AMR Corp.'s American Airlines is putting the finishing touches on a booking portal that lets small and midsize companies access negotiated discounts from American, as well as from hotels and car-rental companies, while also offering published fares for other airlines. The portal will employ a rules engine for enforcing company travel policies and will integrate travel-expense data into back-end travel-management and financial systems. American is right behind United Airlines Inc., which launched a similar portal last month.

The other major carriers have plans, too. US Airways Inc. says it will integrate its inventory into the corporate portal launched last year by America West Airlines before the two airlines merge, though no time line has been set. And Continental, Delta, and Northwest are in negotiations with a third-party vendor to develop a combined portal that would substantially lower the costs for all three carriers.

Direct online sales are critical to an industry that's lost billions. Travel agency bookings cost airlines upwards of $10 per ticket, compared with fees less than half that for sales through airline-built agency portals or mere pennies through corporate booking portals like the one American is rolling out.

Portals give airlines a business sales channel they can use to build loyalty with smaller companies that haven't invested in travel-management IT and services. They also might keep those customers from turning to travel agencies and help airlines avoid the fees they pay the big distribution systems that agencies use to book flights.

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