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Feds examining airline ticket distribution

DALLAS – The government is investigating whether companies that distribute airline flight and fare information are stifling competition and violating federal antitrust laws.

The Justice Department confirmed the investigation Friday after several airlines and two leading ticket information-distribution companies said they received letters from antitrust officials.

This is the latest twist in an escalating fight between airlines and so-called global distribution systems over how air travel is sold, especially to lucrative corporate accounts. Many consumers buy tickets online directly from the airlines, but corporations often use travel agencies that get information about flights and fares from the three big distribution companies.

American Airlines has led the challenge to the current setup. It wants to deal directly with travel agents to reduce fees it pays to the distribution systems and to use its own information about customers to sell them extra services. American claims distribution companies have struck back by making information about its flights harder to find.

American said Friday that it received a civil demand for information from the Justice Department. The airline declined to release the document, but spokesman Andrew Backover said, “American is not the subject of the investigation.”

Delta Air Lines and US Airways acknowledged getting similar requests from antitrust regulators, as did two large distribution systems, or GDS companies, Travelport Ltd. and Sabre Holdings.

Travelport spokeswoman Jill Brenner said the company “welcomes the GDS industry investigation” and “is confident that it is in complete compliance with the antitrust laws.”

Sabre spokeswoman Nancy St. Pierre said the Justice Department made no allegations when it contacted the company and that it too obeys antitrust laws.

The airlines say their complaint is with the distribution systems, not travel agents. American pulled its flight listings from Orbitz Worldwide Inc., an online travel agent partly owned by Travelport, in December as the dispute began to heat up.

American settled a similar dispute with Expedia Inc. and its flights can again be found on that online travel agent.


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