Whose Flight Am I On, Anyway?

I just booked a KLM Flight 642. Or was it Northwest Airlines Flight 8642? The answer is, yes. That’s what code sharing is all about.

The flight is actually operated by KLM. Their plane. Their pilot. But Northwest also sells tickets on that flight, and calls it Northwest 8642. So two people sitting next to each other on the plane might be, technically, on different flights.

There’s a great explanation of all this in a Chicago Tribune story. And the Dallas Morning News had an interesting piece about how you can save money by shopping both sides of the code share.

Generally, I approve of code sharing. It allows passengers to book complicated itineraries involving flights on more than one airline and keep it on a single reservation, which means their baggage can be checked all the way through and they’ll be covered for missed connections. It also saves money over the cost of separate tickets on different airlines. And it allows passengers flying one airline to get mileage credit on a partner airline. All good.

And pretty much everyone does it. Even Southwest has code sharing now with ATA, a low-cost carrier that Southwest owns a hefty stake in.

On the other hand, I’ve been involuntarily code-shared, and I didn’t care for it much.  The husband, the kid and I had a trip to Las Vegas booked on Delta via Cincinnati. Delta canceled the Bradley to Cincinnati leg and moved us to a flight on Comair, which is subsidiary and partner airline of Delta’s.

I have nothing against Comair per se, but  it flies small planes. Noisy small. Bump-your-head-on-the-overhead-bin small. And, as I’ve pointed out before, I like to fly big metal.

There wasn’t much I could do in that case. But I do try to keep track of whose plane I’m going to board. It helps to know which check-in counter and gate to go to. And then there are some airlines I’d rather avoid, which is hard to do if I don’t know whose plane I’m getting on.

In most cases, my preference is based on passenger service issues. But there is also the question of safety. The FAA requires U.S. airlines to do safety audits of their foreign code-share partners, but I like to calculate my own risks, too.

That’s one more reason to clearly understand the distinction between the airline that sells me a ticket on the Internet and the airline that flies the actual plane — plane crashes hurt more than computer crashes.


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