Most cite the rise of such online agencies as Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz as the reason behind the demise of the bricks-and-mortar travel agency. And certainly the ability of customers to see pricing options, flight itineraries and other info online--and without the help of a travel agent--did a job on agencies' revenue streams.
|(Photo by Disparky)|
History seems to be replaying itself online.
In just the last several months Delta Airlines has announced that the online agencies CheapOAir.com, OneTravel.com and BookIt.com will no longer be able to sell their fares. American Airlines is taking this hard stand with mighty Orbitz, and just last week won a court settlement giving it the right to restrict its sales in this fashion. In protest, Expedia has announced that it will no longer "feature" American's fares, which basically means that it will still sell them, but that they won't appear at the top of searches.
So will this lead to the demise of the online travel agencies? Expedia certainly seems to be worried that it will. Why else would it be standing with its big rival Orbitz rather than capitalizing on Orbitz' loss? At this point, its hard to know whether or not the other airlines will try this strategy (a bald attempt, once again, to pay as little as possible in commissions).
Looking at the history, its also unclear whether this strategy will actually help the airlines' bottom lines. When the carriers cut off travel agents their amount of business eventually diminished and fares sank lower and lower over the ensuing decade. Now that couldn't have been the result they were expecting. There's an argument to be made that agents who have a personal relationship with clients (or at least the trust of clients) might be able to sell a higher airfare more easily than airline websites could.
What's clear today is that consumers need to work with the entities that don't have a proverbial "dog in the fight". I'm speaking of the online travel search engines such as Momondo.com, DoHop.com and to a lesser extent Kayak.com. These three "google" travel information rather than actually sell travel. I'd say the first two may have the upper hand as they list ALL the airfares out there, even those that don't kick back a finders fee (so that means you'll likely find Ryanair, JetBlue, and Virgin Atlantic fares on the first two, but probably won't on Kayak).
(Note from Pauline: In an earlier version of this article, I said that Southwest could be found on Do Hop and Momondo.com. Though I've found that airline's fares listed there in the past, I'm not currently seeing them, leading me to assume there's been some sort of change in the search paradigm to exclude Southwest, likely at the carriers request. My apologies for not catching this change before I posted.)