American Airlines and Kayak.com are at a standoff, and the European ultra-no-frills airline Ryanair is saying it will not honor tickets sold by other Web sites.
Both airlines are trying to force customers onto their own sites to buy tickets, a trend that is looking like it could be bad news for — you guessed it — us. The passengers.
It’s a disturbing trend, and a fairly complicated one. When the dispute between American and Kayak first hit the news, it wasn’t clear what it might mean. It’s still not entirely clear, but it’s getting clearer.
When a visitor searches for a fare on Kayak, the results for each flight may include links to several Web sites where the fare can be bought. One link will go to the airline’s own site, but other links may go to online travel agencies, such as Orbitz or CheapTickets.
American didn’t care for that. It insisted that Kayak and its sister site, SideStep, display only results from American’s site, aa.com. Kayak said forget it, and removed all American fares from both sites.
That can’t be good for Kayak, which has been able to offer very comprehensive searches of all the major domestic airlines – aside from Southwest. It can’t be good for passengers, because robust metasearch sites are our best tool for finding the lowest possible fares.
In the short term, it can’t be good for American, either. It stands to lose sales to other airlines. But in the long term, if this move pays off, American stands to gain a bigger chunk of the consumer’s change.
If American can get other airlines to opt out of metasearch sites like Kayak, the trend could force consumers into lengthy searches through multiple Web sites to find the best deals. With more customers on their sites and more transactions taking place there, airlines would get more chances to push add-ons, partner deals and upsells at the customers.
And if, ultimately, passengers abandon metasearch sites and online travel agencies, if they have a harder time finding the lowest fares – well, that won’t hurt the airlines.
The Ryanair thing is different. Ryanair, like Southwest, doesn’t partner with online travel agencies like Expedia or Orbitz. But a small fraction of its tickets are sold without its permission through Web sites that scrape fares from the Ryanair Web site and add a fee. It’s technological trickery — the sites use the Ryanair booking engine, but the buyer never sees the Ryanair site.
It’s not surprising that Ryanair doesn’t like these deals. What’s surprising is that it has announced that it will turn away passengers who bought their tickets through these third parties — without warning but with a refund.
It’s a bold move. Too bad it punishes customers who paid for their tickets in good faith.