Why airline codesharing must die

Although Shelley Jones’ complaint is common, I’ve never heard it from someone like her.

Her problem: She’s done with airline “codesharing” — a marketing arrangement in which an airline places its designator code on a flight operated by another airline, and sells tickets for that flight. She’s seen too many passengers pull up to the wrong terminal because they thought they were flying on one carrier when, in fact, they were booked on another.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Generali Global Assistance. Generali Global Assistance has been a leading provider of travel insurance and other assistance services for more than 25 years. We offer a full suite of innovative, vertically integrated travel insurance and emergency services. Generali Global Assistance is part of The Europ Assistance (EA) Group, who pioneered the travel assistance industry in 1963 and continues to be the leader in providing real-time assistance anywhere in the world, delivering on our motto – You Live, We Care.

Why is Jones’ grievance unusual? Because she’s a ticket agent for an airline. Codesharing benefits her employer in small ways, like being able to claim another airline’s flight as its own; and in big ways, like not having to compete with another airline.

But for passengers, the perks are becoming fewer and fewer. The worst part? “The lack of notification the airlines are allowed to get away with,” she says.

Customers often print their itineraries through an online agency and walk to the wrong gate. If you’re not sure what comes next, I’ll tell you what happened when my mother flew from Phoenix to Warsaw for a family reunion. She went to the wrong terminal, too. After she missed her flight, her airline demanded she buy a new one-way ticket. Ka-ching!

Across the airline industry, there’s a growing consensus that codesharing needs to be limited, if not eliminated. The consumer benefits are vanishing, leaving some observers to conclude that these are little more than government licenses to collude. Overwhelming anecdotal evidence suggests that passengers are more confused and frustrated than ever.

The biggest problem with codesharing is that passengers don’t know about it. To the average air traveler, codesharing seems counterintuitive, if not dishonest. When they receive their itinerary, they don’t notice the “operated by” language, often rendered in fine print, that discloses that their United Airlines flight to Frankfurt is actually a Lufthansa codeshare. Sometimes they’re dropped off at the wrong terminal, but more often, they arrive at the airport expecting one flying experience but receiving another.

“Even when codesharing is disclosed, the question remains whether reasonable consumers are being misled,” says Daylian Cain, a Yale professor who has published several research articles on the effects of disclosure.

Why offer minimal disclosure? It’s part ego, part greed, observers say. Codesharing airlines want you to believe they’re so big that they’re operating a flight, but more important, they want to reap the financial windfall from selling you a seat on an aircraft they have nothing to do with.

Making matters worse, airlines are quietly removing many of the benefits of codesharing. For example, this summer the Oneworld Alliance dropped a policy requiring that partner airlines check passengers and their baggage through to their final destination on certain flights. Some codesharing airlines have also stripped reciprocal airline club memberships and reduced mileage benefits to frequent travelers. All the while, the big alliances effectively choked competition on some popular trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific routes, critics say.

“Airlines are raking in record profits and taking advantage of operational synergies that are driving their bottom line,” says Charles Leocha, chairman of Travelers United, a Washington advocacy group.

Of course, airlines don’t see it that way. For starters, a codeshare alliance isn’t just granted to any airline. A carrier must apply to the Department of Transportation (DOT) for permission. Codesharing is meant to be a win-win — to strengthen or expand an airline’s market presence and competitive ability but also to be “in the public interest,” according to the DOT. And all of the alliances have met that burden of proof.

Or have they?

I asked other airline insiders what they thought of codesharing and was taken aback by their response.

“Time and time again, I see passengers missing flights because they do not understand that one of their flights is not on the carrier they booked with,” says Laura Einsetler, a commercial pilot. “An hour connection time to cross an entire airport, stand in line once again at security and run to the gate is not enough. They are exasperated and scared — there is nothing we can do to help them.”

Don’t even get me started on what passengers think about codesharing. I could begin by interviewing the retired kindergarten teacher living on a fixed income who missed her flight to Poland. But most of my interview with Mom would be unprintable.

“Honestly,” says Chris Backe, a fellow writer from Asheville, N.C. “I’m just confused about the whole thing.”

Other travelers have shared their tales of missed connections, lost luggage, dashed expectations and outright frustration. How, they ask, can an airline claim to operate a flight it has nothing to do with? And what’s in it for us?

Maybe it’s time for another look at airline codesharing. Congress will pass another Federal Aviation Reauthorization bill soon, and what better time than now to review these alliances, then end them once and for all?

Should the airline codesharing be eliminated?

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Is my flight a codeshare?

• It’s the route. Although a codeshare flight can happen almost anywhere, it’s most prevalent on short commuter flights (the turboprop is a tipoff) and long overseas routes where it makes more sense for two or more airlines to cooperate. The DOT publishes a list of airlines it’s approved for codesharing on its site at transportation.gov.

• Read the fine print. Airlines are required to disclose their codeshare status prominently (look for “operated by” under the flight). But sometimes, things get lost in translation between the airline and a travel agency. The DOT has a rap sheet of agencies that failed to disclose codeshare agreements, so check with the airline to make sure you’re on the airline you think you are.

• Watch for the codesharing weasel words. Certain words should trigger your codesharing alarm. When an airline or agency starts saying “alliance” and “partner,” chances are they’re about to offload you to a different airline. That may be a good thing — most fliers would choose Singapore Airlines over its U.S. equivalent — and sometimes not.

78 thoughts on “Why airline codesharing must die

  1. Yes! Issues like this will let us know whether the new administration and Congress are actually as populist as their mandate.

          1. If you win the electoral college you don’t have to care how hard naysayers say it is, put them in GITMO for a few weeks until their attitude changes.

          2. I wasn’t joking this is Trump, this is the guy who thinks it’s okay to man handle woman. It’s not supposed to be funny, it’s supposed to be effective. You know how many late night talk show hosts have been trash talking him the last year.

            Seriously, what’s the use of having political power if you can’t use it to make your political opponents suffer? There is a LONG and effective historical trend of torturing your enemies in human history, both past and present. Look at Putin and Russia, you have a political opponent, call the FSB, poof, no more problem. You know how many Russians speak out against Putin publicly? Neither do I, there aren’t any.

            It won’t be much longer before Hilary is labeled a terrorist or traitor and then she vanishes too some black ops extradition site for “enhanced interrogation”, because as the big man himself says “they deserve it anyway”.

  2. I am torn. For I do understand that some people get confused because they do not see the “operated by xxx” on their ticket. But if you propose to eliminate code-sharing, there has to be something to replace it…

    Odds are your US based carrier is not going to fly to Warsaw. Or maybe there will be one or two flights per week. So you will now need to use a TA (or OTA) to book your reservation. One airline to get from PHX to say NYC and then another from NYC to Warsaw. There is still a chance for error with that type of itinerary. How many cases have been reported on this site where an OTA screwed up a reservation with multiple airlines or the person booked this trip as two different itineraries and a delay in the first caused the second to be canceled?

    Or your US based airline is no longer flying to the small cities anymore. Those are done by regional partners. And that is all because of costs as well. These cities no longer support the larger planes and require the smaller regional jets. something the big boys cannot fly because of union contracts and other considerations.

    You are right in that benefits are not what they used to be. But you need to have something ready to replace it. Because while there are people who have issues, there are also people who use it without a problem every day. (This same argument can also be said regarding Obamacare –you may love it or hate it — but if you eliminate it what do you do with the people who are currently relying on it? Gotta have a plan for that…)

    1. Well said. And if connecting flights have to be booked on separate PNR’s and passengers required to pick up there luggage and re-check there will be havoc at airports and people missing flights or arriving with no luggage.

      I think there are more benefits to code sharing than there are issues. If consumers book their own travel they need to look carefully at what they purchase unless the airlines start to specifically state the
      Passengers need to check in at the proper airline.

        1. For some business travelers like me, that is not always possible, there are times when I must bring tools that cannot be carried on. I also limit my carry on items to just two, not three or more as I often see people doing.

      1. The land management policies of the National Park Service had a policy to “eliminate” forest fires years many back and that too had disastrous consequences. Seems like even Mother Nature needs them as part of the circle of life. Clears the old brush and dead wood to clear space for new growth.

        So now the various land management agencies do controlled burns. So even forest fires have been replaced.

      2. While I realize some passengers have issues because they do not know or read their reservation conformation properly and some do not ensure they allow enough time between connecting flights to pick up and recheck their bags (if the code share flight(s) do not automatically send the bags over to the connecting airline (which I thought most partner airlines in the various alliances do), then I can see some issues, but not necessarily a forest fire.
        Example, I booked through United to fly to London Heathrow, am connecting with Aer Lingus to Dublin, Ireland and back to London, where I will connect with United back to Dallas (DFW). The Aer Lingus flights were booked separately (directly on the Aer Lingus website). When I put the trip together, I ensured plenty of connect time at London Heathrow to go collect my bags and then go through passport control and customs and check my bags in for the Dublin flight. And I will do the same coming back from Ireland to Heathrow and connecting to my United flight. The key is allowing enough connect time to get done what needs to be done and ensuring you buid that into your itinerary before purchasing tickets.

        1. Yup. I had a nasty one PURPOSELY put the bags thru to the wrong flight once. Now, if I have to connect one line to another, I take the bags in hand at the intermediate stop.

        2. I really think a lot of PAX who travel infrequently think air travel is something that it used to be back in the days of Pan Am.

    2. so don’t use an OTA. How many times must that be shown on this blog?

      Eliminate Obamacare – the people who benefited from it at MY expense go back to what they had before the marxists stole an extra $1800 / year from me to give to them. Not my problem. I don’t do anything with them because it’s NOT MY RESPONSIBILITY. It appears that Obamacare will go the way of the dodo, before WE do.

    3. Yes, well said. You’ve provided a perspective that Chris should have offered in what should have been a balanced report. Thank you.

    4. That’s a goof thing, the US based carriers blow. Actually it won’t be that big a deal. In the past it would have been horrible but we have an internet and computers now. You will just fly on a US carrier within the country like you already do, then take an international flight to a major hub (your choice of airlines), then take a regional flight to your destination. Want to Go to Warsaw. Fly American from A to LON then fly Lufthansa from LON to Warsaw.

      1. codeshares allow UNITED to LUFTHANSA for cheaper than two separate tickets — and American to British Air, Delta to Air France and KLM….

        1. Yeah but you have to fly United, thats why its cheaper. Let’s be honest the cheaper tickets don’t actually represent a reduction in costs, the increase in price between the two is just an arbitrary money grab, it sounds liek a reason, but it isn’t.

    5. “if you propose to eliminate code-sharing, there has to be something to replace it…”

      We’ve had inter-lining for longer than we’ve had code-sharing.

      What benefits of code-sharing would we genuinely miss if we had only inter-lining?

        1. Why would you assume that?

          You can collect miles on interline partners on flights which are not codeshared.

          You can be denied miles on a codeshare flight if (for example) you purchased your ticket in the wrong fare class.

        2. Huh? I can often earn MORE points flying a partner on a given route than a US carrier. For example, on a recent JFK-LHR trip, I earned 15k DL miles flying on Virgin Atlantic. If I had flown DL, I would only have earned around 9k.

  3. Largely agree with Jeff W. Your reservation and ticket clearly states “operated by”. I think codesharing is a necessity because a single airline may not fly to where you want to go, yet you would like a single booking and transfer experience. But it could be done a lot better than it is today.

    As a Skyteam Sky Priority member flying frequently to secondary cities in Europe, I have to rely on codesharing. But Air France doesn’t have a record of my status (though oddly, subsidiary KLM does). I can’t see Air France seats to assign my own, and only sometimes KLM. Delta won’t even let me book Tarom flights, even though they are Skyteam. And don’t even talk to me about Alitalia, Aeroflot, Czech Airlines, or any of the others. Sometimes you have to (politely) assert the rights you have in order to get what you need.

    If airlines are serious about codesharing, they need to make it far more transparent than they have so far.

  4. “or example, this summer the Oneworld Alliance dropped a policy requiring that partner airlines check passengers and their baggage through to their final destination on certain flights. Some codesharing airlines have also stripped reciprocal airline club memberships and reduced mileage benefits to frequent travelers. All the while, the big alliances effectively choked competition on some popular trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific routes, critics say.”

    None of these have anything to do with codesharing. Codesharing and alliances (oneworld, Star, Skyteam) are entirely different animals. You can be part of an alliance without codesharing, and codeshare without being part of an alliance.

    1. good point — codesharing merely allows the ability for a single thru ticket with different carriers — makes connections smoother and pricing more competitive

        1. no, it does not. codesharing is Delta operating an Air France or KLM flight PHYSICALLY – an interline agreement may offer baggage checkin thru (JetBlue and Emirates – NOT the same plane for both), protection in some cases (United and American). SO check in for a JetBlue Detroit to Boston, and then on to Emirates to Dubai. They DO NOT share the planes, just allow a ticket agreement between the two (Codesharing is Delta flying from Detroit to Amstrerdam, but the plane is actually operated by KLM)

          1. What does sharing planes have to do with what you wrote above? You wrote:

            “codesharing merely allows the ability for a single thru ticket with different carriers — makes connections smoother and pricing more competitive

            Interline agreements also allow the ability for a single thru ticket with different carriers. Changing planes when there is a connection is the norm, with or without codeshares.

    2. The airline I fly most (Alaska) is not a member of One World or Star Alliance, but I can still book a domestic ticket from Seattle to places like Biloxi Mississippi, Charleston West Virginia, Mandan North Dakota, or Kearney Nebraska, with Alaska. (Just examples of many flights I have taken just this year) The partner airline might be Delta, or it could be American, but the reality is the partner flight may actually be a Sky West or some other regional carrier. However, in each case I can clearly see who is operating the flight, there are no hidden surprises. My luggage gets checked through to my final destination for me, allowing me to not worry about having to collect the checked bags, check them back in with the other airline, and re-clear security. This is NOT in any way shape or form a bad thing!

    3. If they don’t check your luggage thru, then they’re worthless. They won’t let you use their facilities? Dirtbags.
      It is a mystery that folks loathe airlines?

      1. Worthless? I fly almost weekly, and have checked luggage exactly once in the past decade. So checked luggage policies are totally irrelevant.

        1. to you. I stopped flying on a “partner”, Can’tinental, after may flubs by them, too numerous to cite here. They’ve bought up Untied, so I avoid them.

      2. this is about checking through on tickets not booked as a single itinerary. It would be like ordering takeout, then sitting down in the restaurant to eat and complain when you don’t have a waiter.

        1. I had a full itinerary with a good airline, allied with Can’tinental. Can’t tried to charge me baggage fees. The twerp at the counter said “it’s a different confirmation code.” Like I’m STUPID? Like I haven’t flown this route 15 times before, and now they want to charge me $60? Wouldn’t produce a supervisor. I called the good airline and ascertained that they had seats 2 days hence. Can’t wouldnt’ let the partner see the seats on Can’t’s system. Some partner? I told her she had two choices: 1] quit screwing with me and put my bags on the connector, or 2] I’d go home, go IMMEDIATELY to the courthouse to file a small claims court case, subpoena everybody involved including first off HER, cancel the tickets through a credit card chargeback, and go directly in two days to the good airline without using Can’t. She relented. Last time I used those dirtbags.

  5. My favorite foreign airline has joined the Star Alliance, headed by Untied, really owned by Can’tinental, which airline I would NEVER fly. So, I avoid Untied as they also were weasels before being taken over by Can’t. So, I won’t go on a codeshare to get on the real airline; I make my way to the airport from which they fly.

  6. Although I voted yes, I’ve never had a problem deciphering code shares; they’ve always been clearly noted on my e-ticket. And since I check in at home and usually check a bag, that’s another opportunity to make sure I’m going to the right gate. Agree, though, that code sharing can be confusing if you don’t pay close attention.

  7. “Code sharing basically benefits the elitist mileage/point gathers”

    Wait, you mean a company might put policies in place that benefit its most valuable customers? I’m shocked, shocked!

      1. Why should I be? I have zero issue with businesses treating customers differently depending on their value. If I call up a restaurant to book a table, and they tell me they’re fully booked, and I later find out that someone who goes there four times a month called up just after me, and they got her a table, that doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

  8. it benefits everyone who can book a single itinerary to almost any origin and destination in the world and do it by dealing with whichever primary carrier they want. It offers thousands of itineraries that wouldn’t be possible otherwise, and allows consumers to do things like redeem miles for trips they want to take. Codeshares are a huge benefit to the travelling public. If you book direct and have the mobile apps and a frequent flier number (which I know not everyone does) everything is usually laid out pretty clear.

    There are nuances and parts that need to be fixed, no doubt. Airlines are making improvements in technology, but still many issues with seat assignments, gate / terminal information etc., especially when not booked directly. Much of that isn’t the airlines fault, it is the OTAs. But there is huge room for improvement. That doesn’t mean codeshares in principle are bad.

    1. ” thousands of itineraries that wouldn’t be possible otherwise”

      What itinerary wouldn’t be possible with just interline agreements and no code-sharing?

      1. ah, you are correct, interline could cover it all. May make mileage redemption and IROP recovery more difficult, but overall, same idea. I guess for the purposes of Elliott forums, I am pro-coordination, whichever form it takes

        1. not true – interline offers some options, but codesharing lowers the rates, as all those vendors are basing the fares on thru, rather than point to point

          1. because tickets are priced point to point, and say DTW – NYC is $300 and NYC – AMS is $1200 —- but DTW – AMS is priced at $950, as long as you start in Detroit and end in Amsterdam, the cost is $950 — been this way since the 70s

          2. Interline agreements between airlines facilitate travel for passengers who require flights with more
            than one airline to reach their final destination. The term relates to the ability of one carrier to sell a
            journey, or part of a journey, on the services of another carrier, together with the procedures for
            settlement of the revenue owed to the carrying airline. Interline agreements allow air passengers to
            travel across the networks of multiple airlines with the convenience of a single reservation and the
            confidence that their itinerary includes appropriate connection times. The agreement allows each
            airline to accept the other’s ticket and covers baggage transfers and liability.

            The underlying motivation of airlines in entering into code-share agreements is to broaden the offer
            that airlines can make to customers in terms of the number of destinations and, in some cases, the
            flight timings that they can offer potential customers, without the costs and difficulties involved in
            additional investment in equipment or in mergers with other airlines.
            It should be noted that code-sharing agreements between airlines may go beyond a mere sharing of
            the designator codes and may be supplemented by other elements of cooperation: i.e. coordination of
            the frequent flyer programmes, route and schedule planning, coordination of marketing, sales and
            distribution networks, joint pricing, sharing of facilities and services at airports, integration as well as
            development of information systems.

          3. The term relates to the ability of one carrier to sell a journey, or part of a journey, on the services of another carrier, together with the procedures for settlement of the revenue owed to the carrying airline

            Exactly. You prove my point. Interline tickets could be priced point to point. It depends on the procedures agreed to in the interline agreement.

            [You also haven’t shown that pricing point-to-point necessarily translates to lower rates overall. Again, point-to-point pricing is sometimes more expensive.]

  9. Though I voted yes (and I am an employee of one of the Star Alliance carriers), unfortunately if the airlines ever go back to one-on-one purchases with individual airlines, we all know that it will mean higher prices. At first it was totally exasperating. People would be livid (almost violent) having to be told they were standing in the wrong terminal at the wrong airline and with no time to get to the other airline to check-in.
    Personally, I would rebook them on another connection (either my carrier all the way) or a different combined Star Alliance routing with enough time to manage the new flight(s). — never with a charge — BUT THAT WAS IN THE DAYS THE AIRLINES TRAINED US HOW TO EXCHANGE TICKETS. THAT TRAINING IS NO LONGER DONE. How I haven’t been fired I have no idea but I was always prepared to tell any supervisor that I am not going to torture some 75-year-old passenger by making them run scared all over the airport to chase down a flight !!
    HOW HARD CAN IT BE FOR EVERY AIRLINE AND OTHER WEBSITES TO BOLDLY ALERT ANYONE BUYING THAT THE AIRLINE THEY ARE FLYING ON IS “XYZ”. ALL THEY NEED TO DO IS STOP PUTTING THE WRONG CODE IN FRONT OF THE FLIGHT NUMBER – PUT THE ACTUAL AIRLINE CODE AND BIG BOLD LETTERS THAT YOU ARE FLYING ON LUFTHANSA OR LAN CHILE OR AIR FRANCE. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      1. Unfortunately, like everything else in this experience, it’s all about not losing money. If they train today’s customer service agents to do even exchanges or re-ticketing a more “involved” itinerary, they want to be sure that each airline get’s it’s share of the (charge more money) pie. Since it would take too long and is too involved to teach, they will never do this. Training thousands of agents in 1/2 a day is not possible.
        What I propose is that all airline and other travel websites do is BOLDLY declare what airline people are actually flying on AND indicate the actual airline code in front of the actual airline flight number. Really how difficult can that be ??

        1. Less difficult than setting up an online training program. Thousands of agents is about the size of a Chinese high school, and I implement virtual school programs on that scale all the time. Surely airline agents are as smart as high school students?

          1. And if they do not do exchanges all the time, they forget these long-sell performances they would have to do in their system — unfortunately, it is NOT point and click with the real GDS they are required to use (believe me, I know all too well!)

          2. It’s also not rocket science. If you can train them in a day you can retrain them in a couple hours. If we can have pilots and FA’s doing all kinds of complex skills surely we as a society can train and maintain agents who can do the data entry for ticket exchanges.

  10. Written like someone who lives at a major airport with large jet service to many domestic and international destinations. For the rest of us, code sharing is basically the only way you can fly. The two airports closest to me are almost exclusively served by regional jets with maybe one or two flights a day per airline with large jets. Every regional jet flight is a code share. Eliminate those flights and you eliminate most of the service. Next, imagine trying to fly to a smaller international destination without a code share. Forget flying to places like Cork, Ireland; Faro, Portugal; or Venice, Italy without code shares. We haven’t even talked about places in Australia or the Far East.

    You think the current situation is bad. I dare you to try flying from a standard US domestic airport to another without a code share. If you can do that, try going international. I doubt you can do it without limiting yourself to major destinations

    1. I live in a major city, but often fly to places that wouldn’t have connecting air service without codeshares, or at least I think they wouldn’t. Most of the time it doesn’t really matter. Without a codeshare I just transfer from an international itinerary to a regional or boutique airline. When overseas I actually prefer this. Some of the boutique airlines are really nice.

    2. If you didn’t have any codeshares, you could still buy one ticket based on interline agreements.

      Why wouldn’t that be more transparent and better for consumers?

  11. First, name one person that would prefer a US carrier over Singapore Air, the only category of PAX I can think who would do that are 1) Those who have never traveled Singapore Air. 2) Those nationalist types who only support or believe the “Made in America” hype and would rather a traveling experience resemble a bus with wings.

    Second, I don’t see what the confusion is with missing a flight. You arrive at airport, pick up boarding pass, boarding pass states the terminal and gate you go to. It is called reading the instructions (okay in all honesty, my father doesn’t read instructions and can assemble and build anything, the rest of us should read instructions).

    Third, the only issue I have is when doing a flight search (for recreational travel) I’d like to be able to sort and filter flights that are actually offered and operated by specific carriers. I hate doing a search for an international European flight and the first page of flights are all operated by Delta or United.

  12. Perhaps the best approach would be a requirement that the names of all carriers on a flight be in the same size type, at the top of any ticket, in the order they will be used?

    1. No, either the tickets/boarding passes would then take a full sheet of A4 or the whole thing would be in tiny 6 point font that no one can read.

      1. Nah. The boarding passes I usually print out take half a standard (8 1/2 x 11″) page. On those, a decent size type (12pt, perhaps?) would add perhaps a quarter inch – lots of room. And for tix printed on the typical “boarding pass size” (3 1/4 x 8 1/2″?), there’s lots of room for reasonable size type to identify each carrier. It’s a case of the airlines either WANTING to do it, or being REQUIRED to do it, that’s all. Probably never gonna happen….

  13. a number of big airlines will close down in 2017. This is probably the reality. Don’t think codesharing will ever end. It’s a way airlines can survive. ULCCs & LCCs seem to be booming. It’s legacy carriers which won’t survive.

  14. The benefit of code sharing first and foremost is to the carrier. Paxs come second and I’ve yet to read one great benefit that would make me stand up and support it.

    At a minimum, code sharing should get you to your destination without a hitch. And as we’ve seen here, many times this does not happen.

    Eliminating code share shouldn’t affect regional carriers, since most are owned and operated by a combo of the major carrier and the regional.

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