When airlines pull out of travel websites, who loses?

Airlines: CheapOair, Delta, American Airlines, OrbitzIt’s been a busy week. The action with airlines and online travel agencies has been brisk, and in the end, it affects you as much as it affects them. Sure, there’s plenty of money involved for the travel sites and the airlines, but in the end, it all comes down to what you experience during the buying process. These changes – with American Airlines and Orbitz and Delta and CheapOair – will have an effect on you and on which airline you fly next.

Doubtless, the numbers are big. Orbitz generated $800 million in revenue by selling flights on American in the first nine months of 2010, though some of it came from ancillary services. While CheapOair’s revenues from Delta aren’t available, let’s not lose sight of the fact that it’s the largest airline in the United States, so the impact can’t be trivial.

Are the airlines eyeing all that business and trying to claim it for themselves? There’s a flaw in that thinking, according to the Business Travel Coalition. In a statement released last night, it noted that American Airlines may lose some of the revenue it books through Orbitz, and you’re the reason why.

The dynamic is pretty straightforward. According to data from travel industry research firm PhoCusWright, the BTC says, 87 percent of travelers turn to the internet when they start shopping for tickets. Also, around 28 percent of the would-be travelers who visit online travel agencies wind up buying their tickets on the airlines’ websites instead.In practical terms, let’s say you’re looking for a flight, and you go to Orbitz. On Orbitz, you notice options from American Airlines. There’s a one-in-four chance, roughly, you’ll just go to American’s site to buy your ticket.

Now, what happens if you don’t see American on Orbitz (or Delta on CheapOair)? Well, you may see a flight on United, and go to that airline’s website to make your purchase. That’s a lost opportunity for the airline that pulled out of the online travel agency.

As Kevin Mitchell, BTC chairman, puts it: “American acts as if it’s the country’s biggest airline when it’s really number four and falling. Consumers may not even know American’s flights are missing. The ones who will gain the most here are American’s competitors who will enjoy feasting this Christmas on turkey served up by American. Delta, United, Southwest and others should be grateful for this early Christmas present.”

He adds: “American’s decision to immediately pull its flight information from Orbitz shows that it has near-zero interest in preserving an open and transparent marketplace. It is an outrageous act that will negatively impact consumers nationwide who are in the midst of comparison-shopping for their holiday travel. Moreover, American is tacitly acknowledging that if a consumer booked an American flight on Orbitz, and now needs to change it, she will need to work through American Airlines. That’s a recipe for huge consumer confusion and frustration right in the heart of the holiday season.”

The same, of course, could be said about Delta in regards to CheapOair, though on a much smaller scale, given that CheapOair forecasts 2010 total revenue of $1.2 billion (compared to $800 million in revenue related to American Airlines alone for Orbitz).

So, it all comes back to you. The airlines want you. The online travel agencies want you. This is why the battle for the consumer is intensifying. And, with fares on the rise and economic conditions stabilizing, the stakes are getting higher. For the airlines, direct ownership of the consumer certainly has its perks, but it also comes with a handful of risks. They may be serving business up to the competition, as Mitchell said.

Airlines and online travel agencies are king some pretty big bets on how you will book your tickets. Ultimately, however, the decision is entirely yours.

[photo by cliff1066 via Flickr]