Priceline customers can now book American Airlines’ Preferred Seats when booking flights  — a perk unavailable to any other online travel agency.

The seats have standard legroom, are located toward the front of the economy cabin, and usually sell for $4 per flight.

Although travelers can likewise purchase these seats through AA.com, the airline’s mobile apps and airport kiosks, Priceline is the first OTA to get the feature.

That’s because Priceline agreed to bypass GDS partners such as Worldspan and Sabre when selling American Airlines’ tickets, beginning in January 2011, and now books about 2,000 tickets per day using the American Airlines direct-connect.

As a travel agency, online or traditional, if you use the airline’s direct-connect technology, you can sell front-of-the-cabin Preferred Seats.

And, if bypassing global distribution systems such as Sabre, Travelport, and Amadeus in favor of going directly through the airline’s reservation system is against your distribution religion, then you won’t find available any empty chairs — or, in this case, Preferred Seats — to sell.

Control freaks

American Airlines has been battling the GDSs over the direct-connect issue over the last couple of years. Direct-connect has economic benefits — the airline doesn’t have to pay fees to the distribution companies — and it’s a way to assert control and sell ancillary services in the manner the airline chooses.

Preferred Seats is exclusively available to travel agencies that use the airline’s direct-connect technology.

Orbitz and Expedia famously fought against AA direct-connect and lost access to the airline’s flights for a time in 2010 and early 2011, respectively, as contract talks stalled over economics and the direct-connect issue.

These two OTAs currently sell American Airlines’ tickets, as does Travelocity and CheapOair, for example, accessing the flights through the GDSs, but they can’t offer Preferred Seats to their customers.

OTAs such as Vegas.com, BookIt.com and others, which use the AA direct-connect, likely are in line to get the Preferred Seats on their sites. So are any travel management companies that are hooked up to the direct-connect.

What’s it all about, Alfie?

If you are a road warrior member of AAdvantage, Priceline’s access to the Preferred Seats likely doesn’t mean very much to you.

If you seek Preferred Seats, you could have already purchased them through AA.com, and premium and full-fare customers already got these seats for free.

So the benefit chiefly is for leisure travelers using Priceline.

And, if you are a casual traveler on a budget, it means increasingly you will find fewer seat choices when checking in and will find yourself seated toward the back of the plane if you don’t want to pay extra for your seat assignments as American Airlines tries to earn incremental money on more-sought-after seat real estate.

Travel businesses hoping that a bankruptcy-distracted American Airlines would abandon all this GDS-dissing, are finding that the airline hasn’t been humbled by its fall at all.

Meanwhile, through August 5, American Airlines is shaving a buck off Preferred Seats, selling them for $3 instead of $4.