The federal government is cracking down on airlines and third-party ticketing sites that make it difficult for travelers to decipher who is really flying their plane.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's Aviation Enforcement Office today announced that it is giving airlines and online ticket agents 60 days to modify websites to make it easier for travelers to learn if their flight is being flown by a large airline like Continental or Delta or a smaller regional airline operating under the mainline carrier's banner.
Under code-sharing, an airline sells tickets on flights that use the airline's code, but are actually operated by a different carrier. Longstanding DOT rules require airlines to disclose code-sharing arrangements to consumers before they book a flight, but legislation adopted in August, 2010 has also clarified the requirements for Internet websites that sell airline tickets.
"When passengers buy an airline ticket, they have the right to know which airline will be operating their flight," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "For years we've required airlines to inform consumers about code-sharing arrangements, and we'll be monitoring the industry closely to make sure they comply with the provisions of the new legislation."
Passenger advocates were happy with DOT's action.
"This is great news. We are pleased that the DOT has reacted to a call by consumers to address several Web sites that have not come into compliance with the new law. Consumers deserve to know "Who is really flying the plane they purchased a ticket on," Scott Maurer, who lost his 30-year-old daughter Lorin in the a commuter airline crash told ABC News today.
Currently, for example, 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," Maurer, who lost his daughter in the crash recently told ABC News. "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.