Who’s responsible for this codeshare confusion?

In a world of airline code-sharing and outsourced call centers, who takes ultimate responsibility when something goes wrong with your flight?

For Robert and Roberta Blazek, that’s no academic question. And it has taken more than a year to find the answer. The Blazeks, from Viera, Fla., were visiting Poland in August 2011 when an electronic error voided their airline reservations, forcing them to spend $5,873 for a new pair of tickets to fly home.

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Their repeated attempts to secure a refund from Travelocity, Lufthansa and United Airlines lift a veil on the often confusing agreements found in modern-day air travel and on the often strained relationship between online agencies and air carriers.

They also show how customers can be left with nowhere to turn when they run into trouble while they travel.

In July 2011, Robert Blazek, a retired engineer, paid $2,984 for two round-trip tickets on Continental Airlines from Orlando to Krakow, Poland, through Travelocity.com. Although the tickets were purchased from Continental, the flights were operated by Lufthansa, a practice referred to as code-sharing.

“The first leg of the journey went as planned,” he says. “But when we checked in for our flight at Lufthansa in Krakow, we were told we did not have valid tickets. The supervisor told us we needed to call and resolve the matter and would not allow us to board the plane.”

Blazek tried to phone Travelocity but says he had trouble making an overseas call from his cellphone. “Since we did not want to remain in Krakow and the plane would be leaving shortly, we did the only thing that was left in order to return to the United States and not remain in Krakow overnight,” he recalls. “We purchased new tickets.”

You’d think a quick call to Travelocity would yield a speedy refund. But that didn’t happen.

No one knows exactly what became of Blazek’s money, but nine months later when he contacted me for help, he had gotten absolutely nowhere. Maybe the glitch happened on Continental’s side. At the time, the airline was in the throes of a messy merger with United Airlines. Lufthansa and Travelocity may have also been to blame for the crossed wires.

One thing was clear: No one would own up to the problem and refund Blazek’s $5,873.

Even as recently as last week, the companies were blaming each other. A Lufthansa representative said the couple didn’t have a valid return ticket and pointed out that the actual ticket belonged to Continental, not Lufthansa, and that it was sold through Travelocity. “Please understand,” she added, “our passengers are of the utmost priority to Lufthansa, and we always
try to make matters right.”

To that end, she said, Lufthansa had apologized and credited the Blazeks with 4,000 frequent-flier miles.

Travelocity said it contacted Continental and then United but had no luck securing a refund. “The airline advised us that Lufthansa canceled the return flights on January 29, 2011,” a Travelocity representative said in an e-mail to Blazek. “Continental Airlines will not provide additional compensation. We understand that this is a very frustrating matter and we have done all we can to try and get the carriers to offer you some kind of reimbursement.”

Travelocity offered Blazek a $100 voucher, which could be redeemed for a future trip through the online agency.

What should have happened? Someone needed to take responsibility for the mess, starting with the online travel agency that sold the ticket. At least that’s what a spokesman for a large bricks-and-mortar agency told me when I asked him about the situation. Simply put, said Steve Loucks of the Minneapolis-based travel agency Travel Leaders, the agent should “own” the problem until it’s fixed to everyone’s satisfaction.

“Since our travel agents’ businesses are built on repeat customers, typically in local communities, it’s in their best interests to work in their client’s best interests as true advocates on their behalf,” he told me. “Treat them poorly, and they’ll never come back and let others know. But give them what they want, and they’ll keep coming back and offer referrals.”

He added, “If they right a bad situation, they have customers for life.”
But even if the buck stopped with Travelocity, there’s still plenty of blame to go around. One of the airlines should have owned up to the lost-reservation problem, preferably the carrier that owned the ticket: United. And the code-share partner could have done more than offer a few miles to fix the problem. But passing the buck is becoming far too easy in an age of electronic transactions, in which the airline you’re ticketed on isn’t necessarily the airline you’re flying on.

Airline code-sharing is, without a question, beneficial to airlines like United and Lufthansa. Not only are they allowed to legally share passengers and other resources, but they are given the government’s blessing to stop competing on certain routes: a “win-win,” as they say in corporate America.

The Transportation Department has taken recent steps to solve some of the problems related to code-sharing. A rule that took effect in April requires carriers to apply the same baggage allowances and fees to all segments of a trip. It’s a good start.

Yet a whole list of problems, from disclosure of joint flights to refunds, still plagues those who are unfortunate enough to find themselves on a code-share flight.

I asked Travelocity and United to take another look at the Blazeks’ tickets. Scott Quigley, Travelocity’s vice president of sales and customer care, pointed out that his company handles “millions” of travel reservations without incident every month.

“When issues arise, our strong supplier relationships usually allow us to resolve them quickly, conveniently and to the satisfaction of our mutual customers,” he said.

To that end, Travelocity has several departments dedicated to fixing reservations problems. “However, there are still cases where things go wrong for our customers,” he added.

This happened to be one of those cases. Quigley said that Travelocity took a closer look at the Blazeks’ problem and determined that “we could and should have escalated it more quickly with our airline partner.” Travelocity reimbursed the Blazeks in full for their remaining expenses and apologized.

How about United? I inquired about the Blazeks’ tickets. After conducting a “further” review, an airline representative said, “we believe we erred in not refunding the full amount that the Blazeks paid to get home.” United processed a full refund.

I know what you’re thinking: Wait, the Blazeks have been refunded twice, right? Yes, it appears that they have been.

I wonder whether it will take another year to figure out who should get refunded for that error. Stay tuned.

49 thoughts on “Who’s responsible for this codeshare confusion?

  1. I think codesharing can be ok, IF whoever you purchase the ticket from always owns the ticket and takes care of any problems you encounter. If the operating airline has a problem such as this, it should also have the power to take care of the issue on the spot for the customer and deal with the selling carrier later.

    The biggest issue here is how Travelocity didn’t handle this immediately. When travelling internationally, placing a phone call isn’t always easy (or cheap). If the plane was truly leaving shortly and the traveller’s option was to stay in Poland another day while trying to work this out or paying for the ticket on the spot and dealing with it later, I do think they made the correct choice. I’m glad Travelocity owned up and took care of their customer, but it shouldn’t have taken Chris’s involvement to get it done. Honestly, if Chris didn’t get involved, I think we all know that Travelocity would never have owned up to this.

  2. He bought the ticket on July 2011 but the airline cancelled his return flight on January 2011. How can that be? Please check the dates.

  3. Translation from Travelocity and United:
    We got caught with our pants down on not delivering our product and providing lousy customer service. When the customer tried to get what was rightfully theirs, we decided to tell them to go pound sand. It wasn’t until we were about to be exposed as the crooks we are that we decided to do the right thing.

  4. A quick housekeeping note: Our polls have changed. Zoomerang was acquired by SurveyMonkey, and they just migrated the system over, so all of our polls sport a new look. I’m going to try a few new things with them in upcoming posts.

    1. Oooh – like 3rd options? Destination or Journey question you posed a couple of weeks ago for example: 1) Destination; 2) Journey; 3) Both

  5. I don’t think it was code-sharing that caused this issue. The itinerary probably would have had the same issue even if the Lufthansa flights had a Lufthansa flight number, as long as they were on a United PNR.

    United’s initial response is non-sensical: “Lufthansa cancelled the original return flight.” Yes… and…? If the flight was cancelled either a refund for the cancelled leg(s) or accommodation is called for in the CoC.

    Steps to resolve otherwise unresolvable airline disputes:
    1) Dispute the credit card charge. The most recent charge is most likely to not have “timed out.” If that fails…
    2) DoT complaint. For issues like this one, a straightforward CoC violation, the DoT, and the airlines, take those complaints VERY seriously. The DoT receives surprisingly few “hard” complaints like this one, so each one receives a fair amount of attention.
    3) Small Claims. If the amount is within the limits for your jurisdiction, this should be relatively straightforward to resolve in your favor. Collecting may be another matter, but still quite doable. (Collection remedies may include a “till tap” where the sheriff confiscates all cash that passes over the counter, to asset seizure, where identifiable assets (hilariously up to and including entire aircraft) can be seized to pay judgements.)

    1. How could they dispute the charge for the flight they actually flew? i doubt any credit card company would side with the customer on that. It would be the same as if you bought a TV from one company and it was never delivered to your house so you buy another one from a different company which is delivered and you dispute that charge instead of the first.

      Even with the window of dispute time being past in the case of the OP, I feel the original charge could still be disputed successfully since the merchant (airline) did not provide the service paid for. While that would not be equal to the cost of the replacement flight, it would be something.

    2. The problem most likely came in United’s incompetent merger with Continental. I also walked up to an airport counter only to be told my ticket was no longer valid. In my case the agent for the partner airline, US Airways, worked miracles to get me on the flight. It’s a known problem with tickets bought originally on Continental and United needs to own up to it. (They did later compensate me with 5,000 miles for my trouble.)

  6. Blazek’s problem was to book through Travelocity. Had he booked directly with the airline, his problem would probably have been resolvable in Krakow. Once an airline can force you to buy a walkup-fare ticket to substitute for a booking they lost, the problem is in their eyes “solved” and the only action the passenger can take later involves lawyers or, as in this case, shaming the company online.

    AND…never leave home without having the Skype app on your phone. It allows you to easily call US numbers from any WiFi connection in the world, without having to sign up for exorbitant overseas roaming. It’s available for IOS and Android.

    1. Skype is only available where WiFi is available. It isn’t in all airports. Travelocity is hard to use internationally. They’ll put you on hold (while you are roaming at international rates) and the minutes tick by. Then they don’t do anything. (I used them because they were my work contact).

      1. Even if you have to pay for Wifi from the airport, it’s well worth it compared to the international calling costs you would have from traditional methods. I travel internationally quite a bit and Wifi is pretty much standard these days – if not everywhere in the terminal, I find it hard to believe there is an international airport these days that doesn’t have it somewhere. (Skype call quality can vary, however, depending on the Internet connection’s quality.)

  7. Really, after nine months of being out that kind of money, with all involved doing absoltuely nothing until shamed into it by a national correspondent, I think they deserve to keep both refunds…

  8. I’m curious as to why Lufthansa said the tickets were invalid? Was there an invalid connection or something or did Lufthansa just say they were no good for no good reason?

    Also, could small claims court have been an option for getting resolution on this issue?

    1. Most likely in the course of switching between Continental and United they “uncofirmed” the itinerary then rebooked, but left out the part on the partner. It still showed on the record, but wasn’t ticketed. Lufthansa is undoubtedly completely innocent.

  9. I think the first issue was buying from Travelocity. I don’t have any problem with someone using them for domestic travel, hotels, etc. (even though I would never), but for foreign travel where they have no local presence is just plain dangerous as this article shows.

    A similar situation happened to me on CO before the UA merger completed. I was flying back from Norway through Copenhagen and then to EWR and DEN. The Norway to CPH segment was on SAS. Three days before I was scheduled to fly, the segment into CPH disappeared from my itinerary. No call, email, nothing. It was just gone. Since I had booked the flight directly with CO and not through a third party, I called the local CO ticket office (yes CO did have ticket offices in most European countries) to ask what happened. The response was “Oh, they cancel our people off that flight all the time. Do you need to fly that segment?” Well of course I do, or at least some flights that get me to DEN eventually. After three hours on the phone, and missing a major sight seeing event by our group, CO was able to re-book me on Lufthansa from Norway through FRA and then non stop to DEN and in 1st class at no additional cost to me. This cut one stop and 4 hours off my return trip so I was happy about the outcome even though I still believe it never should have happened. If I had booked this through some online travel site, I might still be in Norway trying to find a way home.

  10. Off topi but important:
    Jut did security at IAH with the baby. We have liquid formula which according to the TSA is allowed. First two agents were fine. Agent Nikki gave us grief, yelled at Gf “don’t you know the rules!” when corrected by another agent Agent Nikki said, “I’m giving her a patdown.” GF requested private screening, Nikki said she “didn’t have time for this crap.” GF consented to public patdown to avoid a scene and was holding me back from starting an argument.
    So angry right now…

    1. IAH is getting worse all the time. They added the TSA Secure Traveller lane in C and the TSA folks there just sit around doing nothing while the other line backs up.

      I will share a secret: Go through security in terminal A and then take the overhead train to the terminal you need. No lines on the Delta (north) side, much happier TSA people (probably since they have fewer people to check through), and you can get through the checkpoint and to your terminal on the train usually faster than just getting through security in C or E. If you are checking luggage, this gets more complicated. But even then I can check my bag at C, take the underground train to A, go through security there, and ride the overhead train back to C faster than I can get through security in C.

      1. This was the “elite” line in C. And I’ve used that trick before, but this time I had a bunch of junk that I needed to check and didn’t want to schelp…

  11. To the lawyers that read this sight: Isn’t it illegal for the airlines to charge them twice? If so, couldn’t they take them to court? Would it matter who they took (ie. Travelocity vs United)?

    This is the type of story that makes me nervous every time I fly. If I was in their shoes, I’d still be sitting in Poland. I have no more ability to come up with thousands to spend on a new ticket than most people. I wonder what would happen then? Maybe the Polish government would figure it out and eventually deport me for free.

  12. Pardon me for being dense, but whoever takes your money is responsible for solving any problems. I remember thinking about this subject when codesharing first started … back then you often didn’t even know which airline you were flying until you arrived to check in … hopefully at the right terminal.
    If you book through Continental and give them your money, when Lufthansa screws up your tix, CO needs to make you whole and then collect from Lufthansa. While they should do their all to help the customer, I don’t see how a travel agency is responsible for reimbursing a traveller unless said agency makes the error. If all the entities would step up and do the right thing, airlines can codeshare all they want. How sad it is that ethics and values have disappeared and nobody will take responsibility for their actions … it’s always a fight.

    1. No, you will regret it. The cost to travel by air today, adjusting for inflation, is a fraction of what it was then. I found an old ticket my dad bought to Europe in the 1950s. You can get there for the same price today when there’s a sale. You do not want re-regulation.

  13. Never…I repeat never, buy from a 3rd party site. You have a much better chance if you buy directly from the airline.
    I purchased a ticket to Malta from American Express travel one time. The problems started when there was a schedule change on the Lufthansa portion. Imagine my surprise when I called AMEX and was connected to “Sam” in India. Because I had a paper ticket (in 2007 no less) and it was getting close to my departure date, I was told to have the ticket changed once I arrived in Malta.

  14. No code sharing! Increase competition, not lessen it among the airlines. Maybe we the travellers will get better service. Can’t get worse
    While I go through the many Online Travel Agencies, I then book directly with the company. Airlines, hotels, car rentals. To avoid messes like this with Travelocity. Had Chris not got involved who out there thinks they ever would have been compensated? They booked the flights – they are responsible. They then can go after the airline. United – worst possible airline with the exception being some Russian airlines.

  15. Chris, what do you mean by voiding the ticket in this article? In the industry, to void a ticket means the ticket was run, and within 24 hours the ticketing transaction is deleted. The reservation can remain, just no ticket is assoicated with it. A segement can be canceled after ticketing, but not voided if it is a through fare. Any PNR has stored history and it would be very easy to see who canceled the segments and the date of the cancelation. All this is accessible by Travelocity by requesting the microfiche.
    It doesn’t matter that Travelocity handles billions of tickets with no problem. What matters is how they handle any and all problems.
    Carriers will have schedule changes after ticketing and 99% of the time, the ticketing agency will get the message and handles the rescheduling needs ot the passenger. That other 1% can not show up. This is rare, but can happen.
    When the OP reconfirmed this flights, what did he see or was told at that time? What the full reservation on the screen?
    I just had an issue on my LH ticket since I was flying LX home, not any codeshare flight. I couldn’t checkin on line with LX as LH was the ticketing carrier, so even with no codeshare, there can be problems.

  16. I wouldn’t say that code-sharing shouldn’t be allowed. To do that would severely limit flight options and availability. It sounds more like a problem using Travelocity for overseas tickets. They didn’t step up to the plate immediately when needed. I’m not a big fan of using Travelocity or any other online travel agency. I use them to compare flights/prices, but generally I have found that the prices are pretty much the same going directly to the airline. It’s not always the best customer service either, but it eliminates a middle-man that can cause even more problems and you always know exactly who is responsible.

  17. This is why I would never never never book with Travelocity. I’ve been
    reading this site a long time and have seen way too many cases where
    Travelocity says “airline’s fault” and airline says “Travelocity’s
    fault” and the customer is the ping pong ball. I don’t understand why
    anyone uses Travelocity instead of going directly to the airline (after
    searching Kayak to find which airline to go directly to).

  18. You know. In this situation I don’t have any qualms about the customer being refunded by both parties. Consider it punitive damages for not taking care of a customer correctly the first time.

  19. As always, it is really important to have more facts. What airline was the ticket validated on? A real live travel agent would know to write the ticket on Lufthansa. 99% of the time, there will be a choice on code-sharing, issue on the share airline, or the pretend airline. We always look to the 2nd actual airline, that way, the confusion or accidental cancellation because you technically did not show up for your ticketed flight, does not happen. It takes a human to think, a computer allows this type of disaster. I would be writing to the original ticketed airline, showing all copies of my ARC issued ticket, and would have it straightened out in 4 weeks.

  20. Code sharing allows each airline to deny responsiubility, leaving the traveller adrift without the promises services.
    Example: An AA ticket to Mallorca. Turns out the plane was Iberia. Unable to upgrade using either AA Mileage, or Iberia Avios.
    An AA ticket to Canary Islands. Sold by AA as codeshare. AA flight was 5 hours late so “someone” (still unable to discover who) cancelled the connecting reservation. IB refused to honor the ticket because it was IB. AA did not operate a flight to Canary Islands, so passenger sent back to Iberia. IB said the ticket # was AA so again refused to honor it. AA called the IB agent at the airport and told him to reissue the ticket. All flights full. Since ticket only stand-by, waited while 5 IB flights to Canary Islands deprated. Eventually (22 hours later) AA called IB again and told them to find a confirmed space.
    Each airline denied responsibility. It’s a no man’s land. Same is true for connection last year DL to AF.
    Unlike the old days, when a “codeshare” is written on another airlines “ticket stock”, today the airline actually flying can deny responsibility and send passenger back to airline which only “marketed” the ticket.
    No man’s land. Very deceptive.

  21. This is a frightening story since I am going through something similar with Delta and KLM at the moment. Delta keeps canceling my flights- twice now- and it has thus far taken me 12 hours on the phone to get them back. They continue to show on KLM but not on Delta. I have never been notified. Seats are lost, information lost, and I wonder what we will do if this should happen when we are in Afrca? Or the morning we are suppposed to leave?

  22. I have a situation with Travelocity & Spirit Air. I booked a flight for Lima, Peru; Travelocity (T) made no mention of Spirit’s (S) unusual polciy of only ONE (1) CHECKED BAG on this flight. I feel it was T’s responsibility to inform me of same & also S’s responsibility to make sure correct info was given by T.
    S keeps insisting that the problem is with T; even tho I tried to cancel within the 24 hours with a S- CSR (I was told – 4 hours in April 2012). Dollar-wise, we are not talking about a lot of money (less than $500); but this is almost 50% of my total income. I am on SS Disability for severe ANXIETY/DEPRESSION; I moved to Peru as the cost of living was cheaper & to be married to a Peruvian.
    Mr. Elliott has had such sincere empathy for my situation; may God bless him & his family for such outstanding efforts to date. Why do businesses not admit an error occured (in a timely fashion) & do right by the customer? In Peru, I am a poster to various expat forums & other experienced travelers have also been inconvenienced by travel agents (T & others) not informing of this unusual policy. I feel the DOT should investigate & fine – ALL PARTIES THAT ARE CULPABLE! Code sharing has some merit; but false info is WORTHLESS!!!
    If you need my email; please advise herein…

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