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Airline partnerships can help you find lower fares

SmarterTravel

By Jake Jamieson, SmarterTravel.com Staff

A strategy adopted by more and more airlines during this recent period of industry turbulence is to form marketing partnerships with other carriers. These agreements, known in the industry as codeshares, allow airlines to sell tickets on each other’s flights. In theory, the airlines involved in the alliance increase their ticket sales because they offer a wider range of destinations to their customers.

In addition, these arrangements typically offer smoother ticketing processes among partnered airlines, and more efficient passenger and baggage transfers between planes. Another perk is that frequent flyer miles can usually be earned and redeemed with either airline involved in the agreement.

Two of the most important industry alliances are also some of the newest: United and US Airways formed a partnership that went into effect last October, while Continental, Delta, and Northwest have proposed a three-way agreement that the Department of Transportation is attempting to regulate.

As more and more airlines band together, it’s not entirely clear whether these partnerships will be beneficial to travelers in the long run. Will they reduce competition and eventually, cause fares to increase? For the moment, at least, knowing about codesharing agreements can help you save money when you’re booking an airline ticket.

How do these partnerships work?

A codeshare agreement allows airlines to sell tickets on each other’s flights. For example, if you were to book a ticket from New York to Hong Kong on American, the flight will be operated by Cathay Pacific, thanks to a partnership that recently went into effect.

Your ticket would be labeled with an American flight number, but you’d be flying on a plane operated by Cathay Pacific. You could earn American AAdvantage miles, and wait for your flight in one of American’s Admirals Club lounges.

Some codeshares are merely partnerships between two airlines, but larger numbers of airlines can also join together. There are multiple global alliances that give access to giant route networks all over the world.

How can you take advantage of a codeshare?

Even though a codeshare flight involves only a single plane, you can book your ticket through either airline’s reservations system. By pricing tickets in more than one place, you can save yourself a lot of money. Here’s how:

By checking both airlines, you may find that one carrier is offering a sale on that route, or has more seats available on a particular flight. For example, we searched for flights operated by US Airways from Philadelphia to Freeport, Bahamas, one week in advance of travel. The lowest fare we found through United’s booking system was $277.78, including taxes and fees. But a ticket booked through usairways.com came to $244.40, a savings of $33.38.

On the other hand, a United flight between Chicago and Los Angeles came to $176.50 on united.com, almost $300 less than booking the same flight through usairways.com, where the lowest fare was $472.

You’ll generally save money by shopping around before you book, paying particular attention to which airlines are partners. You should also consider the taxes and fees that will be applied to your ticket. Sometimes, the additional charges will be different if you book on a non-U.S. airline.

We’ve compiled a chart of the major U.S. airlines and their current partners in each of the geographical regions listed below:

Airline Domestic Asia & Australia Europe Latin America
America West Big Sky, Hawaiian, Northwest EVA British Airways N/A
American Hawaiian Air Pacific, Cathay Pacific, China Eastern, EVA, JAL, Qantas Aer Lingus, British Airways (proposed), Finnair, Iberia, LOT Polish, SWISS, TAP Portugal, Turkish Airlines Grupo TACA, LanChile, TAM Airlines
Continental Alaska, CommutAir, Gulfstream, Hawaiian, Northwest + Air China, EVA Air Europa, Emirates, KLM, Virgin Atlantic Copa Airlines
Delta N/A + Korean Air Air France, Alitalia, TSA Czech Aeromexico
Northwest Alaska, American Eagle, America West, Big Sky, Continental, Gulfstream + Air China, Malaysia Airlines AirAlps, KLM N/A
United Air Canada, US Airways Air New Zealand, All Nippon, Singapore Airlines, Thai Austrian Group, bmi, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines Mexicana, Varig
US Airways United, US Airways Express N/A N/A N/A

+ Partner lists do not include the proposed Continental-Delta-Northwest partnership, which is not yet in effect.

United and US Airways: A partnership in progress

A highly publicized agreement between United and US Airways went into effect last fall. An immediate benefit for customers of both airlines was the expansion of routes to which they had access. US Airways customers had the opportunity to fly to more cities in Asia, Latin America, and Hawaii, while United’s travelers could take advantage of more cities in the eastern U.S., as well as destinations in the Caribbean.

Another benefit is that members of either the Dividend Miles or Mileage Plus frequent flyer programs could gain mileage on any flight operated by either airline. Beginning on March 1, these miles will count toward elite status. Customers of both airlines will be able to begin redeeming their miles through this partnership on April 1. Keep in mind, however, that the two frequent flyer programs did not merge, so you can’t transfer miles between accounts.

Continental, Delta, and Northwest: Airlines take on the DOT

Not everyone is convinced that large airline networks will benefit consumers. Last fall, Continental, Delta, and Northwest attempted to follow in United’s and US Airways’ footsteps by proposing their own partnership. In January, the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced that it would not approve the agreement unless the airlines met certain conditions. Chief among the DOT’s concerns was that the relationship would stifle competition, and ultimately, raise prices.

The DOT said that it would not approve the new partnership because the three airlines controlled over 35 percent of the U.S. airline market. While the airlines claimed this would allow for more efficient, seamless service within a larger route network, the DOT argued that the three carriers would stifle competition in the airline industry and drive smaller competitors out of business.

Despite the DOT’s concerns, Continental, Delta, and Northwest said that they would move forward with their agreement, which caused the DOT to file a “formal enforcement action.” The matter is likely to end up in court before the issue is resolved.

Whether or not three of the largest airlines are able to join forces, you can expect to see many airlines use these alliances as one strategy to regain profitability. As long as the pros, of broader route networks and more seamless travel, outweigh the cons, of diminished competition and higher prices, flyers can take advantage of these partnerships to book lower fares and accrue more miles.

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