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Now, going online to buy tickets will cost you


Banks addicted us to automated teller machines, then started charging us to use them. Now airlines, after getting us hooked on buying tickets online, appear to be headed in the same direction.

Orbitz, the online travel agency created by five big U.S. airlines, started charging a service fee for writing tickets last month: $5 for one ticket and $10 for two to four.

The fee surprised me. I've found Orbitz to be a very useful travel tool, but coughing up a service fee seemed like paying the airlines for the right to buy a ticket from them.

For years, the airlines have been trying to squeeze costs out of the ticket-purchasing process. First, they slashed the commissions they paid to brick-and-mortar travel agents. That forced the agents to charge their customers fees for their services, and put them at a severe competitive disadvantage on most simple transactions.

Then Continental, Delta, United, American and Northwest launched Orbitz, an online travel agency that offered the convenience of one-stop shopping (something the individual airline Web sites couldn't offer) with discount fares that other travel agents have had a hard time matching.

The strategy seemed to be working. Online travel purchases are taking off, and Orbitz, after a brief downturn after Sept. 11, has rebounded, and its sales are gaining. So why tamper with success by implementing a service fee?

Perhaps the airlines are doing to Orbitz what they did to the brick-and-mortar travel agencies, squeezing more out of the system. Or perhaps the airlines are testing the appetite of consumers for paying a service fee to use Orbitz.

So far, the other two big online travel agencies, Travelocity and Expedia, haven't initiated their own fees. Travelocity, however, does add a $10 service fee to all Northwest tickets because Northwest doesn't pay the agency any commission for writing the tickets.

Jon Douglas, news editor at Smarter Living Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., travel information company, said he assumed Orbitz is now being forced to turn a profit on its own.

"My advice to consumers," said Douglas, "is to shop around."

Following his advice, I tried to see if I could outwit the fee.

I was looking for a ticket to Florida in April and found a good price on Orbitz for an American Airlines flight. I immediately pulled up the American Web site to see if I could find the same fare there minus the service fee. I found the flight, but it cost $47 more on American's own Web site. How crazy is that?

Carol Jouzaitis, an Orbitz spokeswoman, said she couldn't explain it. She confirmed that any traveler could do what I tried to do, but said few travelers would.

"Most people aren't going to take the time to see if they can find it somewhere else to save $5 or $10," she said. "Most people don't want to go through that scavenger hunt."

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