It may take a decoder ring to un­der­stand the air­line prac­tice known as ‘code shar­ing.’

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - CHRISTO­PHER EL­LIOTT

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 Right Rez, 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 also 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 mul­ti­seg­ment 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 say 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. El­liott is a con­sumer ad­vo­cate, jour­nal­ist and co-founder of the ad­vo­cacy group Trav­el­ers United. Email him at chris@el­liott.org.

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