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July 21, 2009 / Jim Fenton

Airline Code (somewhat) Sharing

My family and I just returned from vacation in Hawaii, and experienced “code sharing” on United Airlines with rather unexpected results.

For anyone not familiar with the term, code sharing is the common practice of airlines to co-brand a partner airline’s flight with their own flight number.  This is often seen on long-haul and international flights, where a United flight might be co-branded with flight numbers from partners like Air New Zealand or Lufthansa.  In this case, we were travelling on Island Air flight 417 from Kona to Maui, sometimes known as United 4978.

The code sharing process is far from seamless:

Appearance on reservation systems: Some reservation systems and not others showed the existence of UA 4978.  Although I used various third-party reservation systems to search for flights, I booked directly with United so that I could use a discount coupon from a previous delayed flight (more on that below).  But United’s website didn’t show the inter-island flight; it tried to route me from Kona to Maui via Los Angeles.  I had to call and speak to a reservation agent in order to book the itinerary with the codeshare flight.  This has got to be a bug; I can’t imagine that United intends it this way.

Coupons don’t work: I explained to the agent that I intended to use a $200 discount coupon, and she helpfully split my reservation from that of my wife and daughter so that I could do that (although I wonder why that is necessary) and she told me I could purchase the ticket at a United ticket counter.  I did so the next day, and was told that I couldn’t use the coupon on that itinerary, because of the Island Air flight.  Apparently the intent is to make it as hard as possible to use those coupons (a fact we should all heed when being asked to give up our seats on overbooked flights), but United should consider the itinerary “all United” when their flight number is on all the flights.  They did attempt to split the Island Air flight into a separate itinerary, which would have increased the fare by about $160, and I didn’t consider that to be good value for my $200 coupon.

Information system disconnect: When we arrived at the Island Air ticket counter at Kona, my daughter’s E-ticket was listed under the name “Change Name”.  After much pressing of keys and a conversation with someone, and asking how we booked the reservation, the agent told us that she couldn’t change the name; United would have to do that.  We walked with her over to the United counter where she was listed under the correct name and they issued a paper ticket for her, which worked around the problem.  At this point I was very glad that I had booked directly with United; they would undoubtedly have tried to blame the booking agent had I not booked directly.

Airlines would better achieve their objectives with code sharing by working more closely with their code sharing partners to make the process more cooperative and seamless, and would provide better customer service as a byproduct.  In addition, they should be required to treat flights on which they apply their flight numbers as their own to the greatest extent possible so that the “operating carrier” is truly that and that code sharing isn’t an excuse to shrug and say, “Well, it isn’t our flight.”

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