NEW YORK (AP) -- Orbitz is probably the only Internet start-up that requires employees to attend a four-hour seminar on antitrust law, signaling just how much scrutiny the travel Web site, which officially launches on Monday, faces from rivals, consumer advocates and federal authorities.
The watchfulness is only going to intensify, said chief executive Jeffrey Katz, which is why "we've taken a lot of steps to make sure that we live within the bounds of the law."
Critics say Orbitz, backed by $145 million in seed money from five major airlines, will reduce, if not eliminate, competition and pave the way for higher prices.
Orbitz, which also lists vacation packages, hotel rooms and rental cars, denies the allegations. Katz said Orbitz will enhance competition by listing fares from all airlines without bias.
A lot is at stake. Roughly $12 billion was spent online in 2000 for airline tickets, approximately 6 percent of all airplane ticket sales. That figure is expected to more than double by 2004, according to Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass.
A Department of Transportation investigation of Orbitz, which is owned by American, Continental, Delta, Northwest and United airlines, found no evidence of monopolistic behavior, but the agency said it would monitor the company in the months ahead. The Justice Department is conducting a separate probe.
Regardless, Katz said, the success or failure of Orbitz -- barring any Justice Department intervention -- is now "an issue of do consumers like Orbitz or not."
As a bonus to people who register with Orbitz over the next six weeks, the company will regularly raffle off domestic and international plane tickets.
The cheapest tickets anywhere is the main promise of Orbitz, but the company is also promoting customer services, such as automated e-mails to alert travelers in case of plane delays, a practice that has become an industry standard.
At least two-dozen airlines have agreed to provide Orbitz with all of their published fares, including so-called Web fares, which are heavily discounted tickets promoted on their own Internet sites. The agreement stipulates that airlines cannot publish cheaper fares anywhere else without making them available at www.orbitz.com.
Consumer advocates say this will wipe out price competition.
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