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Delta flying away with Hotwire

The long-time Priceline stalwart has started selling tickets on rival Hotwire, an airline-backed discount travel site.

    Delta Air Lines is playing the online discount travel field.

    The longtime Priceline stalwart--Delta was the first airline to offer fares on the site--has started selling tickets on rival Hotwire, an airline-backed discount travel site.

    The Delta fares were added this week, a Hotwire spokeswoman said Wednesday.

    The travel site had long been wooing Delta, the lone company among the major U.S. airlines that didn't sell tickets on Hotwire, which was founded by American Airlines, America West, Continental Airlines, Northwest Airlines, United Air Lines and U.S. Airways.

    Delta decided to come on board because of Hotwire's continued growth since it launched about two years ago, according to Hotwire spokeswoman Amy Bohutinsky.

    "We've definitely grown a lot in the last year, and (Delta) recognized that," she said.

    Delta will continue its relationship with Priceline, according to Delta spokeswoman Peggy Estes. She said Hotwire's growth was behind the airline's decision to start selling tickets through the site.

    "They have become a major consumer Internet brand, and the new partnership allows us to offer our customers yet another opportunity for their travel needs," Estes said.

    Delta expects 20 percent of all sales this year to come from online sites, including the airline's own Web site, So far, 13 percent of the company's sales this year have been from

    On Hotwire, customers are offered specific fares but do not know which airline they are flying on until they purchase the ticket. Priceline has a similarly "opaque" pricing system; however, Hotwire reveals prices to potential customers without requiring them to purchase the fare first. Priceline requires customers to bid for fares first.

    That pricing system has become a key element in the fierce competition among online travel sites as customers increasingly demand the lowest fares. The online travel sector is seen as a bright spot in the generally stagnant online commerce sector, despite the downturn in travel after Sept. 11.

    Intense rivalry exists between such leading sites as Priceline, Travelocity, Expedia and the airline-backed Orbitz. A recent survey found that people booking travel online are increasingly going to these discount aggregator sites as opposed to the airlines' individual Web sites.

    Online travel analyst Henry Harteveldt said Delta's decision to join Hotwire reflects both on Hotwire's growth and the weak economy, which has seen many people defer travel or seek out discounted fares.

    "It's a smart move for Delta," he said. "Delta needs to find ways to reach price-sensitive customers, and if Priceline or Hotwire can help generate demand, that's great."