The fight over airline booking channels has ratcheted up a notch this week: Frontier Airlines has announced they will limit benefits to customers booking through 3rd party websites and also charge those customers higher fees. This move continues the long-standing battle between airlines and online travel agencies (OTAs) over controlling how flight options and amenities are displayed as well as the cost to airlines for selling through those channels. Not surprisingly, both sides are claiming that passengers will be better served working directly with them.
For Frontier customers, the cost of booking through a 3rd party site will be significant. The fare should be the same—airlines are generally precluded from offering different fares than they sell through the Global Distribution System (GDS) platforms—but a number of other factors come in to play. Customers that book elsewhere will earn only 50% credit towards the EarlyReturns frequent flyer program. They will also face a $50 premium on fees for flight changes, standby travel, and bringing pets on board, among other things. Customers who do not book directly on Frontier's site will also not be able to assign seats on the flights until they check-in.
To Frontier, the move—particularly advance seat assignments—is a significant motivator to switch customer shopping behavior. Daniel Shurz, Frontier's senior vice president, commercial, sums it up quite well: "Particularly for families, it provides an incentive to book directly. There is no logical reason for our customers to want to book anywhere else."
There may not be any reason to book elsewhere if you've already decided to fly on Frontier, but there certainly are reasons to shop elsewhere while comparing prices, times, and other benefits associated with flights. Naturally the online travel agents are reminding customers of the benefits they offer, including comparing multiple airlines and the ability to mix carriers on itineraries. Still, OTAs struggle when it comes to differentiating between in-flight amenities like WiFi or legroom. There are other sites that focus on those aspects of travel (upstart RouteHappy is quickly making a name for themselves in the space) but they don't sell tickets. As a customer it is getting harder to shop, not easier, requiring visits to multiple websites rather than consolidating information.
This isn't the first time airlines have battled with OTAs using customers as their pawns. Most notable recently is the battle between American Airlines and Orbitz, a fight which saw the airline pull their flights out of the OTA for some time. The two are working together again but the legal battle between them continues. This move by Frontier is the latest salvo and, from the looks of things, certainly won't be the last.
Photo credit: Frontier Airlines via Shutterstock