Earlier this week, I published a column on CNN.com talking about codesharing. You all know the practice. It’s when one airline sells flights on another airline under its own code. This column turned into a great discussion on airliners.net, and now I’m bringing it here. Why? Because I don’t see a single consumer benefit to codesharing. Anyone else believe otherwise?
I suppose I should break this down into two different pieces, because there is one aspect of codesharing that does make sense to me: the regional airline relationship. If you fly Delta from LAX to Phoenix, you’re actually flying on SkyWest Airlines operating as Delta Connection. SkyWest doesn’t sell flights on its own. It’s just a hired service-provider, and that type of codesharing I understand. The operating airline isn’t equipped to really handle ticket sales and shouldn’t have to be. It’s really operated on behalf of the larger partner, and that larger partner’s policies and procedures increasingly apply. So let’s exclude this type of codesharing from the discussion.
It’s the other type of codesharing that I’m targeting here, and I would love to see it disappear completely. You know what I’m talking about. It’s when you buy a flight on United but actually fly on Lufthansa. Or you buy a ticket on US Airways and find it’s actually on United. These types of codesharing relationships have grown dramatically over the years to the point where airlines have started to run out of 4 digit flight numbers. (Ever wonder why you see flights with the same number for a roundtrip? It’s to conserve on numbers.)
From a sales perspective, this makes sense. Consumers are more likely to want to buy a ticket on a single airline and at least at one point, there was bias in the reservation systems to display single-airline itineraries first. This practice also allows airlines to double their presence on screen. Instead of one flight display of American from LA to London and British Airways to Athens, they get two. You’ll now see one option on American and the other on BA, even though they’re the exact same flights. This creates a ton of clutter and really adds no value.
But is there any true advantage to a passenger? I think not. Here are some of the suggested advantages and why they aren’t real.
You can check your baggage all the way through on codeshares instead of having to claim and re-check in the middle. This may be true, but this benefit is in no way limited to codeshares. Most airlines have ticketing and baggage agreements with other airlines to be able to check bags through. For example, if you’re flying United to Paris, you can check your bags through to a connecting flight on Air France even though the two have no commercial relationship involving codesharing.
But then I’m subject to a bunch of different baggage policies? It’s actually no different. The operating airline sets the baggage policies, so even if you’re on a codeshare, that doesn’t really change anything.
You can buy a single ticket on a codeshare but you’d have to buy two tickets otherwise. That’s not true at all. There are interline agreements that allow you to buy one ticket across airlines, regardless of the code.
But it’s a lot more expensive when you buy a ticket on separate codes. That’s airline policy, not a given fact. Airlines may provide lower fares that are booked on their codes, but there’s no reason they can’t do the same for interlining. I was just helping one client go from Geneva to LA and found the best business class option to be on Swiss to London and then Air New Zealand to LA. No codesharing involved, but the price was competitive.
When I buy a ticket on one airline’s code, then I can go to that airline to take care of everything. This is one of the more dangerous aspects of codesharing. People think the airline they buy from is in charge of everything, but that’s only true when convenient. When it comes to ticketing, whichever airline sold the ticket is the one responsible for changes. It doesn’t matter if it’s a codeshare or not. I just helped someone who had a problem with an Iberia flight on a ticket purchased via Qantas. Iberia said it couldn’t help, and we had to talk to Qantas to get it fixed. But when it comes to things like lost baggage, it goes to the operating airline. The codeshare gives an illusion of responsibility when that’s really not the case.
I can earn my miles on codeshares but not otherwise. This actually has nothing to do with codesharing but is really a separate business agreement. Any two airlines can provide any level of frequent flier reciprocity regardless of code. If they choose to do otherwise, that’s a business decision.
While there are no real benefits, there are plenty of downsides. First and most important is the confusion. People simply don’t know who they’re actually flying. Sure, it’s disclosed (required by law in the US) but people don’t always read every detail. It also adds a ton of clutter. One of the biggest complaints on airliners.net was that codesharing fills departure screens with a ton of flight numbers for the exact same flight so it just makes it more time-consuming to get the information you need.
There’s also the issue of product consistency. Airlines may codeshare but that says nothing about consistency between the products onboard. You might buy a ticket on British Airways, but if you end up on an Iberia flight, you’re going to be disappointed with what you get.
I should clarify that I do see benefits from alliances. They set a basic standard (admittedly, very basic) about what you can expect across the participating airlines in terms of mileage accrual, elite benefits, etc. They also have been working to locate closer to each other in large hubs to make for an easier connection. But codesharing isn’t necessary or even really that helpful to making an alliance work. If you buy a ticket that shows Delta the whole way versus a ticket that has Delta connecting to Air France, the alliance-benefits would remain the same. And if they don’t, that’s a business issue that can be fixed.
In the end, I see no good reason for codesharing, and I wish it would just disappear. Anyone care to argue for why codeshares are good? Am I missing something?