A reader recently asked, "Do OTAs have reserved blocks of seats per flight that aren’t included as available seating on a given airline’s offerings?"
The short answer is, "No." Inventory is inventory.
All seats are sold through global distribution systems (GDSs), such as Amadeus, which runs Expedia, Air France, and Lufthansa; Sabre, which powers Travelocity, Alaska, and JetBlue, among others; and ITA Software, which powers Orbitz, Bing Travel, and Kayak, and was just purchased by Google. These systems all interact and push their clients' inventory into the marketplace, where they can be searched and booked.
Travelocity spokesperson Joel Frey summed it up thusly: "Travelocity gets content from Sabre and negotiates with key airline partners to have access to all of their publicly available fares as well as discounted fares for vacation packages and promotions."
So, inventory is inventory, and it's all shared across this massive electronic network. If an airline is offering a seat, it's out there, and you'll see it.
What you'll pay, however, depends on a number of factors. Airlines use complex yield management systems to determine fares and maintain a balance between the number of seats sold and the average price of those seats. Airlines have two priorities: Fill planes and maximize ticket revenue, and they'll manipulate fares as much as necessary to achieve those goals. Sluggish sales may prompt a brief price drop, whereas the last few seats on a plane may sell for considerably more.
These fare changes are communicated through the GDS, and will be reflected on third-party sites like Travelocity. Theoretically, online travel agencies could cut into their commission and offer a low fare, and airlines could lower fares on their sites, but for the most part you should expect to see similar fares and availability from both the airline itself and on third-party sites. As McKee noted, airlines also make discounted fares available for package deals, but that's of little use to people just looking for an airline ticket.
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(Editor's Note: SmarterTravel is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com.)