June 21, 2005 -- Ah, for the days when the name on the side of the plane had something to do with the airline you thought you were flying.
You were pretty sure you bought a ticket on one airline, but when you showed up at the airport, they sent you to another airline in another part of the airport because that other airline is "operating this flight." Worse, they were in another terminal about halfway across the continent. Whoa.
If I buy a ticket on Hotwings Airlines, shouldn't I expect Hotwings to fly the darned airplane? Welcome to the sometimes confusing world of codeshare agreements.
On its Web site, American Airlines defines the term "codeshare" like this:
Definition -- What is codeshare?
An interline partnership where one carrier markets service and places its code on another carrier's flights. This offers carriers an opportunity to provide service to destinations not in their route structure. These schedules are considered online bookings for most situations. An exception could be the minimum connecting time, which is sometimes equal to the off-line connection time."
In its simplest form, codesharing works like this: You buy a ticket on American Airlines for a flight operated by Alaska Airlines along a route American otherwise does not serve. Both airlines are superlative major carriers (like most, if not all the carriers large and small in America today), so safety is not a concern. But what's terribly confusing is just exactly who's going to be providing that sumptuous meal of in-flight peanuts: American or Alaska?
Well, in the world of codeshare agreements, it's American's ticket, American collected your money, and American has an American Airlines flight number for you, but in reality it's an Alaska Airlines flight operated by Alaska's pilots and flight attendants over Alaska's route system.
Up there on the departures board you'll find your American Airlines flight number listed. But in a separate listing on the same board, there's an Alaska Airlines flight number going to the same place. Only when you stare hard and realize they're both going to be pushing back from the same gate at the same time does it begin to become clear that it is, in fact, the same flight -- in this case, using a big white airplane with a large trademark Eskimo (actually an Athabaskan Native American) up there on the tail, smiling at you from under his parka.
So far, so good. You can live with that. After all, Alaska's one of the highest-rated airlines in the country. But when you arrive at the airport, if you make the logical mistake of taking your American Airlines ticket to the American Airlines counter, you'll discover that American's folks can't check your bags or fly you anywhere on that fare. In fact, they have to send you, dragging your bags, to the Alaska Airlines counter, where you discover that it was Alaska's curbside baggage service you should have pulled up to, not American's.
The key? If the reservationist (an increasingly rare creature separated from you by long phone delays during which you can listen to musical selections ranking about 300 on the Top 40 list) tells you the flight you're about to purchase is a "codeshare" flight, listen closely when he or she tells you the vital information about "who is operating the flight." If you buy over the Internet (which is what the airlines want you to do), look very closely to see who's really flying the plane. The shorthand version? If Hotwings is flying the aircraft, go to the Hotwings counter, regardless of which airline sold you the ticket.
Confused? There are passengers by the hundreds (I'm being charitable here) confused by this every day.
So why do we passengers put up with it? Two reasons.
First, codesharing effectively merges your frequent flyer miles and programs, letting you use your built-up mileage from one carrier on several others (even though this can be even more confusing because each carrier "group" has its own rules and myriad exceptions).
Second, we put up with it because, thanks to Congress deciding back in 1978 that the airline industry is NOT a vital public service that should be regulated at least to a minimal degree, airline managements have to come up with any innovation they can to stay afloat in this Wild West version of competition. Codeshares add at least some profit to the industry's sorely strained bottom line.
The airline industry argues that codesharing provides customer convenience because you can pretend to stick with your favorite airline yet fly on many others, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a groundswell of public enthusiasm for the practice. Until it evolves into the next stage, however, (mergers, acquisitions and massive global carriers with little loyalty to the United States), the best way to handle it is by asking careful questions before you buy, and knowing whose counter to head for.