Travel

Travelwise: Cracking airlines’ ‘code-sharing’ rules

All Bonnie Elliott needed were seat assignments in advance. And all Ernie Kuhnke wanted were his frequent-flier miles.

But neither of these air travelers can get them. Why? Even though they each booked a ticket with one airline, they’re flying on several carriers, an industry practice known as “code sharing.” You can tell if you’re on a code-share flight if, on your itinerary, you see the words “operated by” followed by the name of a different airline.

Airlines say code-sharing alliances are necessary to offer passengers more routes and services. But air carriers in code-share agreements are also granted antitrust exemption by the government, which allows them to keep fares on certain routes higher and limit choices, critics claim.

If they were actually flying on a single airline, they’d turn to their airline for a quick fix. But in a code-sharing world, it’s not that straightforward. Code sharing has its own special and often confusing rules.

Elliott (no relation), a yoga instructor from Reston, Virginia, booked a flight from Washington to Athens through the United Airlines website. The overseas portion of the return flight, from Barcelona to Washington, is operated by code-sharing partner Air Canada.

“It’s an eight-plus-hour flight and we don’t want to be stuck in a middle seat in the back of the plane,” she said. “We are willing to pay for Air Canada’s version of Economy Plus or upgrade using miles, if possible. But … the United website says advanced seat assignments are not available.”

United’s answer to me: Check with Air Canada.

“As you can imagine, every airline has a different process for assigning seats,” said United spokeswoman Jennifer Dohm. She said United will pass a customer’s seat request to its partner, “and they’ll do their best to assign that preference based on their assignment procedures.”

And that makes sense, because, technically, it’s not United’s flight.

Kuhnke, an instructor for the Navy who is based in Bolingbrook, Illinois, recently flew from Chicago to Dubai on a United ticket but, alas, not a United plane. It was a Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Dubai, and he didn’t get his frequent-flier miles for it. He wants to know why.

“Could you please explain code sharing and how it benefits me, as a passenger?” Kuhnke asked.

Even experts have trouble finding a clear answer. Code sharing does offer some consumer benefits, such as access to more flights and, in many cases, more ability to earn frequent-flier miles. Dohm says Kuhnke should have been able to collect miles on every segment. But he no longer had the reservation number for the Lufthansa flight, so his eligibility for miles couldn’t be verified by United.

Other aspects of code sharing confuse passengers, too. For example, who owns the ticket when multiple carriers are involved? “Typically, the first airline flown is the owner of the ticket,” said Bob Winter, who owns Lake Country Travel in Pewaukee, Wisconsin.

The marketing carrier is supposed to be responsible for your ticket. But customers sometimes complain that they’re charged multiple times for checked luggage on a code-share flight. That, in turn, will start a blame game between two airlines until a fatigued customer simply gives up on a refund request.

Here’s how it should work: When you book a code-share ticket, the rules of the airline on your ticket should apply to your entire trip, said Jim Quinn, the president of RightRez, which develops technology for tour operators and cruise lines. So, if your flight is canceled because of a weather delay and you need a refund, turn to the operating carrier, or the first airline on your ticket. “The airline that performed the initial ticketing is the responsible party for a refund,” he said.

Also, if you’re on a code-share flight, you should also be charged only once for your checked luggage and the rules should be simple and straightforward. At least that’s what the Transportation Department said in a 2009 advisory. The agency noted that as a condition of approving these alliances, the carrier shown on the ticket must accept responsibility for the entirety of the trip. The department further noted that airlines had been selectively applying different rules to code-share tickets, which it said was prohibited.

Yet airline contracts are silent on the issue of seat assignments that are available through their Web sites, and they are sometimes also mum on the subject of frequent-flier miles earned through a code-share partner. So it is up to an airline to offer, or not offer, these benefits when you fly.

That’s all the more reason to study your airline itinerary carefully the next time you fly, particularly if you’re on a multi-segment trip overseas. My mother, who is an exceptionally careful and experienced traveler, missed the code-share disclosure on her ticket for a recent flight from Phoenix to Warsaw. That sent her to the wrong terminal, which caused her to miss her flight. She had to buy a new ticket because she was considered a “no-show” for her first flight.

Critics say that code sharing is deceptive and are petitioning the government to unravel some of the global airline alliances that allow carriers to get away with this behavior. It’s unlikely they’ll succeed in dismantling them — the alliances are simply too profitable — but it wouldn’t surprise me if regulators took a closer look at these cases in which passengers couldn’t reserve seats, didn’t get their frequent-flier miles, or had to pay for a new seat because a passenger was sent to the wrong terminal.

Because if code sharing didn’t exist, chances are, neither would these problems.

Christopher Elliott writes the Travel Troubleshooter column that usually appears in this space. the column will return next week. Email him at chris@elliott.org.

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