Is American Airlines making a “reckless rodeo bet”?

American Airlines’ decision to pull out of Orbitz has triggered a war in the travel industry, as airlines and online travel agencies vie for ownership of the customer. The latest step was Expedia’s decision to minimize the exposure of American Airline options in searches on its site, likely a play to reduce the risk of a move by American to pull out of Expedia, too.

According to a statement by the Business Travel Coalition, this could erode American Airlines‘ standing in the market further. In addition to losing visibility on a major booking site, the airline will lose the additional sales that come when a visitor to an online travel agency leaves the site to book directly with the airline.

Says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, said, “American is making a reckless rodeo bet that it can rope its best customers like calves and then push and pull and kick them toward and Direct Connect.” He continued, “Online consumers may not even know American’s flights are missing. The ones who will gain the most here are American’s competitors United, Southwest and others. They should be thankful for this early Christmas present.”
Striking a somewhat alarmist tone, Mitchell noted that American Airlines Direct Connect “takes the consumer problem of hidden airline fees to a much darker and dangerous place for consumers.”

While this may be a bit extreme, there are clear implications of the shakeup, especially for bargain-shoppers and occasional leisure travelers.

The fact that Expedia appears to have come to the defense of its competitor, as Mitchell stated – “Expedia’s decision to support the consumer and its competitor Orbitz underscores the enormity of the economic damage American Airlines’ Direct Connect plans could have on consumers due to lessoned [sic] price transparency and impeded comparison shopping” – should be taken within the context of what could happen to Expedia’s business if it didn’t implement this defensive measure.

The real impact of this is pretty simple: customers loyal to the American Airlines brand will continue to buy from American Airlines. Those who are searching for the cheapest fares will balance their behavior between visiting online travel agencies and airline websites.

American Airlines may not have made a “reckless rodeo” bet, but is making a statement about the future of its business. The airline is betting on its own brand, and the online travel agency community is responding.

[photo by ReneS via Flickr]