Dec. 16, 2010 -- 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."
Is Your Flight on a Regional Airline?
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.)
On Expedia, a tiny set of arrows between the airline name and the flight number are supposed to symbolize that it is operated by somebody else. But only when somebody hovers their mouse over the arrows do they learn the actual operator. If they miss it there, two pages later -- once outbound and return flights are selected -- then Expedia displays the actual operator.
For instance a search for a non-stop trip from Charlotte, N.C. to Knoxville, Tenn. shows United flight 2717. Customers need to either mouse over those little arrows or click through to the third page to learn that it's not a United flight but actually one "Operated by: /PSA A/L DBA US AIRWAYS EXPRESS."
For those who can't read airline-speak, that United flight is actually a trip on regional airline PSA doing business as US Airways Express.
"We understand the concerns around this issue and are considering ways we can improve how we display this information," Expedia spokesman Adam Anderson told ABC News. "Of course we'll be working with the DOT to ensure that we are in full compliance with their requirements."
Booking One Airline, Flying Another
"A business traveler would learn that. But a casual consumer trying to make a ticket purchase is not going to know that," Maurer said.
An ABC News analysis of booking sites showed that of the big three sites, only Orbitz discloses regional carriers on the first search result page.
"They're doing an outstanding job of it," Maurer said.
A Department of Transportation spokesman said the agency "has taken enforcement action on many occasions" and "is currently conducting an investigation of major airline and large internet travel agency websites for compliance with our disclosure requirements."
The DOT on Monday levied a $600,000 fine against JetBlue, in part because the airline's phone agents allegedly failed to disclose that flights were being operated by regional airline Cape Air, a JetBlue code-share affiliate.
Most of the major airlines provide good transparency, Maurer said, except for US Airways.
US Airways assigns different logos next to each of its flight numbers to differentiate who is actually operating the plane. But travelers have to actually know that the different colored logos mean something. For instance, a black American flag symbolizes mainline US Airway flights, the type that Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger flew during the so-called "Miracle on the Hudson" landing. A light blue flag with a small "YV" or "PSA" next to it means a Mesa Airlines or PSA Airlines flight operated under the US Airways Express flag.
On that same search for Charlotte-Knoxville flights on the US Airways website, we had to mouse over the flight number in order to see: "Flight operated by PSA Airlines doing business as US Airways Express." There is also a legend at the bottom of the page explaining what each of the colored logos means.
Asked to comment on Maurer and other Buffalo crash families' concerns, airline spokesman Derek Hanna told ABC News: "US Airways is in full compliance with the federal disclosure requirements."
Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlier.com said there "is a woeful lack of transparency."
"There may be some token gestures made in the direction of letting people know but they are inadequate," Winship said. "The proof of that is the frequency of complaints from customers who say they thought they were booking a ticket on one airline and are actually flying another."
Winship noted that thanks to new global alliances, the number of codeshares has been steadily increasing. And, he said, "The airlines haven't kept up in making consumers aware of how these things work."