Consumer watchdogs, airline executives and representatives of online travel agencies are scheduled to testify next Wednesday in Chicago before a commission charged with learning whether the airlines unfairly bar traditional travel agents from accessing their lowest ticket prices. At the heart of the review by the National Commission to Ensure Consumer Information and Choice in the Airline Industry is why most airlines offer Net fares, often their most deeply discounted tickets, only over the Internet and not through brick-and-mortar travel agencies.
Airlines are in a period of heavy cost cutting and have begun efforts to reduce distribution charges. The Internet allows the airlines to sell directly to consumers, rather than having to pay middlemen to sell to the public. For decades, the airlines relied on brick-and-mortar travel agencies and the Global Distribution Services that supplied the agencies with fare and booking information. Offline travel agencies have steadily lost business to Internet agencies such as Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz.