase in overall ticket sales since removing its listings from Orbitz — although traffic is generally improving for all major airlines.

Orbitz and Expedia maintain that they will do just fine without American's business, making up for lost revenue by selling tickets for the airline's competitors. While Hoyt reported that American accounts for about 5% of Orbitz's business, industry analysts suggest that American accounts for as little as 1% of Expedia's business. That's because about 80% of Expedia's business comes from non-air products like travel insurance, hotels, cruises and rental cars. "Expedia has already diversified such that no single company can have an impact on their bottom line," Harteveldt tells TIME. However, both Orbitz's and Expedia's shares fell on Monday after Expedia dropped American.

For its plan to succeed, American has to persuade its competitors, like United, Delta and the others, to follow in its footsteps, each creating a system like Direct Connect and similarly thumbing their noses at outside distribution systems. It would mean the end of the price transparency that disciplines fares, and could also end some things that online travel agents do better than the airlines: flexible date search, last-minute deals on packages and coordinating multicity trips for which flying on different airlines for different legs may be more cost-effective. "It's already not that easy to find cheap airfare," says Airfare Watchdog's Hobica. "This would just make it that much worse."

A survey conducted by the Business Travel Coalition at the end of 2010 shows, not surprisingly, that almost 98% of travel-industry professionals don't want American's model. That doesn't necessarily mean that American or other airlines will listen. "The reason we're fighting this is because this is an industry where competitors are often like lemmings," Mitchell says. "American used to be the largest in the world, so they're used to over-reaching and trying to impose their will on the marketplace."

American happens to be very good at that sort of thing. The company, which is still in active discussions with Expedia, Orbitz and Sabre, has never been the kind that backs down from a fight. It has waged fare wars with competitors to protect its turf and has used FAA regulations and legislation as weapons against potential new rivals like Virgin America. It has battled furiously and fractiously with its employees. If the travel agents want a battle, American can certainly provide one.