Orbitz Worldwide launched Orbitz for Agents, a program that provides access to Orbitz' global hotel inventory and discounted rates and pays commissions to travel agents for hotel and customized travel package bookings. The program signals a shift in the company's focus to "the distribution portion of our business," a spokesman said. "Orbitz.com is not the only place in town where you'll see our inventory." Essentially, Orbitz would become what its original opponents claimed it was: not just a distributor, but a distribution system.
When Orbitz was founded by a group of major U.S. airlines in 2001, largely as a means to reduce their distribution costs, other online agencies said the Transportation Department's CRS rules should be revised to apply to new distribution channels.
If it walked like a GDS and quacked like a GDS, it should be regulated like a GDS, they said. The DOT did not agree. But as it turned out, Orbitz did indeed have ambitions to distribute airline inventory to travel agents.
In 2003, in preparation for its first initial public offering, it filed an amended registration statement with the Securities & Exchange Commission that said, "We are well positioned to allow third-party travel agents and other parties to connect directly to airline systems using our Supplier Link technology, subject to favorable changes in GDS regulations and supplier approval. This would allow Orbitz to generate additional Supplier Link revenue and would allow suppliers to realize savings for transactions conducted away from Orbitz." The DOT allowed the GDS regulations to sunset in 2004.
Meanwhile, Supplier Link, the XML connection that Orbitz developed to link with major airlines, bypassing the GDS connection entirely, did not significantly upset the distribution apple cart, in large part because the travel management companies that serve corporate America remained dependent on GDSs.
Now other third-party technology companies notably Farelogix and Lute Technologies are working to resolve the GDS dependency issue. It's not clear how Orbitz would resolve that issue.
But if it wants to get into the distributor game, it will have to overcome serious trust issues with traditional travel agents. As an online agency, Orbitz is their competitor. (So is Travelocity, but agents seem comfortable booking through its sister company, Sabre Travel Network.) Agents who responded to the news of the Orbitz program did so with wariness at best. Some expressed concern that Orbitz would poach their clients.
Kathy Sudeikis, vice president of corporate relations at All About Travel in Mission, Kan., and a former ASTA president, said travel agents who survived the changes of the past 15 years "have very long memories about who they want to partner with in 2010." Agents' memberships in consortia and their preferred relationships with supportive tour operators are "paramount," she said. "Will Orbitz for Agents play with consortia? Let the games begin!"