There is so much sameness to metasearch these days, now that Expedia and Travelocity removed, at least temporarily, their consumer booking fees on flights.
For example, when I compared Delta fares on JFK-Dallas flights for the end of March, I found the following uniformity in a side-by-side grid display of fare offerings using the TripAdvisor flight-search tool: Delta, Expedia and Travelocity all were selling the Delta flight for $369.
Why click on one over the other?
Until recently, Delta, or most other carriers, probably would have offered the cheaper fare because Travelocity and Expedia tacked on their booking fees.
So, with the booking fees on hold, how are airlines -- and the OTAs, for that matter -- going to distinguish themselves in this, ahem, metasearch gridlock?
It is an important question for the airlines because in the past few years metasearch has evolved in the carriers' planning from an experiment into a mandatory part of their distribution strategies. They need to be where the customers are -- and about 18 percent of U.S. online-travel bookers use metasearch to plan and shop, according to Forrester Research.
In a well-publicized battle with Kayak last year, American Airlines figured out one way to stand out. Kayak and others agreed to display American Airline's fares alone, without any side-by-side comparisons to Orbitz or anyone else.
I believe it is likely that other airlines will put renewed pressure on the metasearch companies to do likewise now that the playing field has been leveled.
Will that be enough?
Billy Sanez, an American spokesman, tells me there already is differentiation beyond the solitary displays. Once consumers click on an AA fare in a metasearch engine, they usually get deep-linked into AA.com, which offers a potpouri of ways to search -- by price, schedules, flights with available seats, and flights regardless of availabilties etc. You even can download a complete American or Oneworld timetable. "The job's being done," Sanez says, meaning AA is converting an attractive number of these metasearch-delivered shoppers.
But, is AA and are other airlines getting this message out to consumers in a strong enough way? If cost-conscious consumers scour a metasearch grid and see the same American or Delta fares at the same price on the airline sites, Expedia and Travelocity, will the travelers be aware enough to know that they should book on the airline link because there is all kinds of beneficial razmataz going on over there?
How can the airlines further differentiate themselves in the metasearch gridlock beyond the solitaray displays and get their message out in more clearly defined ways?
Did someone just say "Twitter?"