AIRLINES: Boxing you in?

American Airlines Boeing 757 "on final" in San Diego

Two airlines are moving to restrict your options when it comes to finding their fare listings on the Web. This has intriguing implications for the whole industry — and bad ones for the flying public.

First, it was Southwest Airlines, refusing to publish its fares on any Web site other than their own and launching an ad campaign to make sure all of America knows it.

Now, it’s American Airlines threatening to pull its fare listings off Orbitz. Why? Because Orbitz gets its info on ticket listings from neutral middlemen called GDS, short for global distribution systems. American wants Orbitz to go only through them.

Some say the threat is purely a poker-game bluff by American in its negotiations with Orbitz. The airline insists that it’s serious.

Why does this matter to you? It doesn’t, so long as these remain isolated episodes.

And that’s the problem. There’s a good chance that they won’t remain isolated for long.

ROUNDING UP THE CATTLE
The Web created a kind of beneficial anarchy in air travel, letting the flying consumer go anywhere in cyberspace, check fares on multiple airlines simultaneously to find the best prices and make reservations.

Am I the only one who suspects that the airlines would love to put an end to all that?

Think of the airlines as cowboy and us passengers as…well…cattle. Having already established us under their “brand,” they really don’t want us wandering off to some other airline’s Web pasture.

They want to keep us corralled in their little corner of cyberspace, and the best way to do that is to keep us on their proprietary sites.

By any means necessary.

A lot of folks don’t like it when government tries to regulate business. How do you feel when business tries to regulate you?

RETURN OF THE TRAVEL AGENT?
Sounds to me like there are some airlines that want to put the GDS boys out of the game entirely, and the airline industry is just ruthless enough to do that.

Don’t think so? Ask the travel agents, whose incomes they gutted when they decided to cut back or eliminate their commissions.

So far, it’s just Southwest and American, but this is a copycat industry. I could see this easily becoming a trend.

If that happens, expect something close to the pre-Internet days, when finding the cheapest, most convenient airfare on your own was a tedious, haphazard process, and far from comprehensive.

There is one other group that could actually benefit from this move: travel agents. Yes, the same travel agents whose commissions the airlines have been cutting for most of the last decade. If people can’t easily search multiple airfare listings on their own, who else can they turn to?

That, it seems to me, would give the agents a much stronger hand in dealing with the airlines.

Maybe this explains the popularity of the hit TV series Mad Men. The corporate world is tough to beat when it comes to drama.

Stay tuned.

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