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.

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. Ca-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 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? 

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. 

Christopher Elliott is a consumer advocate and editor at large for National Geographic Traveler. Contact him at chris@elliott.org or visit elliott.org.

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