Few travel experiences sound as hellish as Liri Fusha's.
The Better Waverly resident booked a trip for her brother's wedding. But instead of connecting from one flight landing in Rome to another headed to her native Albania, she spent 30 hours trapped in the Italian airport, according to a $3.2 million lawsuit she filed in federal court against two airlines and her online travel agent.
Not only did she miss the wedding, she said, but she ended up hospitalized with acute tonsillitis and post-traumatic stress disorder.
While Fusha's experience surely isn't the norm, it highlights a practice known as code sharing. You may pay one airline for your entire itinerary, but some of those flights may be operated by another carrier. Fliers are more likely to book a flight they believe is operated by one airline, and the airlines split the revenue, said Janice Hough, a travel agent who blogs at ConsumerTraveler.com.
"An airline wants to make it look like they can get you as far as possible," Hough said. "They refer to it as a seamless travel experience."
Code sharing provides some benefits to consumers. It allows frequent fliers to use miles or points to buy tickets to a longer list of destinations, she said. And sometimes, the actual operator may offer seats on the same flight for far less than the one selling tickets — Hough said she saved a customer $1,500 by booking an Air China flight also advertised by United Airlines.
However, it can create problems for some passengers, such as lost baggage or missed connections, Hough said. Passengers occasionally go to the wrong ticket counter, which can be a disaster on a tight schedule, and systems between airlines can break down. Some passengers become disenchanted if the airline isn't an American brand with which they are familiar, she said.
But Hough, a travel agent for nearly three decades, has never heard of a situation like Fusha's. Fusha alleges in court documents that she bought tickets on Vayama.com for Delta Air Lines flights in July 2008 that were actually operated by Alitalia. But once she got to Rome, Alitalia said she wasn't on the passenger list for the flight to Tirana, Albania.
"Can you imagine being a single person, traveling by yourself, going overseas and basically being dropped?" asked her attorney, Richard Martel Jr. "Her story just shocked us."
Delta does not comment on pending litigation, said spokeswoman Susan Elliott. Delta offers code share flights with airlines including Hawaiian, Virgin Australia and China Airways, and members of its SkyTeam network, such as Alitalia.
"Instances of issues related to our code share partners and our passengers flying with these airlines are extremely rare," Elliott said. "The carrier who sells the ticket is responsible for telling the customer and responsible for sharing the information with the other carriers in the itinerary."
Alitalia representatives could not be reached for comment. The company had requested a stay in Baltimore Circuit Court, citing bankruptcy proceedings, before the case was moved to federal court, Martel said.
Fusha ended up trekking between two terminals, trying to sort out the problem. She had to sleep on the floor in the airport and ended up with blisters and other ailments. Ultimately, Italian police directed Delta to put her on a flight to her destination. She said she incurred $30,000 in medical bills.
Hough said good travel agents will usually warn consumers if they're on a code share. Generally, four-digit flight numbers may be one sign of a code share on international flights, or if it's a propeller plane on domestic flights.
She counsels travelers to bring as much information with them as possible, including how to reach customer service representatives. "The more information you can give them when you're standing at the counter to tell them you have a reservation, the better," Hough said.
"Whoever sold you the ticket may be able to straighten out" any problems, she said, adding that they may be able to take up a problem with a manager faster.
And finally, Hough says to stay calm but persistent: "Airport agents will want to get rid of you as soon as possible, but sometimes 'aggressive niceness' will spur them to a solution."
How to be aware of code share
• Read your itinerary carefully because it should state who is operating your flights. If you're not certain, call the airline.
• If you have a code-sharing itinerary, include even more time than recommended for connections.
• When you buy your tickets, get the record locator number — the six-digit confirmation of your reservation in that airline's system — from the airline that sells you the tickets. Then use that information to verify your seat assignment or reservation. You also can ask for a ticket number, another identifier.
• Keep a customer service phone number handy for whoever booked your ticket — whether it's through a travel agent, through an online agent or through the airline's website.