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Codesharing, grief sharing?

Codesharing is a common practice among airlines, in which one airline provides service under another carrier’s name. Prevalent on airlines part of an alliance, such as Oneworld or Star Alliance, codesharing can be beneficial—allowing travelers to easily book itineraries with flights on two or more partner airlines. However, it can also cause problems for travelers when the unexpected occurs.

A reader writes, “I purchased a ticket from Delta for my son to join us in Puerto Vallarta over Thanksgiving break. As a college student, he had to be back in class the Monday after break. He flew from Missoula, MT, to Salt Lake City on Delta, then on Delta’s partner line, Aeromexico, to Puerto Vallarta. On his Sunday return flight, Aeromexico bumped him. He was given no choice, and the airline didn’t call for volunteers. He didn’t get back to Missoula until Tuesday, two days late for school.

When he was bumped, Aeromexico gave him a “courtesy pass” for a round-trip ticket “between USA and Mexico.” I have since tried to use this pass to arrange a ticket for him from Missoula to Cancun for next Thanksgiving, but without success. Since I bought the ticket from Delta—and Delta had put my son on Aeromexico as a codeshare—I first tried to get Delta to arrange a substitute trip. But a Delta agent told me I would have to go through Aeromexico, since Aeromexico had done the bumping and issued the pass. An Aeromexico agent told me it would accept the pass to fly my son from Los Angeles to Cancun, but that he’d have to buy his own ticket to Los Angeles—an arrangement that would not only cost a lot but also require an extra travel day and hotel stay in each direction.

I just want a ticket out of Missoula like the one I originally purchased. I will pay the difference between Puerto Vallarta and Cancun. I have tried e-mailing Aeromexico with no response. I’ve been to the airport twice talking to Delta, but the agents there keep referring me back to Aeromexico. Can you please direct me where to pursue a reasonable alternative?”

This is a tough one. My general rule is that if you have to fight any battles, you fight with whoever sold you the ticket—in this case, Delta. Moreover, by booking you on a partner line’s flight, Delta bears some direct responsibility for the actions of that partner line. Since Delta’s local agents have already rebuffed your claim, you have to escalate your case by taking it to Delta’s headquarters. As I’ve noted elsewhere, that means starting out with the consumer affairs office and possibly ending up in small claims court.

I suspect that, beyond your possible use of the courtesy pass, Aeromexico will be a lost cause. If you get nowhere with Delta, you might try going after Aeromexico in small claims court, but, for the most part, you have little leverage in further pursuit of your claim.

I also think, however, that asking either Delta or Aeromexico to arrange a ticket from Missoula to Cancun, with you paying the difference between the Cancun and Puerto Vallarta fares, is a complication likely to derail the entire process. Instead, I suggest your asking for either (1) a Delta voucher for a round-trip ticket from Missoula to Los Angeles, where your son could then use his “courtesy pass,” or (2) a future-travel cash value voucher on either line for, say, half of the price of your son’s original ticket, that you could apply toward a brand-new ticket (and forget the pass). Given the difficulty in getting seats on “free” trip vouchers, I’d opt for the cash-value voucher instead.

This case illustrates three broad problems:

  • When they’re selling tickets, airlines are happy to pitch the benefits of partnerships and codesharing. But when something goes wrong, it’s all too easy for the partners to blame each other, leaving the traveler in the middle.
  • The U.S. laws that govern bumping specifically exclude flights from foreign countries into the U.S. When a foreign country has its own bumping regulations—the European Union countries’ penalties are actually stiffer than ours—you can avail yourself of those protections. But when the foreign country doesn’t specify any penalties, you’re at the mercy of the airline. A “courtesy pass” is about as much as you could expect from any line in those circumstances; the question of whether you could actually use such a pass really doesn’t enter the equation.
  • U.S. residents who have beefs with foreign companies often have a tough time getting any sort of satisfaction out of consumer complaints. Since Aeromexico has U.S. offices, you can use the U.S. legal system. But had your complaint been with an airline that didn’t fly from the U.S., your chances of any settlement would be nil.

I believe you should continue to pursue a claim. But in today’s “win some, lose some” society, this may be one that you lose.

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