Whose ticket is it, anyway?

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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.

Under normal circumstances — which is to say, if they were actually flying on a single airline — the fix for both Elliott (no relation) and Kuhnke’s problems would be simple. 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 governing tickets you probably aren’t aware of. Knowing them may save you from a big headache when you travel this summer.

Elliott, a yoga instructor from Reston, Va., booked a flight from Washington to Athens through the United Airlines Web site. Although her ticket says “United Airlines,” she isn’t flying on it. 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 we can’t make advance seat assignments on the United Web site. It 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. “A United customer can request either window or aisle and United will pass that request to our 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. It’s just an Air Canada flight pretending to be a United flight.

Kuhnke, an instructor for the Navy who is based in Bolingbrook, Ill., also has questions about his code share ticket. He 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, and whether the code share arrangement had anything to do with it.

“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, there’s the question of 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, Wis. It may help to know the industry terms “plating” carrier or “marketing” carrier. Basically, they indicate where the buck stops when something goes wrong.

And that isn’t always clear. Yes, 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 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, including all liability outlined under the contract of carriage, which is the legal agreement between you and the airline. 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 argue 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 started to take 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

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on our help forum.

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  • DCbackpacker

    When I purchase a flight directly through an airline’s website, and it is codeshared, I always explore my options before flying.

    For example, I bought a roundtrip ticket on Delta for a flight from Melbourne, Australia to the States. My initial trans-Pacific flight was on Virgin Australia, which had a higher baggage allowance than Delta (2 free vs. 1). First thing I did, was I emailed VA to inquire as to who’s baggage policy I followed. I also inquired as to reserving a seat. (Note, everything was done in writing).

    VA was fantastic. They emailed back letting me know that I would follow their baggage allowance and they allowed me to reserve my seat through their website.

    My flight to the States went off without a hitch. However, months later when I went to use the back-end of the return flight and I checked in at the VA desk at LAX, they tried to tell me I was only allowed 1 bag, and not 2, because I made the reservation on Delta. I quickly pulled up the email from VA from months before to show that per VA’s terms, I was allowed 2. Problem solved.

    My advice to people flying code share, look up the terms and options of both airlines. Then, contact the airline you’re flying directly about any inquiries you may have if you’re unable to reserve a seat, have baggage questions, etc. I’ve even had in the past where a code shared flight has given me a separate reservation number for their airline to reserve my seat, check my status, etc…

  • Bill___A

    When I buy a ticket on Air Canada and there is a code share on United, for example, I call Air Canada and give them my PNR. I then ask them for the United “PNR” which is generally different. I can then go on the United website and call up that flight and make seating arrangements.
    I don’t know how it works with every airline, but this works for me. it is screwed up but I have a workaround.

  • just me

    Codeshare is for deception. There is NO benefits for travelers. Codeshare allows airlines to deceive travelers that they actually fly where they do not fly. The same goes for using the same flight numbers for flights that always require airplane change.
    Chris – any Alliance benefits have nothing to do with codeshare. Codeshare does not give more flight option either. Buying new ticket to complete the codeshare flight because one was sent to wrong terminal might be expeditious way of continuing the travel – but the airline should be sued for the damages immediately afterwards.
    When it existed the most deception was on US Airways tickets they wrote the Logo of the codeshare partner (no codeshare partner’s two letter code) and the codeshare US Airways flight number – which combination of course did not exist in any database or reservation system.
    Airports displays waste (sometimes precious) time displaying sometimes dozens of rows of lfight numbers that do not exist, and many times they never display the codeshare number that is the only number you actually have. Any complaints to the airlines a responded by an excuse: airport displays are under airport authority not us. Some more conscious airlines (e.g. LH) do actually show real flight numbers and give reservation code on each airline involved if different from their’s.
    CODESHARE is a sham and should be outlawed.

  • Flywisely

    The easiest way not to be deceived (by anyone including yourself) is to change the way you think or make assumptions. When you see a flight number like LH7602 consider that LH is merely a marketer and not necessarily the operator of the flight. It’s that easy.

  • DChamp56

    Sit down, shut up and take what we give you!

    Oh, sorry… thought I was an airline there for a moment!

  • Mark

    Getting seat assignments on a codeshare flight is generally quite easy – go to the website of the operating carrier, enter your booking reference or e-ticket number, and you can /usually/ make a seat selection. If both airlines are in the same alliance, you get any frequent traveller perks too (e.g. preferred seats / free selection) – but in line with the operating carrier’s rules. Sometimes these are better than your ticketing airline, sometimes worse.

    Appreciate that it’s complex though – and not well-advertised that this is the way you do it.

    I also don’t understand the complaint from the guy flying from Chicago to Dubai. Both United and Lufthansa are on the same alliance. He could either put his United frequent traveller number on the booking, and got United miles for every journey segment, or he put his Lufthansa number on the booking, and get Lufthansa miles for every journey segment. You can’t get both.