Orbitz to launch despite antitrust cries

Despite the antitrust cries of consumer groups and competitors, the Web’s newest online travel site is ready for liftoff, touting server technology as its strategic advantage.

A joint venture operated by five big U.S. airlines, Orbitz.com will take wing in June, joining the booming online travel services market currently ruled by Travelocity and Expedia Inc., in which consumers can buy airline tickets, reserve hotel rooms, or rent cars.

Orbitz.com, a US$50 million technology venture co-owned by United Airlines Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc., Continental Airlines Inc., Northwest Airlines Corp., and American Airlines Inc., will try to cash in on some of those consumer dollars.

The company is vaunting what it describes as a superior server-based distributed architecture. Its systems have been built from the ground up to tackle the complex problem of searching billions and billions of travel prices, rules, and schedules.

“We are not just slapping a new front end onto existing systems,” said Orbitz CIO Kevin Malover. “We are rewriting it. Because our system is so distributed, we can write new bits of functionality in Java and displace existing systems bit by bit.”

Orbitz’s modular architecture lets the company more easily upgrade functionality features such as searching, researching, and booking, and the system can more easily scale to meet the needs of the rapidly growing online travel industry.

Malover said that Travelocity and Expedia’s sites still rely on 30-year-old GDS (global distribution system) technologies that come from companies such as Sabre and Worldspan and that run on mainframe computers.

Both Travelocity and Expedia have moved much of their processing off of those mainframes during the past six months.

“Just the threat of Orbitz has made Travelocity and Expedia improve their search engines,” Malover said. “They see that server technology is the way to go.”

Orbitz itself still relies on GDS to execute travel booking, Malover admitted, “but [it will] move off the GDS this year.” Before that can happen, Orbitz has to create direct booking connections to all 450 airlines it sells. So far, 35 airlines have agreed to the direct connection.

Orbitz’s server-based searching technology can turn up hundreds of responses to queries. Consumers can then sort those responses by price or carrier or number of stops, depending on their individual requirements.

Orbitz is launching its site to the general consumer market, looking to cash in on the growing market. It may offer other services down the road.

“It’s possible [in the future] we would offer these services to other organizations such as travel agents,” Malover said.

“We used to have two hotly competitive sites,” said Karen Rice, an analyst at PhoCusWright, a Sherman, Connecticut-based online travel market analysis firm. “Now we’ll have three.”