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 The Brancatelli File

joe SHELL GAME
IN THE SKIES


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

December 1, 1994 -- What do you think of an airline service so confusing that many business travelers don't even know the name of the carrier on which they are flying? What about a scheme so misleading that you buy a ticket promising a flight on one airline, but you end up boarding the aircraft of another carrier?

Welcome to the disingenuous world of airline "code sharing." Although there are endless variations, code-sharing always boils down to the same shell game: one airline masquerades as another by using the other airline's reservation code, flight numbers, and sometimes even its planes and logos. The goal: convince unwitting travelers that the first airline flies to places where it has no service at all.

There are two major types of code sharing. One involves a well-known major jet airline and a lesser-known "commuter" carrier that usually flies prop planes. The commuter carrier will strike a deal with the big airline to paint its prop planes to look like the big airline's jets, and it will adopt a variation of its name. Then the jet airline sells seats on the commuter carrier's flights as its own.

One example: United Airlines' seven daily flights from San Francisco to Modesto. The flights carry the "UA" computer code and United flight numbers, but they are really flown by a commuter carrier named Westair using the moniker "United Express."

The other major form of code sharing involves U.S. airlines and foreign carriers. In an attempt to convince business travelers they fly almost everywhere in the world, U.S. carriers put their names on flights that are really flown by foreign airlines. Delta Air Lines, for example, puts its "DL" computer code and Delta flight numbers on flights that are actually operated by Sabena of Belgium, Aeromexico, Austrian Airlines, and even Aeroflot, the Russian carrier.

What's wrong with code-sharing? For one thing, it's deceptive. The Department of Transportation recently determined that 30 percent of all travelers who book international reservations on a code-shared flight may not be told on which airline they will be flying.

And then there's the issue of safety. When a Skywest commuter flight, using a Delta flight number and operating under the name "Delta Connection," crashed in 1990, Delta told a Nevada court that it felt no responsibility for the flight. And Northwest Airlines did not even take part in an accident investigation when a commuter plane that carried Northwest's code and operated as "Northwest Airlink" crashed last year.

How do you protect yourself? Travel agents and reservation clerks are supposed to tell you whenever you book a code-shared flight, but that doesn't always happen. So now the Transportation Department has proposed that agents be required to give written notice whenever a code-share flight is booked. But you should always ask one simple question--"What airline actually operates this flight?"--whenever you make a reservation.

AT THE GATE...
Virgin Atlantic Airways has launched "Virgin Vacations," a series of travel packages to London. Packages include roundtrip airfare, hotel accommodations, daily continental breakfast, and a pass for London's mass-transit system. Prices from San Francisco begin at $589 per person. ... USAir was scheduled to drop most of its service between San Francisco and Los Angeles on November 13. USAir inherited the flights several years ago when it purchased PSA. ... The Department of Transportation wants to increase to $1,850 the maximum limit on compensation passengers can collect when airlines lose, damage or delay baggage on domestic flights. The current maximum is $1,250.

This column originally appeared in San Francisco Focus magazine.

Copyright 1993-2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.