Senate committee to take up airline ticketing venture next week

The Senate Commerce Committee has set a new date of July 20 for a planned hearing on potential antitrust-related issues involving the Orbitz online ticketing venture that's being funded by the nation's five largest airlines.

The hearing originally was scheduled to take place last month, but it got delayed after the announcement of a proposed merger between United Air Lines Inc. and U.S. Airways Group Inc. -- a deal that took higher priority on the Senate committee's schedule (see story). Orbitz is also being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Senate hearing will revolve around questions such as whether United, American Airlines Inc., Continental Airlines Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc. and Northwest Airlines Inc. should be able to band together to sell tickets in competition with existing online and brick-and-mortar travel agencies.

Jeffrey Katz, who was hired last week as president, CEO and chairman of Chicago-based Orbitz (see story), is expected to testify at the hearing, although a final witness list hasn't been released yet. Katz hasn't discussed the antitrust accusations in a public forum. But Alex Zoghlin, chief technology officer at Orbitz, last month said the company will act like any other online travel agency that does business with multiple airlines.

Since the Commerce Committee and DOJ announced their separate probes of Orbitz, a second online venture funded by many of the same airlines has announced its plans to challenge in the discount-ticket business. But that company, called, differs from Orbitz in that its airline investors only own nonvoting shares and aren't represented on its board of directors.

Paul Ruden, senior vice president for legal affairs at the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA), which asked the government to investigate Orbitz, plans to testify at next week's Senate hearing. Ruden said the plans only add to the competition concerns that ASTA members have about the new ticketing ventures.

"We now have the major airlines moving jointly into every dimension of the marketplace," Ruden said. "It has the potential to create a cartel run by a concentrated few carriers."

Henry Harteveldt, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., said he expects government officials to compare the organizational structures of Orbitz and as part of their investigations.

"At the very least, Orbitz should be forced to reveal [details about the airlines'] ownership," Harteveldt said. "Who owns what and how much? It never looks good when you hide anything."

He added that ticket discounts will be a central issue in the Orbitz debate. If Orbitz can undersell its competitors or seeks to eliminate the discounts offered through competing channels, it could raise red flags, Harteveldt said.

Fiona Swerdlow, an analyst at Jupiter Communications Inc. in New York, said the real issue is that airlines have used technology to become more aggressive about controlling the distribution channel for their tickets. "Any and every avenue the airlines will explore," she said. "Honestly, it's just too early to tell what the effects of that will be."

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