Airlines have long tried to coax travelers into booking directly instead of through online travel agencies. New technology and business strategies revealed recently may give them more tools to do so.

Until now, airlines have only shown their own flights on their branded websites. This opens an information gap, prompting most consumers to look elsewhere to comparison-shop. So airlines often lose customers to online travel companies.

Now a couple of airlines are rethinking this model by showing the availability and fares of competitor carriers next to their own.

In separate tests, Icelandair has begun experimenting with displaying a sampling of flights from other airlines in their search results. The idea is that, by showing how competitive their offering is, airlines can persuade more shoppers to buy right away.

For example, a consumer shopping on Icelandair for a round-trip between London and New York City might see, alongside the carrier’s own flights, prices and details for similar flights offered by three competitor airlines.

The results on rival carriers are for-display-only. They can’t be booked via the brand.com site, in part, because airlines aren’t licensed as agents and don’t have commercial agreements to sell travel on other carriers who aren’t code-share partners.

El Al will begin testing soon.

The airline experiments were revealed during a talk Thursday at a customer conference in Houston for PROS, (Pricing and Revenue Optimization Solutions), a publicly held cloud software company.

Travelaer, a travel technology startup based in Sophia Antipolis, France, gave the proof-of-concept demonstration at the event.

Travelaer sells reservation engines to airlines. But it has cooked up a separate offering called Right Flight that enables airlines with commonly used booking engines to add basic flight-comparison in their search results.

But the product is still in trials. Most shoppers on Icelandair’s website are not yet seeing the tests.

Bigger Picture Trend of Mini Metasearch

The testing, while not a game-changer, is notable because it suggests that a convergence is taking place among supplier e-commerce sites, metasearch engines, and online travel agencies.

“We’ve been watching the lines blur between search and commerce as old, ‘walled garden’ user experiences are giving way to open, multi-brand marketplaces — even in places where you wouldn’t expect it,” said Richard Harris, Co-Founder and CEO of Intent Media, a data science company for travel sites.

The tests are also noteworthy because they’re a case of airlines taking a page out of the hotel industry playbook.

Hotels have increasingly offered similar “mini-metasearch” tools on their branded websites to let consumers see rates elsewhere. The tools aim to reassure shoppers that they will find the best deal by booking direct.

Airlines are late to the game of trying to boost conversions, or the number of consumers who switch from looking at their branded websites into buying tickets. Hotels have attempted this for years and say they have seen gains.

Several hotels have installed functionality on their websites that pull rates from a handful of competitor sources to assure consumers that direct bookings provide the best overall rate and value.

Triptease, a London-based startup, is one seller of such a tool via its so-called direct booking platform. In 2017, 70 million rate searches were done using its “price check” tool on various hotel websites, the company said.

Airlines are also looking at trying to woo travelers whenever their online behavior signals that they are about to click off from a branded site. Travelaer offers a module that appears when a customer is about to leave, showing the airline’s best direct fare and, optionally, also comparing that fare against a sampling of rivals.

For five years, the U.S. hotel industry has attempted a similar move via Room Key, a hotel search tech vendor founded by hotel operators Choice, Hilton, Hyatt, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), Marriott, and Wyndham. Whenever a consumer clicks off one of the hotel’s branded websites, a pop-up window appears highlighting rates at comparable properties at other brands.

In other words, several hotel suppliers decided it was better to cross-sell each others’ properties than for suppliers as a whole to see online travel companies win more business — in light of the higher commissions charged by the middlemen.

Will airlines make the same calculation? It’s too early to say. Both Icelandair and El Al are still in pilot phases.

Turning Lookers Into Bookers

Travelaer is also testing with the airlines replacing the window that says “your results have timed out” when a consumer has stayed on a search page too long with a new window that promotes the best flight on the airline to book, hold, or track — optionally next to fares for similar flights offered on other carriers.

The fares are not bookable because the data feeds provided by rival airlines are typically still immature, in the sense that they don’t yet support all the technological parts necessary for seamless payment and processing.

Regulation of the airline industry might prevent a similar cooperative arrangement to what hotels have done with Room Key. Many of the commercial and strategic questions involved here are still new.

“We know that customers shop, especially leisure travel buyers,” said Room Key CEO Steve Sickel. “Rather than fight that reality, brands should embrace it. Contrary to conventional wisdom, we’ve found the hotel companies who allow their customers to comparison shop actually win the booking the overwhelming majority of the time.”

“Given that customers are confused by the complicated pricing approaches used by airlines, I expect a model similar to Room Key’s could have success in the airline industry, too.”

Potentially Controversial Move

It’s not apparent that all airlines will be happy with having their flight information be used by competitors to steal their business away.

In the past, American Airlines, Delta, Ryanair, Southwest, and United have had spats with the use of their information by online travel companies like eDreams and Momondo and third-party vendors, like loyalty technology provider Points.com.

The airlines have often successfully argued that they are effectively publishers who own their content. They have argued that using their content without explicit permission counts as illegally infringing on their brands.

Travelaer isn’t worried. CEO Mike Sloan said his company would honor any request to remove airline content, but he doesn’t expect the issue to arise.

The Nerdy Details

Some industry professionals will have specific questions about what’s going on under the hood here. A few answers:

Where is Travelaer sourcing the information it uses?

For the airline’s direct sales, Travelaer pulls in data from the carrier’s passenger service system, such as the Altéa system from travel technology provider Amadeus.

For rival airlines’ comparable flights, it pulls seat availability and pricing data via PROS, which, in turn, uses technology it gained last year when it acquired Vayant Travel Technologies, a flight-search tech vendor, for $35 million.

Where is PROS getting its data? The company has access to pricing for every airline listed with the Airline Tariff Publishing Company, or ATPCO, a fare-filing clearinghouse widely used by metasearch engines and online travel agencies.

PROS also receives data from Travelport, a travel technology provider for agencies and airlines.

Ratings and descriptions of a carrier’s and its rivals’ flights are pulled from Routehappy, an airline content provider recently acquired by ATPCO.

Broader Trend?

Other technology vendors will likely attempt to offer similar services to Travelaer if its offering proves popular.

One such provider already is UK-based Air Black Box, which recently launched a technology system that claims to let any airline connect to any other airline for various types of cross-selling, though it also offers standalone services. Airlines and airports in Asia Pacific have been using the software in multi-carrier mode.

Some airlines like Ryanair have built much of their technology in-house and could choose to build connectivity for cross-selling on their own.

“Most segments of flight shoppers comparison shop anyway,” said Richard. “So airline brands should anticipate user needs.”

“The one caveat is that comparisons need to be real if they are to have credibility. There are [commercial] models out there where any lower prices are filtered out [of the price comparison]. That is bad UX [user experience].”

“Consumers are savvy and know how to get pricing data, so trying to pull the wool over their eyes is not a strategy for success,” said Harris. “Be confident in your value proposition.”

The Airbnb Factor

Travelaer’s product demonstrates that airlines have begun to make their data available for consumption by third-parties in more creative ways.

One could imagine Airbnb, the rental property marketplace, tiptoeing into being a broader travel service provider by using a tool similar to the one described here.

For instance, on each property description page, Airbnb could add a widget showing a few airline flights to the nearest major airport from the hometown of the user. This shortlist of flights might help a traveler gauge the full budget cost of a trip and be more likely to book a place to stay.

If the platform became a licensed travel agent, it could get direct feeds from airlines and make those links bookable.

If Airbnb chose to sell flights supplied directly from airlines, it could choose from a few providers to enable that functionality on a small scale besides the ones mentioned here. One example is Flyiin, which is working on powering flight metasearch that excludes third-parties like online travel agencies and only shows directly bookable fares for German travel search site Qixxit.

In short, there are hints that airline distribution will become more creative and interesting over the next five years. But it depends how the carriers play it.

Photo Credit: Icelandair is trialing a comparison-search feature on its website in selected tests. The service, powered by startup Travelaer, lets consumers see comparable flights on other airlines before buying a ticket. The concept could presage a broader trend in airline ecommerce. Icelandair