By Joshua Freed -- AP Airlines Writer
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Airline booking fees charged by Travelocity, Orbitz and Expedia are on vacation through May. That's giving travelers who had avoided those sites a reason to reconsider.
The fees generally run around $7 per transaction — just enough to send many travelers to airline Web sites. But in April, first Expedia (the biggest online travel agent) and then Travelocity and Orbitz suspended airline booking fees on tickets bought through May 31. Priceline.com had already dropped airline booking fees almost two years earlier.
That eliminates the big advantage held by airline Web sites, said Forrester Research travel analyst Henry H. Harteveldt.
"The airline booking processes are not necessarily any better than what you will get on a travel agency's site," he said. "So I think that frankly the airlines have now been caught with their e-business pants down, because they have failed to really innovate in their planning and booking processes."
Airlines have aimed to get customers to book directly on their Web sites with frequent-flier bonus miles for booking directly, and guarantees that fares elsewhere will be no lower than those offered directly by the airline. Southwest Airlines Co. didn't offer tickets on the travel sites at all.
The travel Web sites aren't saying what they'll do about the fees after May 31. They've taken pains to call the waiver temporary.
Expedia "is constantly evaluating the approach that will deliver the greatest value to its customers and to its business, and for now, booking fees will be waived on all flights booked on Expedia.com between now and May 31, 2009," spokeswoman Arie Dekker said.
Travelocity believes the absence of airline fees has helped it grab more market share, said Tracey Weber, president of Travelocity North America. The privately held company didn't provide any hard numbers on what has happened since it began waiving booking fees.
"We are absolutely not sure how booking fees will play into future promotions, but we're looking at all different options," Weber said.
Orbitz Worldwide Inc. declined to talk about the fee waiver, citing the quiet period ahead of reporting its results. But on Wednesday Orbitz upped the ante, saying it will cut booking fees on all of its hotels for rooms reserved by July 15.
Airfare expert Terry Trippler said that there are still advantages to booking flights directly with an airline, including the chance for bonus frequent-flier miles for using its Web site. If something goes wrong on the trip, it can be easier to deal directly with the airline, as well, he said. For complicated trips (such as those with multiple legs or multiple hotel stays) he advises using a flesh-and-blood travel agent.
Priceline eliminated booking fees in 2007, but it was alone for almost two years. It's easy to see why. Booking fees account for 10 percent of profits at Expedia Inc. and an estimated 60 percent of operating profits at Orbitz, according to Citi Investment Research analyst Mark S. Mahaney.
He assumes that Expedia's elimination of the booking fees will be permanent.
Harteveldt, the Forrester analyst, said that's likely, depending on whether the lack of fees is successful in luring travelers back to the online travel agencies.
"I think it'll be very hard for them to reinstate these booking fees, having taken them away," he said. "Because the consumer is not stupid. She'll say, 'Well, gee, two months ago I didn't pay a fee. Now you want to charge me X dollars more?'"
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