U.S. online travel agencies are facing new competition for contracts with cash-strapped airlines as nearly all agreements between the airlines and ticket distributors are up for renewal this year.

The online market, which is gaining in popularity with consumers and has shed some government restrictions, faces tough times ahead and industry experts say it's a brand new playing field for distributors such as Expedia Inc., Saber Holdings' Travelocity and Cendant Corp.'s Orbitz.

Those companies represent the end points for global distribution systems (GDS), which are the traditional means by which travel suppliers - hotels, airlines and car rental companies - send bookings information to travel agencies.

Initially created by airlines, GDSs had operated under the government regulations that prevented airlines from using ticket distribution as a competitive tool against each other. But in recent years airlines have retreated from those investments and restrictions on contracts have evaporated.

Meanwhile, traditional GDSs - Amadeus Global Travel Distribution, Galileo International, Saber and Worldspan - face competition from a new generation of GDSs.

"What I expect to happen is that there is going to be a certain amount of leakage away from the GDS," said Norm Rose, president of Travel Tech Consulting Inc. and an analyst with PhocusWright, a travel research company.

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