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Orbitz campaign to use high-tech switcheroo

You're searching for airfare on Travelocity. All of a sudden, the software that powers your cursor gives you something else to think about.

Online travel agency Orbitz hopes to coax travelers away from competing Web sites using a new marketing deal with a company that designs specialized computer cursors.

Orbitz is expected to announce next week that it has partnered with Comet Systems, a company whose technology changes computer cursors into animated or still images and performs online comparison-shopping.

Comet will display fare information from Orbitz whenever a Comet cursor user is searching for fares at Orbitz competitors Travelocity and Expedia.

For example, if a Comet cursor user is comparing airfare for a flight from New York to Los Angeles on Travelocity, Comet's software will launch a search on Orbitz for the same flight and display Orbitz's fares next to Travelocity's.

Carol Jouzaitis, an Orbitz spokeswoman, declined to comment on financial terms of the deal.

Travelocity, the largest online travel site, said it has yet to review Comet's system but compared the technology to other online tools that compare travel prices, such as SideStep.

"We don't really see how it differentiates from what's already out there," a Travelocity spokesman said.

Expedia spokeswoman Suzi LeVine said Orbitz's pact with Comet looked like a "small distribution deal." She said she wondered whether customers would enjoy having a window pop up that they didn't request.

Jouzaitis said that Comet customers can easily turn off the Orbitz window if they choose.

Orbitz, which is backed by big airlines including United Airlines, American Airlines and Continental Airlines, is on a campaign to capture a greater share of the burgeoning online travel market, which has proven to be one of the few profitable segments of e-commerce.

Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst at Forrester Research, said these kinds of "guerilla marketing" tactics are exactly what a relatively new Web travel agency must do to compete--especially when Travelocity and Expedia have already joined forces with the likes of AOL Time Warner and the Microsoft Network.

Orbitz "arrived at the party five years too late," he said. "Travelocity has been very aggressive in forming partnerships with the portals."

Travelocity powers the travel channels of Yahoo and AOL. Expedia has cut similar deals with MSN and Amazon.com.

Expedia's LeVine called these types of portal deals "good business."

Privately held Orbitz, which has ascended into the No. 3 position behind Travelocity and Expedia, has had trouble advertising online, Jouzaitis said.

"The major portals have exclusive deals with all our competitors," Jouzaitis said. "We are limited in how we can deliver our message, and this deal lets people in on the Orbitz experience."

Harteveldt said he thinks now is the time for Orbitz's new marketing strategy, since travelers are less loyal to brands and may easily be swayed to another company that presents them with attractive alternatives.

A Forrester study that looked at online shopping habits indicated that travelers log on at 3.5 sites when searching for fares. Forrester also found that most leisure travelers buy from multiple sites.