Time for a shake-up – why we should consider axing code share flights

Consumer expectation should be (and is in general) that if they buy a ticket on airline X then the same conditions apply …

Consumer expectation should be (and is in general) that if they buy a ticket on airline X then the same conditions apply no matter who actually carries them.

Conventional wisdom in the airline world has allowed codeshare flights to operate without any restriction other than national laws and international treaties.

Well, not so fast.

By now we should all be fully aware that flight disasters expose (especially recent ones) a number of issues about what you think you bought and what you actually get in that airline ticket.

Let’s look at the arrival board at a busy US airport: Chicago O’Hare (ORD). There are just three flights arriving carry multiple codes from a wide diversity of airlines.

TOD1

The complexity of this code sharing practice is such that the air contract that you have with the airline you bought the ticket from can be very complex.

Here is a brief list of the likely issues:

  • Which airline did you buy from (also you could have bought from an agent or intermediary)?
  • Which airline is actually operating the flight?
  • Which airline’s livery is on the aircraft operating the flight?
  • Who owns the aircraft?
  • Whose crew is flying the plane?
  • Which country licensed the plane you are flying in?
  • Which countries registry does the aircraft appear on?
  • What basis is the the airline licensed onto which you are flying?
  • What products can you buy on each airline? (e.g. 4 classes vs 2, baggage alignment, cost of ancillaries etc etc).

For normal domestic flights in the USA this becomes relatively clear but can cause significant confusion as the Chicago example illustrates.

Yet, when you get to Europe it gets really quite strange.

Much has been written for example on the situation with Norwegian Air Shuttle, a non-European Union airline and its long haul subsidiary Norwegian Airlines which is based in a European Union country: Ireland.

The planes carry registrations currently from EI-LNA-EI-LNE.

So, let’s pick on EI-LND. This is the registry entry from Ireland.

From this you can extract the plane the serial numbers etc etc, including the owner of the aircraft. European law is covered under competitive behavior (Articles 81 and 82).

However, increasingly the European Commission has come to view with suspicion the practice.

In 2007 for example it published this report. More recently the Commission, through its DG-Comp group, has continued to evaluate the practice. Mondaq, a well-respected website where legal opinions are often debated, has carried some of these pieces. I suggest you read this article which is reflective of the need for review.

In the case of the downing of Malaysian Air System flight MH17 – there COULD have been (but actually was not) a US airline’s flight number carried on that aircraft.

Indeed through out Europe and other places the carriage of a US airline’s code on foreign airlines is common practice and sanctioned by law.

But that sanction means that if the US FAA was to issue a band on flights to or through or from a particular area, then the affected flight would not matter as the airline is not subject to US jurisdiction of that type.

Travel agent screens in the GDS tell a different story and therefore can easily be confusing, for the level of disclosure required is not always provided by agents.

Here are three screens from a GDS (Worldspan, in this case) – I am using a display of a query using the availability of flights from Amsterdam (AMS) to Jakarta (CGK) on August 23 2014, where many of the passengers on MH17 were headed.

Neutral display of airlines:

TOD2

Look at lines seven and eight – this shows the connecting flights, MH19 and MH713.

Display of KLM-only flights (agent overrides the system to display only flights that have at least one KLM marketed flight in it):

TOD3

Notice the combinations, especially lines eight and nine, as well as two and three. These are identical.

This illustrates a connecting flight over Kuala Lumpur with the flight codes KL4103 connecting to GA 819 (also code shared to KL4059). You will note that KL4059 in this screen is identical to MH19 in the first screen.

Indeed it is… look at this display of the detail of line eight:

TOD4

Why didn’t the KLM code share (line seven from the second screenshot 2) form the same as the MH connection to MH?

Because the carriers wanted the display to reflect a closer relationship in time for the KLM to Garuda (GA), one of its other partners.

As you see in reality that MH flight is showing flight number (From first screen) MH19 but for the code shares it still carries the older underlying number MH17 that has since been retired.

Confused? Yes you should be, and probably are.

We have reached a level of prime obfuscation of the flight information. The true identity and applicable regulation of the flight should be disclosed.

What??! That will be a nightmare, I hear you say?

Not really. It can be addressed simply and with a good outcome for consumers.

There are two ways information about a flight can be displayed, so therefore I am proposing a simple rule to resolve the issue with the airlines.

Whoever sells the flight must be responsible for the carriage and regulation of that flight irrespective of who operates it (technically this exists today but I am recommending it be an absolute state).

Where the ticketing carrier is 100% responsible for the flight (this includes baggage rules, seat rules, no matter what the product is), the code share may be permitted without additional restriction provided that all the condition of carriage and product are the same, whether the sold flight is operated by the selling carrier or not.

When the selling carrier is NOT operating the flight, then the carrier must provide a FULL disclosure in plain language (not just English) that there is a third party entity and this not subject to the same rules as a US carrier (or other home airline).

Furthermore, the selling airline MUST FULLY disclose not just the name of the operating airline but the differences of that airline’s product, processes, policies and legal responsibilities if it wishes to carry the selling carriers code on the other airlines operated flight.

There you have it, three choices for the consumer:

  1. Buying a full product operated by the airline
  2. Buying a product which is fully compliant with the operating airlines’ responsibilities
  3. Buying a non-compliant product and has been alerted to the differences.

Only option two should be allowed for unrestricted code sharing. All others must either carry the burden of disclosure (on the selling airline) or not be permitted to carry the selling airlines code.

Simple and easy right?

I believe that honesty is required and that airlines can no longer hide behind the banal composition of code share flights being “kinda like the same”. They must either BE the same or NOT be allowed to carry the selling airline’s code.

NB: Departure board airport image via Shutterstock.