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Expedia is now suppressing American Airlines' fares in its search results. American, which is currently in a dispute with Orbitz and has pulled its fares from that site, does not immediately show up when customers search for fares on Expedia. Users need to navigate through the display results to find American, and may even need to select individual American flights before seeing the airline's price.
I did a test search to see for myself, and it's true. Search for a flight, and American is not listed on the results landing page. Clicking through to a second page on the fare display matrix reveals American, but in my case, not American's price. I had to select a departure and return flight, and only then saw what American was charging. The real kicker? American's price was among the lowest.
This comes on the heels of American's decision to pull its fares from Orbitz. The airline wants Orbitz to use its new fare distribution system instead of a third-party distributor. The move would save American money, but would likely transfer those costs to Orbitz. Critics of American's move also claim the airline's model, known as single-supplier direct, would make it harder for consumers to compare fares. They say "fragmentation," with online travel agents querying dozens of airline distribution systems instead of a few comprehensive third-party systems, would make it easier for airlines to manipulate search results.
So while Expedia is, for the moment, in solidarity with a competitor, there are clearly larger implications involved. Expedia doesn't want to see direct distribution become the name of the game, so it's flexing its muscles now (it is the largest online travel agent, remember) in hopes of scaring American, and other carriers, away from the idea.
But while Expedia's blackout of American is ostensibly an effort to protect consumers, I think it actually puts consumers unfairly in the middle of what is largely a business-versus-business war. In my search, American's price was good—the second-cheapest nonstop flight—so by suppressing it, isn't Expedia doing me a disservice? The bigger blow is struck against American, of course, because I would likely just choose a matching or cheaper nonstop flight. But the inevitable consequence of blocking sales to an airline is preempting consumer choice, and though I'm mostly sympathetic to the OTAs, I'm not sure I like the idea of using consumers as pawns in the game.
Readers, what do you think about Expedia's move? Is it good or bad for consumers?
(Editor's Note: SmarterTravel is a member of the TripAdvisor Media Network, an operating company of Expedia, Inc. Expedia, Inc. also owns Expedia.com.)