Searching for the lowest airfare (never easy) is going to get a lot harder and fragmented if other airlines a follow the latest fee-grab by Lufthansa and its three affiliated airlines (SWISS, Brussels, and Austrian).
In September, the four carriers plan to charge $18 if you book their airfares on third-party websites such as online travel agencies Expedia and Priceline.
Why is this happening? By forcing you to visit the airlines' websites, the carriers are able to sell products like extra leg-room seats, credit cards, lounge access and other add-ons that are not available for sale on third-party sites.
Mostly, though, Lufthansa is adding the fee to compensate for commissions and fees that third-party sites and global distribution systems such as Sabre charge when consumers book on these non-airline sites, and if other airlines follow suit — which, in the monkey-see, monkey-do airline industry seems likely — then consumers will be forced to book direct if they want the lowest fares.
Airlines have long enticed customers to book direct with promo code discounts, extra frequent flyer miles, fewer fees, and other incentives, or by simply not listing their offerings on third-party sites (the Southwest model, which Delta is increasingly adopting). But the "carrot" approach hasn't worked sufficiently, so now they're trying a stick.
Already, most airfares are booked directly with airlines or through corporate travel departments. These new surcharges could tip the balance even more. Consumers use Travelocity and Expedia the same way they once used Borders Books: browse, and then buy elsewhere. And we all know what happened to Borders.
What it means for consumers is more time spent searching, and, probably, paying more than they should for airfares. What it means for the increasingly consolidated online travel industry is anyone's guess, but it's going to be messy.
It's ironic: airlines pushed consumers into the arms of online travel agencies when they stopped paying commissions (usually ten percent on domestic fares) to bricks-and-mortar agencies, putting many of them out of business. Now, perhaps, in order to save time and find the lowest fares, perhaps those same consumers will once again turn to the remaining mom and pop, or larger, travel agencies on Main Street.
-- George Hobica