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Government examining airline ticket distribution

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DALLAS – The government is investigating whether companies that distribute airline flight and fare information are stifling competition and violating federal antitrust laws.

The Justice Department confirmed the investigation Friday after several airlines and two leading ticket information-distribution companies said they received letters from antitrust officials.

This is the latest twist in an escalating fight between airlines and so-called global distribution systems over how air travel is sold, especially to lucrative corporate accounts. Many consumers buy tickets online directly from the airlines, but corporations often use travel agencies that get information about flights and fares from the three big distribution companies.

American Airlines has led the challenge to the current setup. It wants to deal directly with travel agents to reduce fees it pays to the distribution systems and to use its own information about customers to sell them extra services. American claims distribution companies have struck back by making information about its flights harder to find.

American said Friday that it received a civil demand for information from the Justice Department. The airline declined to release the document, but spokesman Andrew Backover said, "American is not the subject of the investigation."

Delta Air Lines and US Airways acknowledged getting similar requests from antitrust regulators, as did two large distribution systems, or GDS companies, Travelport Ltd. and Sabre Holdings.

Travelport spokeswoman Jill Brenner said the company "welcomes the GDS industry investigation" and "is confident that it is in complete compliance with the antitrust laws."

Sabre spokeswoman Nancy St. Pierre said the Justice Department made no allegations when it contacted the company and that it too obeys antitrust laws.

Justice Department spokeswoman Gina Talamona said the agency's antitrust division "is investigating the possibility of anticompetitive practices in the global distribution systems industry." She declined to comment further.

Last month American sued Travelport, accusing it of monopoly tactics and retaliating against the airline by burying information about its flights. Travelport's systems handled $2.7 billion in American ticket sales last year. Travelport, Sabre and a third company, Amadeus, control all the distribution systems in the U.S.

Travelport countered that American was trying to control ticket distribution so that it could limit consumer choice and reduce competition.

American, a unit of AMR Corp., also sued Sabre, but the two have put the lawsuit on hold until June while they attempt to negotiate a new business agreement. American created Sabre as its own computerized reservations system in the 1950s. Sabre later spun off as a separate company.

US Airways jumped into the fray last month when it sued Sabre, saying the distribution company blocked competition to protect monopoly pricing power. US Airways said more than one-third of its revenue comes from bookings that use the Sabre system. Without that money, the airline warned it probably would be forced into bankruptcy protection.

The airlines say their complaint is with the distribution systems, not travel agents. American pulled its flight listings from Orbitz Worldwide Inc., an online travel agent partly owned by Travelport, in December as the dispute began to heat up.

Orbitz said Friday it had not been contacted by the Justice Department.

American settled a similar dispute with Expedia Inc. and its flights can again be found on that online travel agent.

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