Travelers wanting to book a flight online will find fewer options now that two of the nation's biggest airlines have stripped their fares from some travel sites.
Those looking to fly on American can no longer book trips on Orbitz as of Dec. 21, while Delta stopped allowing three websites — CheapOAir.com, OneTravel.com, and BookIt.com — to list its flights after Dec. 17.
It's a move that more airlines may follow in an effort to cut costs, promote their brand and increase their ability to sell aspects of the travel experience that bolster the bottom line, some travel experts say. But some industry observers worry that the winnowing of booking outlets could ultimately make it harder for consumers to find the best deal.
"It will require more (computer) mouse work for sure," says George Hobica of Airfarewatchdog.com. "What a lot of consumers do not realize is that online travel agencies save consumers (millions) of dollars a year not just by allowing them to quickly compare fares but also by alerting them to the fact that it's often cheaper to fly out on one airline and back on another."
Delta says its main goals are to build brand loyalty and maintain a more direct connection to its customers.
"We look at it very much like an Apple Store vs. Best Buy," Glen Hauenstein, a Delta executive vice president, said in a recent presentation to investors. "You can buy components or Apple products at both, (but) your experience in an Apple Store is obviously quite different than it is at a Best Buy store."
American, on the other hand, says that it's not interested in shrinking the number of outside outlets that sell its flights. Instead, it wants Orbitz to switch to a technology system that informs fliers about the ever-growing array of services the airline offers for a fee, such as priority boarding, which bring the airline over $1 billion a year in additional revenue.
"The airline product has completely changed," says Cory Garner, American's director of distribution strategy. "It used to be we only sold fares, but now we're selling much more. ... We're interested in exposing not just our fares but optional services through these channels."
In a statement, Orbitz says, "We will continue to seek an arrangement with American Airlines to distribute American's tickets on Orbitz.com and Orbitz for Business." The travel site adds that for the 12 months ended in September, it generated more than $800 million in sales for American.
Southwest fares have for several years been available only on that airline's website. And the recent actions by American and Delta could encourage other carriers to move in that direction, says Charlie Leocha of the Consumer Travel Alliance.
"We know one airline tests a price or procedure and then other airlines follow," Leocha says. "Ultimately, it's not good for consumers."
But airline industry analyst Darryl Jenkins says that while airlines are seeking more control so they can sell more extras, travelers will still have plenty of shopping options. "There (are) so many places where you can compare and shop around, it's almost infinite," he says. "I think at the end of the day, airlines will win this one, and consumers won't be hurt one iota."