Travelers searching airfare booking site CheapOair.com for flights between Newark, N.J. and Buffalo will likely find a non-stop flight at 11:20 a.m. on Continental Airlines.
The catch: the trip isn't really on Continental and CheapOair.com never tells customers that.
The flight -- on a tiny, often bumpy turboprop -- is actually run by Colgan Air, a regional airline that operates the route under the Continental Connection name. It's the same airline that crashed on approach to Buffalo nearly two years ago, killing 50 people -- a crash that investigators blamed on crew errors.
Pilots with cheaper, regional airlines typically have less experience and are paid less and than their colleagues with the mainline airlines. The pilot and 24-year-old first officer in the Colgan crash had both slept con couches in the airport's crew room in the days leading up to their final flight -- a cheaper and frowned-upon practice sometimes followed by commuting pilots who can not afford a bed in local, shared apartments called "crash pads."
"I think consumers deserve to know who is flying their plane so they can make an informed decision," said Scott Maurer, who lost his 30-year-old daughter Lorin in the crash. "Sadly, we have discovered that there is a definitive difference [in safety] between what's going on at the regional airline level and what you have at the majors today."
Federal law requires airlines and independent booking sites to disclose upfront when a flight is operated by somebody else, like a regional airline. But many sites, including CheapOair, never disclose the name of the actual airline or require several clicks to learn the identity.
"CheapOAir is working to provide our customers with enhanced carrier information," the booking site told ABC News. "We are committed to delivering an outstanding customer experience that is both fully transparent and compliant with federal law."
Maurer said his daughter did not know that she wasn't booking a ticket on Continental or that she was on a turboprop.
"We have seen more than the odd instance of people getting blindsided both domestically and internationally when they bought a "codeshare" ticket without knowing the actual operating carrier," said Rick Seaney, CEO of airfare-search site FareCompare.com and an ABCNews.com columnist. "We are entering into an era of worldwide airline mergers … which makes it all important for consumers to understand not only who they are buying their ticket from but who is operating the aircraft."
Seaney's own fare search site doesn't clearly disclose actual carriers, something he blames on how data is fed in from the actual booking sites. FareCompare.com users don't learn the actual carrier until they click through the referral link to a booking site like Orbitz or CheapTickets.com.
Major booking sites such as Expedia and Travelocity aren't much clearer, but with a little hunting around they at least say who is operating a flight. (A customer with CheapOair might not learn until they are at the airport.)