On his way home to Washington last month from a business trip, Don Alberstadt, a quality assurance auditor, stood in line at the US Airways ticket counter in San Diego for 45 minutes, waiting to check his bag and check in for his nonstop flight to Washington, US Airways Flight 6560. But when he reached the desk, a US Airways agent told him there was no Flight 6560 - even though the itinerary he received from a corporate travel agency displayed that number and the US Airways logo.
Alberstadt, it turns out, was booked on a code-share flight, sold by US Airways but operated by United Airlines. He was sent to the United counter for check-in and stood in line for another 30 minutes. "I am just glad that I did not arrive at the airport only one hour prior to the flight departure," he said, adding that "a simple FYI" about what to expect would have been helpful. "It seems to me that the travel industry - reservations, airports and airlines - is employing tactics that make travel more disruptive and anxious, rather than trying to make it more accommodating."
"Code share" is the industry term for an agreement that allows airlines to sell one another's flights as if they were their own. The code refers to the two letters airlines typically use to identify themselves on tickets and in computer-reservation systems. Domestic code-share agreements became popular between major airlines and regional feeder carriers as a way for major carriers to expand their network of flights without having to serve low-volume commuter markets directly at high costs.
Over the years, code-share affiliations were formed among United States and foreign airlines, as carriers searched for ways to expand their networks internationally. Now, as airlines continue to struggle financially, they are increasingly relying on code sharing to sell more tickets.
The number of flights originating in the United States that are operated by one carrier but sold by one or more other airlines has grown from about 1.1 million in 2000 to 4.3 million this year, according to Back Aviation Solutions, an industry consulting firm.
"The number of flights originating in the U.S. is slightly higher in 2006 than [post-9/11] 2002," Frederick Roe, regional manager at Back Aviation Solutions, wrote in an e-mail. "However, because of the huge increase in code sharing, passengers can find tickets marketed by multiple carriers at different prices for the exact same flight."
Consider Delta Flight 1150 from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to San Francisco. It's sold not only by Delta but also by four other airlines, each identifying it as its own: Alaska Airlines, Alitalia, Korean Air and El Al.
American Flight 21 from Kennedy to Los Angeles International Airport is sold by Alaska Airlines, Iberia, Qantas and Turkish Airlines. In all, American Airlines has code-share agreements with more than 20 airlines. Korean Air has code-share relationships with 22 international carriers. Lufthansa sells more than 15,000 code-share flights a week as its own, through agreements with 36 other airlines.
When tickets are put on sale, both the selling airline and the operating airline are required to disclose that a flight is a code share. It also must be noted on the tickets and boarding passes. But even though this may be clear on the ticket, travelers can still be uncertain about where to check in. Most airlines require check-in at the ticket counter of the airline operating the flight.
Sometimes it's not until a traveler shows up at the airport that she realizes a ticket has landed her on another airline's plane. And when problems arise, the traveler may be confused as to which airline to turn to. The airline that sold the ticket is typically responsible for reservation issues. But lost or damaged baggage claims are generally processed by the airline that handled the bags last.
Joe Brancatelli, the publisher of the subscription travel Web site joesentme.com, sees code sharing as misleading. "It's like putting Froot Loops in the Cheerios box," he said. "People expect when they book something that says United Airlines, it's owned and operated by United Airlines."
Airlines say code-share agreements provide one-stop shopping for customers and improve the ease of travel by linking airlines' route systems. In many cases, travelers can accrue and redeem miles on code-share flights. Other air travel perks, such as airline lounges and those offered by credit cards, are often not honored on code shares.
But as these flights become increasingly common, travelers are figuring out ways to game the system. Dean Caselli, 38, from Chicago, said he actively looked for code shares when booking flights online as a means of finding the lowest fare. "Sometimes the airline who is booking you through the other airline is actually cheaper by $20, $30 and occasionally a lot more," said Caselli, who estimated he had saved as much as $75 on flights by searching online for the lowest code-share ticket.
Spotting a code-share flight online is relatively easy. Travel Web sites such as Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz all spell out which carriers operate flights. Orbitz.com lists the flight numbers for both the selling and operating airline. A recent search for one-way flights between Kennedy Airport and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport pulled up American Airlines Flight 269 for about $250. That same flight sold by Alaska Airlines was listed for $719 to $721.
When several airlines sell tickets for a single flight, each under its own flight number, where does a traveler go for what? Here are some basic guidelines:
To change an itinerary, contact the airline that sold you the ticket.
Check in at the counter of the airline operating the flight.
If your flight is canceled at the last minute, contact the operating airline.
Submit lost-baggage claims to the airline that handled your luggage last.
If you want to use miles to buy an upgrade, you're probably out of luck if you didn't buy your ticket from the operating airline.