Why lying is wrong — even when an airline does it

To the airline apologists who rushed to the defense of an industry that lies by pretending other companies’ products are its own — a clever trick called “codesharing” — I have just one thing to say: meet Lisa Waters.

She had booked a roundtrip flight on American Airlines from New York to London. At least that’s what she thought.

Turns out the flight was operated by American’s codeshare partner, British Airways. Waters claims she paid $120 for “preferred” seats, which on the AA.com site, looked pretty decent.

“Then we got on the plane,” she says. “These preferred seats were behind the wall of a toilet. So for nine long hours we heard flushing, door opening and closing, people standing in line to get to the one of only two bathrooms in coach. I could not even sleep.”

On the American Airlines website, it didn’t note the toilets. But on the British Airways site, she says, they were clearly highlighted, and she would have never paid extra for the seats.

That’s one of the many perils of airline codesharing, which I called bald-faced lie in my last column. Many of you disagreed, saying codesharing allowed you to fly to more destinations, collect more award miles, and get better service.

Each of those arguments is provably wrong.

But before I get to that proof, let me tell you what happened to Waters when she complained. She figured that since some of the “benefits” of the AA preferred seat gotten lost in translation, the airline would be eager to refund the $120 she’d paid.

She sent a brief, cordial email to the airline.

“While many customers have found this service to be a convenient option, we know that each of our customers value different parts of the overall travel experience, and all of our Your Choice travel services are optional,” it replied. “This allows us to keep our fares low, while offering the individual products and services that our customers value.”

American refused to refund the fee.

“I feel deceived,” she said.

The codeshare confusion she describes is fairly minor in the grand scheme of things. In fact, Waters may have simply misunderstood the preferred seating option on her airline’s site. (I found it difficult to duplicate her problem online, but even so, she shouldn’t have been so easily confused, at least the way she describes it.)

It gets more interesting when baggage is lost and codeshare partners start to play the blame game, referring the complaint to each other until the passengers gives up in disgust. It’s also problematic when each airline “partner” has different luggage allowances or ticket rules, and chooses to apply them to its own advantage.

It’s relatively easy to get lost in a “no-man’s land” between codeshare partners, where no airlines are willing to take responsibility for anything. (Think I’m kidding? I’m handling a nightmare case right now involving three codeshare partners and a missing refund. No one is willing to pay up. Talk about a wild goose chase.)

Before I end my rant on the evils of codesharing, let me address a few of the myths that I found in the comments of my previous story on the subject.

Myth: Codesharing gives you access to more destinations.

Fact: No it doesn’t. The airline you’re booking a ticket with is still flying to the same number of cities. Its codeshare “partners” are serving the rest and allowing your airline to claim those destinations as its own. That is a lie.

Myth: Codesharing allows you to collect and redeem more award miles.

Fact: Oh really? Try redeeming your hard-earned frequent flier points for a flight and tell me how that goes. Unless you’re super-flexible or have an encyclopedic knowledge of programs and codeshare partnerships, you’re going to feel like a sucker for having bought that argument. It’s worthless scrip.

Myth: Codesharing improves service.

Fact: No it doesn’t. Codesharing allows your airline to offer substandard service and blame a partner airline for its own incompetence.

Bottom line: Lying is wrong, even when airlines do it, and even when they say it’s for the good of their passengers.

Especially when they say it’s for the good of their passengers.

Because see, when governments allows airlines to lie … er, I mean, codeshare, they do something else that passengers hardly notice: They stop competing. Less competition means higher fares, and the only ones who benefit from higher fares are the airlines.

Think about that the next time you book a flight that’s “operated by” a different airline.

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