Which BIG airline just pulled out of three booking sites?

american airlines orbitzAs you’ve read here on Gadling, the battle between airlines and online travel agencies is poised to heat up. For the past few years, a dismal economy has sent many bargain-hunters to online travel sites with the hopes of finding fantastic deals and minimizing the pain in their wallets. Yet, with the travel market and the broader economy showing signs of recovery, airlines‘ brand power will gain momentum, and customers with more cash at their disposal will favor convenience and recognition over saving a couple of dollars. A battle for your money and your loyalty is brewing.

And, it’s just intensified.

Last month, American Airlines and Orbitz tangled over fees and the booking process, with the airline threatening to yank its inventory from the travel site, a threat on which it made good. After a temporary restraining order was issued, a judge ruled yesterday that American could pull its inventory from the online travel agency and ordered Orbitz to stop selling American Airlines tickets and displaying its fares.

Now, Delta‘s getting in on the action.

The airline has yanked its inventory from a handful of smaller online travel agencies, Aviation Week reports, including CheapOair, OneTravel and Bookit as of last Friday. So, if you’re hunting for cheap tickets on these sites, you won’t run into Delta any more. Aviation Week observes that it appears to be “part of a partial shift in its distribution strategy,” and notes that it seems different from American’s move with Orbitz.For Delta, the decision looks like it’s part of an effort to consolidate around larger online travel agencies, while American is targeting agencies directly, rather than using an intermediary to reach another intermediary.

While the means may be different, the objective appears to be the same. With a shift in the economy, airlines have a bolstered position in the marketplace, and this is likely to give them a bit more weight in dealing with online travel agencies and in reaching consumers directly. For American, it seems like a play to reduce costs and increase efficiency – as it is for Delta (though through different means). Ultimately, however, Delta wants more direct action from consumers, which reduces its sales costs and increases profits, which is what differentiates its decision from that of American.

According to a statement by Delta in Aviation Week, “Delta is being more selective in our use of online travel sites in the future as we continually work to improve our online distribution strategy.” The company adds, “We continue to make significant investments in delta.com to make it an industry-leading travel site, and we believe that delta.com will become the preferred online site to book travel on Delta.”

A representative from CheapOair was not available for comment.

I asked Douglas Quinby, Sr. Director, Research, at travel industry research firm PhoCusWright, his thoughts on Delta’s decision, and his reply was pretty striaghtforward: “The only surprising thing about this move is that it has taken this long.” He explained, “U.S. airlines have impressively restrained their appetite for growth (i.e. capacity) on the back of a (more or less) recovering economy. With clear control of their inventory, airlines have already started rationalizing distribution, and the weakest links are first to get snipped. American may have jumped the gun a bit with Orbitz, but believe me – we ain’t see nothin’ yet!”

So, what’s the net effect of all this? Do the actions of Delta and American suggest that we’ll be paying higher fares in the future because of behavior that doesn’t benefit the consumer? My bet is that the average fare buyer won’t see a whole lot of difference, especially given the share of sales already owned by the airlines via their own websites. The infrequent leisure traveler, especially, is losing an alternative … though it’s one that won’t be as important in a recovering economy.

[photo by boeingdreamscape]