Can travel booking sites endure the airline onslaught?

American Airlines wanted out of Orbitz … and then it was bounced by Expedia (preemptively, it seems). Delta wanted out of CheapOair … and OneTravel … and BookIt. Nobody knows what’s next, but it appears that something is on the horizon, given the magnitude of change in the airline/online travel agency landscape over the past few weeks. I wrote a month ago that a “brand war” was brewing, a sentiment that has since been echoed by other media and research organizations.

So, as the battle intensifies, it’s natural to ask one simple question: should online travel agencies actually exist?

Specifically, a comment by Delta’s Glen Hauenstein on Tnooz caught my attention:

“We look at it very much like an Apple store versus Best Buy. You can buy components or Apple products at both. Your experience in an Apple store is obviously quite different than it is at a Best Buy store. That model is what we think about when we think about”

This remark, delivered by Hauenstein at a Delta investor event, is seductive for its simplicity. Ithas everything the airline needs to look cool and in control. It aligns itself with the most innovative retailer on the planet, contrasts itself with a passé business model and makes the strategy look viable. In pulling out of CheapOair, OneTravel and BookIt, Delta creates the appearance of exclusivity and style (at least acceding to Hauenstein).

This would not bode well for the online travel agency sector, as the Delta play would indicate that owning the customer itself is far superior to sharing the customer with an intermediary. And doubtless, this is true: having the customer create a relationship with your brand is always best. The problem, unfortunately, is that this approach isn’t viable. There will always be bargain-hunters, comparison shoppers and lovers of alternatives who are natural online travel agency customers.Now, let’s return to Hauenstein’s retailer analogy. It actually fits, though not as he intended, particularly because Delta is not a premium alternative in the manner of Apple relative to Best Buy. Its product is a commodity, just like the products offered by the vast majority of airlines. Rather, we’re looking at a single-brand retailer (e.g., The Gap) relative to a major discounter (e.g., Wal-Mart).

Let’s dig into this a little bit. There’s something about the online travel agency model we can learn from the retail sector.

With the National Retail Federation’s “Big Show” in New York right around the corner, Deloitte’s Global Powers of Retailing report is bound to hit the world soon, and it will show, I suspect, that Wal-Mart is once again the largest retailer in the world. Doubtless, Target, Tesco and Carrefour will be in the top 10 as well. You won’t find Apple, The Gap or J.Crew, though. And, this is a situation that hasn’t changed much in more than a decade.

The vast majority of customers in the retail space want choice. That’s why they go to Macy’s and malls and big-box retailers. Of course, the travel consumer’s behavior is quite different. Most still prefer to book on the airlines’ websites – 62 percent, according to travel industry research firm PhoCusWright. Nonetheless, that leaves a considerable chunk of the market available to online travel agencies, and it indicate that roughly a third of the travel-buying community wants easier access to choice than the airline websites afford.

Also, the market share number can be deceiving, as Motley Fool explains:

Last year industry researchers at PhoCusWright said the global distribution system used by Orbitz, Expedia, and Priceline accounted for two-thirds of all airline passenger revenue, or $81 billion, in 2008. Losing a good portion of that money to the airlines will crimp the OTAs business, which they see as a threat to their future, but in the escalating rhetoric and use of force by both sides, it may be that all parties end up pouring more resources into a conflict that neither one really wants to fight.

The airlines do have a considerable negotiating position. The industry just recorded record profits, and with all the additional fees introduced, there are new revenue streams which seem to carry disproportionate large profit margins. A recovering market reduces price sensitivity among travel buyers, which leads to less bargain-hunting, also an advantage for the airlines.

Yet, what the airlines need to understand is that these factors are not absolute. Bargain-hunting behavior will continue. Consumer demand for choice – and the ability to evaluate options – will not recede in favor of unconstrained brand loyalty. The airlines may be in control, but the grip is not one of iron.

It’s pretty clear that the situation will get uglier over the next few weeks. I’m reminded of an email I received from Douglas Quinby, Sr. Director, Research at PhoCusWright, “American may have jumped the gun a bit with Orbitz, but believe me – we ain’t see nothin’ yet!” But, I don’t think a heightened level of intensity will necessarily lead to the decimation of an industry. The online travel agencies are here to stay: they aren’t going anywhere. The dynamic between these sites and the airlines, though, appears to be changing, and we’re just witness to growing pains.