The battle between American Airlines and online travel agents such as Orbitz and Expedia has taken yet another twist, with Expedia dropping the airline from its site.
The move comes a little more than a week after Expedia made it extremely difficult to find American's tickets -- obscuring them in searches in favor of other airlines, regardless of the cheapest ticket price.
Expedia said it's move was prompted by American's earlier decision to pull all its flights off rival online booking site Orbitz. American is trying to reshape the way airline tickets are sold, directing more fliers to its own website, hoping to eliminate paying fees to Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity.
"American Airlines is attempting to introduce a new direct connect model that will result in higher costs and reduced transparency for consumers, making it difficult to compare American Airlines' ticket prices and options with offerings by other airlines," Expedia said in a statement. "American Airlines' direct connect model is of questionable, if any, benefit to travelers, would be costly to build and maintain and would compromise travel agents' ability to provide travelers with the best selection."
Any American Airlines tickets previously sold on these sites are still valid, but this fight could signal the start of a new era for how travelers book their flights and, possibly, how much they pay.
So far, no other major airline has followed American's lead in fighting with the big three booking sites. However, last month, Delta did pull its tickets off three smaller travel sites: CheapOair, BookIt.com and One Travel.
At issue are fees that each of the online travel agents get for each airline ticket sold. American is trying to steer more ticket sales to its own website and keep a larger share of the ticket prices for itself.
For its part, American says that ticket sales have not been hurt after the break with the travel companies.
Airfare experts say the ongoing battle will mean more work for passengers looking for the cheapest flights.
"The move does make things a bit more difficult for consumers in terms of comparison shopping, since they will have to remember to search American separately if using Orbitz," said Anne Banas, executive editor of the travel website SmarterTravel. "However, my advice would be to use a meta-search engine like Bing Travel or Kayak that searches multiple sites -- including Orbitz and American -- at the same time."
At the same time, Google is trying to buy the airfare search software company ITA for $700 million, an acquisition that is being reviewed by the Justice Department for possible anti-trust violations.
While ITA is not a household name, it has some of the most powerful airfare search technologies, often sold to third parties. Google dominates the overall search market and has transformed areas – think of Google shopping – that it has entered. Competitors say they fear that if Google buys ITA, it would control airfare searches and give preferential treatment to the highest-bidding advertiser.
"Google buying ITA would be a very bad deal for consumers," said George Hobica, president of airfarewatchdog.com, which refers ticket buyers to several sites including Orbitz and Expedia.
So why would American and Delta make their tickets harder to find? Money.