A new site from the airlines promises lower airfares on-line

By the time you read this, a major (and long-awaited) on-line travel agency will have opened its e-doors to the public. Orbitz.com is owned by the five largest U.S. airlines (United, American, Delta, Continental, Northwest), and industry buzz is that its new fare-searching technology from ITA Software is the best in the business.

Competing on-line and off-line travel agencies, as well as a number of state attorneys general, worry that Orbitz's owners will use the site to monopolize ticket sales, coordinate pricing, and sell fares that they won't make available elsewhere. Indeed, Orbitz claims it will have more Web-only special airfares than any other site. The site will sell tickets on 455 domestic and international airlines, and will also offer hotel rooms, rental cars, cruises, and tours.

Late last year, well before Orbitz was fully operational, the fare-auditing firm Topaz International conducted a test of the Orbitz fare-searching software and reported that the site's two main rivals, Travelocity and Expedia, usually found lower fares. The Topaz study concluded that "no one site can claim to always provide the lowest available fare in the marketplace, given the millions of fares available at any given time." Orbitz spokeswoman Carol Jouzaitis calls the Topaz results "bogus." She says, "They tested the ITA software without our inventory," which includes the Web-only fares of 34 airlines.

Our own more recent advance spot-check of Orbitz's fare-searching capabilities had more promising results (see below). The site returned fares that were either lower than or competitive with Expedia's and Travelocity's.

Prices aside, Orbitz has some smart innovations. Search results are listed in an easy-to-read table, with nonstop flights on the top row and fares in ascending order from left to right. One-stop or single-connection flights are listed on the second row, routings with two or more stops on the third. Logos above the fares indicate which airline offers each. And, unlike those of its competitors, all of Orbitz's results fit on one screen. The site also offers last-minute travel alerts, by e-mail or wireless text message, in case the airline changes your flight schedule. Not bad for a newcomer.

T+L's test searches, conducted in May, 2001, for midweek, round-trip travel in late July, including a Saturday-night stay:

Orbitz: $303
Expedia: $336
Travelocity: $292.50

Orbitz: $349
Expedia: $470
Travelocity: $439

Orbitz: $989
Expedia: $988
Travelocity: $1,942.90

Orbitz: $527
Expedia: $736
Travelocity: $731

Travelocity.com has rolled out a preferred-traveler program, which for a nominal fee gives you hotel upgrades and access to airport lounges and personal concierges. . . . AOL's travel forum, the Independent Traveler (www.independenttraveler.com), is now on the Web. Check out the Bargain Box for special deals. . . . Expedia.com has introduced domestic and international Bargain Fares, specially negotiated rates that pop up when you search for flights.

By Hillary Geronemus and Jim Glab