Google-ITA approval clears path for Kayak IPO

April 8, 2011, 9:51 PM UTC

The federal government may be shutting down later today, but not before helping to clear a path to the public markets for travel search startup Kayak.

Kayak was one of several online travel companies that banded together last October to form a lobbying group called FairSearch, in opposition to Google’s (GOOG) proposed $700 million acquisition of ITA Software, which makes airline reservations software. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

The main grievance is that Google is trying to corner the airline search market. One scenario has Google launching its own travel search offering for consumers, thus disintermediating ITA-dependent sites like Kayak and Hotwire (owned by Expedia). Another fear is that Google will raise the prices of ITA offerings, thus pricing out smaller sites (and significantly reducing margins for larger ones).

This was of particular concern for Kayak, which filed for a $50 million IPO last November. At the time, it reported that ITA Software was directly responsible for 11% of all Kayak revenue (and at a higher margin than some of Kayak’s other business).

The Justice Department approved the merger, but with some major qualifiers. First, Google will be required to license its travel software, thus letting Kayak and company remain in business. It would seem Google can still jack up the prices, but Justice also may implement “ongoing anti-trust monitoring,” which has not before been used for a tech merger.

For Kayak, this appears to be victory. FairSearch issued the following statement:

Today’s decision by the Justice Department to challenge Google’s acquisition of ITA Software is a clear win for consumers. The Department concluded Google’s unrestricted control over ITA’s key flight search technology would have violated the antitrust laws. By putting in place strong, ongoing oversight and enforcement tools, the Department has ensured that consumers will continue to benefit from vibrant competition and innovation in travel search. While this enforcement action is an important victory, Google’s abuse of its search dominance still threatens competition and consumers in many critical areas of online services. Antitrust enforcers and lawmakers in the US and elsewhere must remain vigilant in their investigation of these larger concerns and take whatever further enforcement actions are needed to protect consumers.

Robert Birge, Kayak’s chief marketing officer, will be on a FairSearch conference call later this afternoon. Seth Weintraub, proprietor of our Google 24/7 blog, will be listening in.

One interesting side note has been that Joel Cutler, a venture capitalist with General Catalyst Partners, actually sits on the boards of both Kayak and ITA Software. I guess the conflict will soon be resolved, since ITA won’t need a board once under Google’s control…