the navigator

American vs. Orbitz: Neither really wants to clear the air

Christopher Elliott
Sunday, January 23, 2011

Maybe you've heard about the little dust-up between American Airlines and several online travel agencies, including Orbitz and Expedia.

Maybe you've noticed that when you go fare-shopping on those travel sites, you aren't offered any American flights.

Maybe you've said to yourself, "So what?"

"It's really an inside baseball kind of story," admits William Swelbar, a research engineer in MIT's International Center for Air Transportation.

But not so fast. Yes, the intramural spat between airlines and travel agencies may seem irrelevant, but there's a lot at stake. The future of how you buy airline tickets could hang in the balance.

Here's what has happened: Late last year, American Airlines invited Orbitz to switch the way it manages tickets from a traditional reservation system to a new one that American had developed, called Direct Connect.

Actually, American insisted.

When Orbitz declined the invitation, American pulled its tickets from the online travel agency. Then Expedia, the largest online travel agency, stopped selling American tickets in a related dispute.

Then Sabre, one of the largest reservations systems for travel agents, retaliated by "de-preferencing" American Airlines tickets on its displays, which essentially made American fares the last choice for tens of thousands of agents. Sabre also raised American's booking fees, claiming that the airline wasn't offering access to its full content by withholding information about extra airline fees from its reservation systems.

Since then, there have been lawsuits, court injunctions - and lots of rhetoric.

"This is a dispute over which company or travel industry sector controls price information," says Edward Hasbrouck, a consumer advocate. "But consumers' interest is in price transparency, which nobody in the industry really wants."

In other words, airlines and travel agencies are squabbling over how they show you ticket prices. Agencies want to display it their way; airlines want to show you the prices the way they want. Neither necessarily has your interests in mind, in Hasbrouck's view.

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