The online travel industry was thrown a curve Monday when Cendant Corp. said it may sell its travel business, which includes Chicago-based Orbitz, rather than spin it off as part of a planned breakup.

The landscape is already shifting as big travel sites like Orbitz, Expedia and Travelocity lose more customers to Web sites run by airlines and hoteliers.

New rivals for online travel searches also have emerged. So-called meta-search sites like SideStep and Kayak scan the inventories of dozens of airline sites as well as online travel agencies like Orbitz. Not to be outdone, Internet media giants Yahoo and AOL recently have upgraded their travel sections.

Even with competition becoming more heated, there's a lot of interest in Cendant's travel business, according to Henry Silverman, Cendant's chairman and chief executive. He said the company decided to consider a sale after receiving several unsolicited offers to buy the travel unit.

Some of the potential suitors include private equity firms, said analysts, who added that the business may fetch as much as $4 billion.

"There's huge potential for growth there," said Michael Cannizzaro, director of information services at PhoCusWright Inc., a Connecticut travel-consulting firm. "I think Orbitz is a great brand, and it has great technology."

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