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What Can You Do About Flawed Airline Codeshares?

You’ve probably heard about—maybe even flown—on a codeshared flight. That’s a flight carrying flight numbers from two different airlines. Obviously, only one line operates the flight, but a partner line also sells seats and handles reservations as if it operated the flight, too. Airline propaganda claims that these arrangements are “seamless,” but that claim is something of a stretch: In fact, they’re anything but seamless when connections are involved and especially when you’re trying to earn frequent flyer credit.

Let’s say you buy a ticket nominally on a domestic line but the flight is actually flown as a codeshare by a partner foreign line. That ticket shows travel on the domestic line and the domestic line’s flight number. If the flight were actually flown by the domestic line, even the bottom-end fare still earns full frequent flyer credit. But if it’s flown by a partner line you might get no frequent flyer credit, because codeshared flights operated by many foreign lines do not earn partner-line credit in that fare class. {{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}

I checked to see whether this sort of problem was widespread, and I found a confusing answer among the big domestic lines:

  • American and Delta give frequent flyer credit for codeshared flights according to their own earning schedules, which means 100 percent of the miles flown on even the cheapest tickets.
  • But Continental, United, and US Airways credit is based on the code-sharing line’s earning schedule, which may mean reduced credit or none at all on cheap tickets.
  • Southwest doesn’t yet codeshare. I didn’t check any of the smaller lines, but I’m guessing that they are also inconsistent.

How can you tell? That’s not easy. As far as I could determine, only the Delta and United websites actually spelled out their policies on codeshare flights.

Connections can also pose problems. One of the advantages touted for codesharing is the ability of the partnering lines to coordinate connecting schedules and offer through fares. True, the fares are available, but connections at some big hub airports are far from seamless. At big airports, you might have to change terminals to catch a connecting flight that is nominally on the same airline—a change that can involve the need to exit your arrival line’s secured area and re-enter security for your ongoing flight. And, as far as I can tell, baggage fees are set by the airline you actually fly, not the one named on your ticket.

Below the codeshare level, arrangements are even less “seamless.” The next step down, for the big airlines, is the three major worldwide “alliances.” Each of the three includes 11 or more airlines based around the world; each is anchored in North America by at least one giant line: Oneworld by American, SkyTeam by Delta, and Star by United, Continental, US Airways, and Air Canada. Among the claimed benefits are through ticketing, regional and round-the-world “passes,” reciprocal recognition of elite status, and reciprocal admission to airport lounge clubs. Those benefits seem to be generally available, but often subject to limitations.

Alliances specifically claim frequent flyer programs as one of the major consumer benefits. And certainly there are benefits: Flying on any alliance member earns mileage in the program of any other you specify and, in most cases, counts toward elite status. The alliance posts an award chart that covers all members. But the system is not quite seamless: Many of the lowest fare categories on foreign-line alliance members give either reduced credit or no credit at all in the U.S. line’s program. And flights on a few foreign alliance members do not count toward elite status in the U.S. line’s program. Maybe you’ve already been burned—bought a ticket on a specific foreign line to earn miles in the domestic partner’s program, only to find out that your fare didn’t qualify for the miles.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect to the whole business is that so much of the detail isn’t posted on the big lines’ websites. Overall, Delta does the best job; it’s downhill from there. All I can say is, “If you’re not sure, ask before you buy.”

Your Turn

How do you finagle earning frequent flyer miles on codeshared flights? Share your best strategies by adding a comment below!

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