by Conor Shine | Dallas Morning News
Over the last 15 years, online travel agencies like Expedia and fare aggregators like Kayak have become increasingly popular destinations for travelers by promising the ability to compare airlines’ prices in pursuit of the best fare.
But what many customers don’t know is that depending on the site and the airline, they might not see the cheapest options.
It’s a state of affairs the online travel industry pins on airlines, which restrict where and how their schedule and fare information is displayed. The Travel Technology Association, an industry group representing nearly 100 travel websites and global distribution system providers, has gone so far as to call the practice “unfair and anticompetitive” in a consolidated airline industry where four carriers control over 80 percent of domestic traffic.
“It’s a lot of airlines imposing these restrictions in a lot of different places,” said Steve Shur, the group’s president. “It’s more important than ever that consumers can comparison shop, know what their options are and make informed choices.”
Of course, airlines see the issue differently and argue that they, like any other type of business, have the right to choose whom they partner with when selling their products. From their perspective, restricting which sites have access to flight data is a form of quality control and helps prevent it from being misrepresented or worse, used for fraudulent purposes.
“How airlines choose to sell their product really should be up to them and their customers,” said Sean Kennedy, senior vice president at the airline industry group Airlines for America. “If they want to negotiate with a third party to make that experience even better, let the airline decide that.”
The question of who has the right to distribute airline schedules and fares has drawn the attention of the U.S. Department of Transportation, which has been gathering input from stakeholders on both sides of the debate.
The debate is just one front in the tug of war between airlines and travel agencies over how flight information is shared and who pays for it. It’s an issue that will grow more pressing as airlines continue to add fees for bags, early boarding, choosing a seat and other add-ons that aren’t represented in search results on many travel websites.
A separate proceeding also underway at the DOT would impose stricter transparency rules on bag fees, requiring airlines and travel websites to provide those costs alongside fares during the search process.
Airlines would prefer to sell as many tickets as possible directly through their websites, where they can upsell to a better seat or more amenities while avoiding the transaction fees paid to online travel agencies and other third-party ticket retailers.
“Airlines fancy themselves to be Wal-Mart instead of transportation companies. They’d like to not just be transportation companies but also sell ancillary products around their fares,” said Rick Seaney, CEO of Dallas-based FareCompare, a travel website unaffiliated with the Travel Technology Association.
“Airlines believe it’s their content. People on the other side believe it’s public content.”
The ongoing Department of Transportation process deals specifically with fare aggregators, often referred to as metasearch sites, which present data from multiple airlines and then direct passengers to an online travel agency or airline website to book the ticket.
Online travel websites say the price and time of a flight is factual information that should be available publicly without restriction. Airlines counter that the work they invest in planning and marketing their flights, where prices and schedules can vary widely day to day, make that basic information something more proprietary.
A 2015 report from the Travel Tech Association said restrictions on comparison shopping could increase the average price of a leisure fare as much as $30.
That report used Delta Air Lines as an example, listing 12 sites — including Hipmunk, Skyscanner and TripAdvisor — restricted from displaying the airline’s prices.
Southwest has its own version of the practice, selling tickets strictly through its website. But the Dallas-based company has drawn less scrutiny from the Travel Tech Association because it allows fare aggregators to tell customers when a Southwest flight is available on a given route — even if it doesn’t include the schedule or price.
“It will be an ongoing dialogue between the airlines and our members about what information is available, what information is transactable and what information does the traveler need to go to the airline’s own website to get,” Shur said.
The outcome of this debate will depend in large part on whether the new DOT administration led by Secretary Elaine Chao will want to continue an effort started by its predecessors. Airlines for America has requested that the department extend its comment period, set to close March 31, to await further guidance from the Trump administration on creating new regulations.
Even if the Department of Transportation continues to investigate schedule and fare transparency, it would take a separate process with more feedback from the online travel and airline industries before any final rules are put in place.
“There’s no requirement that the Trump administration or Secretary Chao’s team do anything with this. We are awaiting guidance from DOT on what they’re going to do,” Airlines for America’s Kennedy said.