Sabre Holdings Corp., Expedia Inc. and four online travel companies were warned by U.S. regulators against showing bias in displays of fare and flight information amid Sabre's data dispute with American Airlines.
Such actions would violate laws against unfair and deceptive trade practices, the Transportation Department wrote Feb. 1 to Sabre; data distributors Travelport and Amadeus IT Holding; and online travel agents Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity.com.
The letter opened a new front in the dispute over American's use of its own technology to send information to travel agents instead of relying on distributors such as Southlake-based Sabre, which briefly changed its displays in January to list American flights after other airlines'.
Biased fare data could steer consumers to "relatively inferior flights," wrote Samuel Podberesky, the Transportation Department's assistant general counsel for aviation enforcement. The agency will keep monitoring the displays and "will, if warranted, take enforcement action," he wrote.
Podberesky's letter didn't cite Sabre or American by name. The department learned of possible bias against "at least one airline" flowing from "various business disputes in recent months," he wrote.
Fort Worth-based American declined to comment Monday. Its parent, AMR Corp., spent more than $300 million in 2010 on fees to global distribution systems such as Sabre, Travelport and Amadeus to market flights. The data companies share those payments with online travel agencies.
"We welcome the U.S. Department of Transportation's guidance on the important topic of air travel pricing transparency," Sabre spokeswoman Nancy St. Pierre said in an e-mail. "We are in full compliance with all boundaries set forth by DOT in its recent letter."
Orbitz, under its contracts with airlines, has never shown bias in its displays of fare and flight information, spokesman Brian Hoyt said. "That's one of the big value propositions of our website."
The Transportation Department isn't commenting beyond the letter, spokesman Bill Mosley said.
Sabre said Jan. 5 that it would change its presentation of American's flight data. American won a court order blocking that move; the companies have agreed to suspend action in their legal battle until June 1 as they try to negotiate a settlement.