Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

TRAVEL INSIDER

Airlines, Online Agencies Rewrite Book on Fares

Southwest ends link with Travelocity; new Web site hints at more change for bargain hunters.

March 25, 2001|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

With each passing day, the challenge of getting a good air fare gets a bit more tangled on the bloody battlefield of the Internet marketplace. Miss a chapter and you could end up spending a month's rent for a ticket to Denver.

Here are three chapters-recently written or about to be written-that travelers should be aware of:

In the first, Southwest Airlines and the Travelocity online travel agency get a divorce, a move that could change fare-hunting habits for thousands of travelers, especially in areas where Southwest is strongest, like California.

In the second, Orbitz.com, a travel-booking site-to-be that is largely bankrolled by the biggest airlines in the country, expands beta testing and draws nearer to a projected June debut that critics say could unfairly blow scores of travel agencies out of the Internet's waters.

Still to be heard from: the federal officials reviewing the venture who could declare it a violation of antitrust laws.

Meanwhile, as these digital stories unfold online, you can join an old-technology back story by picking up a telephone.

Ever since a directive from the U.S. Department of Transportation in October, the major airlines have been working out how to tell their telephone customers that the best deals are being held aside for somebody else-somebody using a computer and modem.

Now the carriers have their disclaimers in place, but unless you're paying close attention, you may not recognize them for what they are.

Southwest Airlines and Travelocity. Since its birth in the early 1970s, Southwest Airlines has focused heavily on low prices, minimal amenities and direct sales to customers, paying less attention to travel agencies.

When online agencies began cropping up, Travelocity (http://www.travelocity.com) emerged as the only major online service with the ability to book Southwest flights via the Sabre computer reservation system. That's the only reservations system of which Southwest is a part; other major airlines belong to multiple reservations systems.

(Travelocity is the most popular online agency in the U.S., followed closely by Expedia. Together the two account for an estimated 70% of the travel bookings made on the Web.)

But Southwest's connection through Sabre was a delayed link. The result: Some travelers booked Southwest flights via Travelocity, received what they thought was confirmation, arrived at the airport and found that the flight had been sold out and that they were without seats.

To solve the problem, Southwest officials would have to spend millions of dollars on a more immediate reservations link with Sabre (as other airlines do) or stop taking bookings through Travelocity, said Southwest spokeswoman Linda Rutherford. They chose to back away from Travelocity.

Since March 1, Travelocity users have been unable to book Southwest tickets. The only way to book a Southwest ticket online is through Southwest's Web site, http://www.southwest.com.

Rutherford noted that even before the two dropped their partnership, Southwest was pulling about 30% of its revenue through its own Web site and less than 1% from Travelocity bookings.

Orbitz, its timetable and its critics. Next month, the deep-pocketed backers of Orbitz.com plan to broaden the beta testing of the travel booking technology behind their Web site-to-be. To their air fare searches they will add information on hotels, rental cars, tours and cruises. The result, Orbitz claims, will be the most convenient Web site ever for one-stop travel shopping. If all goes as planned, the Web site's operators plan a June debut.

Since Feb. 20, a beta version has been available for air fare searches but not bookings.

But inside the travel business, plenty of people are rooting against Orbitz, and some government officials say they have concerns. Why? Because the original investors in Orbitz are Continental, Delta, Northwest and United airlines, later joined by American. The collective wealth and marketplace domination of these companies, critics say, mean Orbitz would be an 800-pound gorilla from birth, likely to surpass all rivals in short order.

The American Society of Travel Agents denounced the creation of Orbitz as a predatory step that would short-circuit the industry, putting thousands of agents out of business and ultimately giving a handful of airlines dangerous power in price-setting.

In January, 20 state attorneys general (including those of California and New York) signed a letter raising concerns about possible antitrust violations. Reviews by the Justice and Transportation departments are pending and may not be finished until after Orbitz has opened for business.

'We are continuing the battle," said ASTA Vice President Paul Ruden. "But there's a huge amount of money being put into their effort to convince the government that this thing is benign."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|