Why I hate airline code-sharing and — why you will, too

How much do I hate airline code-sharing? Let me count the ways.

I could offer a lot of persuasive answers, starting with the many code-share catastrophe cases we receive every day on this site. I could also point out that code-sharing is a euphemism for passing off someone else’s flight as your own, or in the language of reality, lying.

But I also have personal reasons for detesting code-sharing. They came from my own recent disaster involving Emirates and JetBlue.

Disaster? Oh yeah.

Picture hours-long lines at JFK, crying children and intransigent ticket agents, and you’ll get the idea of what I was up against. No question about it, code-sharing is one of the biggest airline scams of the 21st century.

Here’s the setup: I was flying from Nairobi back to Orlando. Emirates took the first two segments, from Nairobi to Dubai and from Dubai to New York. Then JetBlue was supposed to pick up the connection from JFK to Orlando.

It didn’t happen.

First, a little context. I was in Kenya to speak at a conference, and for reasons too complicated to mention in this story, I brought my three kids, ages 10, 12 and 14. Our day had started in the northern part of Kenya with a grueling six-hour drive, two hours of which were on dirt roads. That was followed by another six-hour wait, then a five-hour flight to Dubai, a three-hour stopover and a 13-hour flight to New York.

We were beyond exhausted.

Shortly after landing in the States, we found out that our JetBlue flight, which was supposed to leave five hours later, had been canceled. The reason: It alternated between “weather” and “runway construction.” No one was entirely sure, but other flights to Orlando were leaving on time, so I had a difficult time believing either excuse.

A JetBlue representative sent us to a long line at JFK’s Terminal 5 — and when I say long, I’m not exaggerating. It took nearly two hours to get help.

Calls made to Emirates and JetBlue as we patiently waited were futile. JetBlue insisted only the “help” desk at Terminal 5 could help. Emirates, which had ticketed the flight, deferred to JetBlue. Meanwhile, we watched in horror as every flight back to Orlando was canceled. My daughter started to cry.

When we finally reached the counter, an agent tried to help us. After 20 minutes of searching and calling, she authorized $40 of meal vouchers for us, rebooked us on a 9 p.m. flight the next day — the last flight of the day — and said we would have to wait three hours for JetBlue to “authorize” a hotel voucher. By now, my daughter was sleeping on the floor.

“Good,” I thought, “at least I’ll be able to feed these kids.”

If you’ve ever been to Terminal 5, you probably know what happened next. We can’t get through security into the main terminal because our flight doesn’t leave for another day. The only food in the check-in area is at a bar or a Dunkin’ Donuts.

We were dispatched to another line to speak with a supervisor about getting a gate pass, but as I tried to comfort my daughter who was still lying on the floor, several passengers vaulted ahead of us in line. I waited for our turn — what’s another 10 minutes? — but when I reached the supervisor, she accused us of trying to cut in line.

I left the line, convinced that neither Emirates nor JetBlue cared about us.

You’re probably wondering how this ended. I won’t keep you in suspense. I called my travel agent, who made a reservation at the airport Ramada. We crashed for the night and flew home the next day. (Travel agents, I love you!)

But this is about code-sharing. See, airlines like Emirates and JetBlue want all the benefits of code-sharing — the additional passengers, the ability to sell seats on each other’s flights, and the incremental revenue generated from it — but they don’t want to assume the responsibility when something goes wrong.

Our flight to Orlando was canceled shortly before we landed at JFK. A JetBlue representative should have met us at the gate, handed us new boarding passes for the next flight, meal vouchers we could have used and hotel vouchers. That’s how code-sharing should work. Instead, we waited in several long lines until we simply gave up. Shame on the airlines for making my daughter cry. Shame on them for not caring.

Code-sharing may allow a few loyalty-program-obsessed frequent fliers to collect and redeem even more points, but when it comes right down to it, the airlines reap almost all of the rewards. The government has no business sanctioning this kind of collusive behavior.

Update: Several days after I filed this story, my travel agent contacted me to say that JetBlue had refunded my JFK-Orlando flight and would cover my hotel expenses.

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