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Wednesday, October 25, 2000

Hotwire debuts
airline discount site

By Michael Liedtke
Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO -- An Internet start-up backed by six major airlines has launched a cheap-seat service that promises to undercut the prices of other online discounters who helped put the concept on the map.

San Francisco-based believes it will be able to beat the airline ticket prices of other popular online services such as,, and by tapping into a vast reservoir of unsold seats. An estimated 3.5 million airline seats are unoccupied each week.

With Hotwire, the airlines hope to earn revenue from those previously empty seats without diminishing the sales of their full-fare tickets. Six airlines that contributed part of Hotwire's venture capital of $75 million also are supplying the service with an unspecified number of hard-to-sell seats on hundreds of domestic flights.

The airline industry's two biggest carriers, AMR Corp.'s American and UAL Corp.'s United, are backing Hotwire in addition to Northwest Airlines Corp., Continental Airlines Inc., US Airways Group Inc. and America West Holdings Corp. Hotwire said it expects to persuade other airlines to offer their unsold seats on the service in the months ahead.

By launching its site yesterday, Hotwire beat another online ticketing service called Orbitz that also has been backed by a group of 25 airlines. That site, which includes some of the same investors, also is promising to deliver low fares.

After studying the market, Consumers Union recently asked federal regulators to investigate whether some online airline ticketing services favor certain carriers based on their financial relationships with the Web sites. Consumers Union hasn't studied Hotwire nor Priceline yet.

Hotwire CEO Karl Peterson said the company's airline investors have no say in the company's day-to-day operations. He said the service also has adopted a firewall to prevent the airlines from seeing how many seats each carrier is contributing to Hotwire's inventory.

Thomas Fogarty, an industry analyst with Thom Weisel Partners in San Francisco, doubts Hotwire will produce the same kind of consumer buzz that and other online travel services did when they hit the scene several years ago. "This has become a bit of old hat for consumers," he said. "People are much more used to the Internet now. They're a bit more jaded."

Unlike, Hotwire will sell its seats at a fixed price and prospective travelers will be under no obligation to purchase the seats offered to them.

To use the service, Hotwire visitors list their travel destinations and then receive a discount price quote. The customers can't pick a specific airline or flight.

"We are going to have the best prices anywhere, day in and day out," Peterson said.

The size of Hotwire's discounts is expected to vary widely, depending on the destination. The more popular the flight, the smaller the discount is likely to be. Peterson said in some cases travelers who wait until the day before a flight to buy a ticket might save up to 90 percent on the ticket if seats are available.

Hotwire is entering the crowded field of online airline ticket discounters during a turbulent time. Inc., which recently closed an affiliated discount gas and grocery operation, has been battered in the stock market because the business remains unprofitable.

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