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Airline dispute: Why you should care

By Marnie Hunter, CNN
American Airlines' move to distribute its own fare information might make finding deals more difficult, consumer advocates say.
American Airlines' move to distribute its own fare information might make finding deals more difficult, consumer advocates say.
  • American Airlines' distribution dispute may have unfortunate effects for air travelers
  • Consumer advocates say comparison shopping is likely to get more difficult
  • If other airlines follow suit, consumers may eventually end up paying more to fly
  • Air Travel

(CNN) -- Do I care, or should I? That's a typical traveler's response to the back-and-forth arguments in American Airlines' push to distribute its own fare information.

The airline's fare listings have already disappeared from online travel booking sites Expedia and Orbitz, and Wednesday a major global distribution system that feeds fares to internet and brick-and-mortar travel agencies announced plans to end its relationship with the carrier.

American touts its direct distribution system as a way to provide consumers with greater transparency when shopping for fares by reflecting add-on fees and total costs up front. The airline is certainly trying to cut out the middle men and save a big chunk of change.

But will how fares are distributed change things for travelers? Yes, say some consumer travel experts.

Fewer ways to comparison shop makes it harder for consumers to find the best deals, said Rick Seaney, CEO or airfare comparison site

"They know ticket prices change in the morning and the afternoon, next week and the week after. The more places they have to hit, the more time it takes them to do the game that they play which is trying to find a cheap ticket," Seaney said.

FareCompare lists American's fares using the airline's own Direct Connect distribution system, Seaney said, the tool American is pushing other sites and distribution channels to adopt. "They don't charge us and we don't get much out of it," Seaney said, but the site wants users to be able to do a comprehensive comparison.

While the change won't immediately affect airfares, there is a big risk to consumers, said HLN consumer advocate Clark Howard.

"If you only go directly to an airline's website to shop for a fare, what you miss is that many times the lowest fare may be flying one airline one way, another airline back home," he said.

If you do shop on an airline's website, Howard recommends also stopping at a multi-airline website such as to see if there's a cheaper travel combination.

Consumers will suffer as distribution models change, according to creator George Hobica, especially if other carriers follow in American's footsteps and develop their own systems.

"If American ends up selling its fares the same way Southwest does (and as Airtran will after the merger) -- i.e., only on its own website -- and then Delta, United/Continental and US Airways follow suit, then you'll be spending a lot more time online looking for the best deal. And you'll probably end up spending more on airfare," Hobica wrote on Airfarewatchblog.

American says it is committed to working with "all efficient distribution channels" from global distribution systems to online and traditional travel agents.

Consumers who might eventually end up paying more for airline tickets are likely to do so because they overlook a lower fare in the increasingly complex web of comparison shopping, Seaney said.

"It's not so much that prices will go up. It would be whether or not (travelers are) making the best decision for them on their particular trip choice," he said.

Distribution changes are low on the list of factors that could push fares up, he said. Oil prices and shifts in demand are much more likely to have an immediate impact.

Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, claims in a Thursday column that American Airlines appears to be in the business of confusing its customers.

The "not-ready-for-prime-time" system "will force the entire travel industry to spend more money and will provide consumers less transparency, less choice, less convenience and eventually higher prices," Leocha wrote.