Expedia demotes American Airlines, airline booking war gets HOT

Could the battle between airlines and online travel agencies have gotten any more intense? This week, American Airlines got the green light in court to yank its fares from Orbitz, and Delta announced that it was pulling out of several smaller sites – CheapOair, OneTravel and BookIt. Travel industry experts are saying it’s about time, but that doesn’t lessen the shock to the business, especially with the rapid succession. Well, if you didn’t think it couldn’t get any crazier, brace yourself: the online travel agency community is fighting back.

Expedia is changing the way it shows American Airlines flights on its site, making it “extremely difficult” for users to find them, according to ABC News. Is it a show of solidarity, as Scott Mayerowitz of ABC puts it, or could it be an early form of risk management? By reducing its reliance on the American Airlines relationship, Expedia can mitigate the impact of an American withdrawal from its own site.

And let’s not underestimate the financial damage involved: the move by American with Orbitz could cause a nine-figure loss. For the first three quarters of 2010, the sale of American flights was worth approximately $800 million to the latter.

Mayerowitz confirms what I wrote several weeks ago, that a “full out war,” as he puts it, is at hand.At the beginning of December, I noticed that the increasing fares, an outcome of many economic developments, was indicative of a positive development for the airlines. Not only does it mean they can charge more, but it suggests that traveler price sensitivity is waning. Since airline web sites still own the bulk of online sales, the stronger brands of airlines will lead to continued growth in 2011, some of it likely to come at the expense of online travel agencies such as Expedia, Orbitz and CheapOair.

That forecast has become a reality.

This latest development, by Expedia, does not remove American from its site completely. The airlines flights still show up in search results, but the fare is not listed. Instead, users have to click a link to see the details.

Given the competitive landscape, it does seem evident that this is a defensive move on Expedia’s part. Expedia’s statement to ABC News is full of business risk management language:

“This has been done in light of both American Airlines’ recent decision to prevent Orbitz from selling its inventory and a possible disruption in Expedia’s ability to sell American Airlines tickets when our contract with American Airlines expires,” Expedia said in a statement to ABC News. “American Airlines has shown it only intends to do business with travel agencies through a new model that is anti-consumer and anti-choice.”

Basically, Expedia is saying it doesn’t want to get caught with its pants down – as Orbitz was. By taking early action to reduce its reliance on American, it can facilitate a smooth transition at the end of its contract (if necessary) or at least maintain a solid negotiating position.

ABC News reports that passengers looking for bargains will have to work a little harder as a result of this trend toward fragmentation, but the implications may not be as severe as it seems. Bargain-hunting has always involved a measure of this sort of behavior, as would-be buyers would hit airline sites as well as several online travel agencies. This is reinforced by the fact, according to data from travel industry research firm PhoCusWright, that 28 percent of visitors to online travel agencies ultimately make their purchases directly from airline websites.

The airlines have the brand advantage here, as that’s where the bulk of the experience occurs, not to mention that a visit to an online travel agency likely indicates that price, rather than brand recognition or loyalty is the motivator. And, like the online travel agencies, they also sell hotels and other ancillary services, meaning that they can compete head-to-head.

So, why are there any online travel agencies at all?

The booking sites actually play an important role in the travel business, which is why they exist and will continue to do so. In any market where there is both a wide variety of choices and price sensitivity, consumers can benefit from a bit of help in making the decision. This includes being able to compare prices and routes and put together packages across multiple sectors (airlines, hotels, rental cars and so on) that maximize value through comparison. As intermediaries, they make the process of navigating alternatives easier.

Since the online travel agencies are able to amass a market this way, they gain the power to negotiate with travel suppliers (such as airlines and hotels) to offer some discounts, which makes the sites more attractive to buyers. Over time, this has created a robust channel for the booking sites, which do billions of dollars a year in business. They remain an important part of the strategy of any travel supplier, even if it means sacrificing some revenue in order to win the customer. Online travel agencies remain a great way to reach the price-sensitive customer.

But, as I mentioned, the changes in the economic climate are making price less of an issue, and the airlines are aware of this. They see an opportunity to claim more of the revenue for themselves, not to mention long-term ownership of the customer relationship. And what has followed has been the brewing war between online travel agencies and their suppliers.

The decisions by the likes of American and Delta aren’t surprising, given these market conditions, but what about Expedia? Doesn’t it seem like they’re sacrificing some revenue to make a point?

Well, it may not be that simple.

It makes sense to cut its risk a bit, given American’s decision to pull its inventory from Orbitz. Also, it appears to be betting on the fact that a visitor to Expedia doesn’t care about getting an American Airlines flight. Rather, the visitor wants a flight: there’s a difference between New York to San Francisco and New York to San Francisco on American. The customer who wants the former won’t be affected by the absence of a particular airline’s fares on a booking site. A customer who wants the latter would more likely go to the airline’s site directly. The only concern for Expedia is whether the flights by American were priced favorably relative to other airlines, and the loss of any negotiated fare deals it had.

What comes next? Well, that’s hard to say. Douglas Quinby, Sr. Director, Research, at PhoCusWright, told me earlier this week that “American may have jumped the gun a bit with Orbitz, but believe me – we ain’t see nothin’ yet!” There will be more changes in the near future it seems, but this appears to be tempered by the belief by some travel industry experts that the airlines and online travel agencies will find ways to mend their relationships. American and Orbitz, for example, are expected to find a way to work together again, and Bill Miller, Sr. Vice President of strategic partnerships at CheapOair, told Tnooz, “”We’ve had a 10-plus-year partnership with Delta and we fully expect to renew our contract with Delta in 2011. This is our only comment at this time.”

Airlines will need to find a way to work with the online travel agencies, and the online travel agencies will need to demonstrate their value to the airlines … a typical obligation for a market intermediary. My guess is that the dust will eventually settle, and the market will return to a happy medium.

But, it all comes down to the consumer.

If the airlines can make substantial gains, the booking sites will become less relevant. If the online travel agencies can solidify their brands and become more present and important to consumers, they’ll regain some of their recession-period negotiating power.

For now, the two sides are amping up the intensity, and we can sit back and watch the fireworks.

[photo by rjones0856 via Flickr]

Update: This story has been modified to reflect that the $800 million is from American Airlines flights only and does not include ancillary fees.