One of the more complex customer-facing issues airlines have to deal with involves interlining. In simple terms, that’s when two carriers have to work together to serve one customer on one trip. A combination of complexity and regulation has led airlines to narrow the scope of when they’re willing to work together. Most recently, the oneworld alliance revised its rules on interlining and made it easier for member airlines to NOT have to work together. That’s unfortunate.
There are some rules which aren’t breakable. Most importantly, if all flights are on a single ticket, then the airlines have to work together in three important ways.
- If there are any schedule changes that make for an invalid connection, or if there are massive changes that aren’t acceptable to the customer, then the airlines either need to fix the problem or give a refund.
- When the customer checks a bag, it will be checked through all the way to the final destination. (Sometimes it will need to be claimed earlier for customs.)
- If there is a delay or cancellation, then the airlines need to get the traveler to the final destination on the ticket even if the original ticketed flights no longer work.
Again, if everything is on the same ticket, these rules apply. But when things are on separate tickets, that’s where it gets squirrely. For checking bags (number 2), airlines used to still check them all the way even on separate tickets if there was an agreement between the two airlines to work together. (American would check your bag to United, but it would never do it to Southwest since they don’t have an agreement in place to handle it.)
Over time, this has eroded thanks to the added complexity of bag fees alongside regulation that requires those fees to be charged accurately on a journey across airlines. It’s a minefield for airlines to have to know bag policies for every carrier and figure out what rules and fees apply when separate tickets are involved. I get it.
When it comes to reaccommodation protection (numbers 1 and 3 above), that generally wouldn’t apply to separate tickets. (Though in practice, if you have separate tickets on the same airline, they’ll often help anyway.) It was always a “book at your own risk” kind of thing.
As things got more complex and airlines started tightening up their rules about interlining, alliances stepped in to set minimum guidelines. And no alliance was more generous than oneworld.
See, oneworld made the rule that if any two oneworld carriers were involved in a journey, regardless of whether the reservations were on a single ticket or not, they had to be treated as if they were all on one ticket. The consumer benefit from this was huge. You could buy a roundtrip ticket from, say, Philly to Doha on Qatar and then buy the American flight from Charleston to Philly to connect separately, and you’d still be protected. Often you’d want to do this because the fare was a lot less expensive (very common especially on airlines within an alliance that don’t have codesharing or joint ventures with each other) or because you were mixing mileage awards and paid tickets. This was a huge benefit.
All good things must come to an end. Last month, Australian Business Traveller caught that oneworld had made some changes. From now on, if tickets are purchased separately in separate reservations, then the protections no longer have to apply. (Airlines within the alliance can decide to go above that standard, but some, like Cathay Pacific and British Airways, have already gone down to the new oneworld minimum. American has not.)
There is some good news here in that if you have separate tickets in the same reservation (yes, you can have multiple tickets on one reservation, which seems strange), then nothing will change. That means you can have a travel agent still book those two separate cheap fares into a single reservation and the protections will be in place. (If you buy direct or through an online travel agent, you won’t have that option. This is good news for Cranky Concierge, but not good news for people who want to book on their own.) It does, unfortunately, mean that mixing paid and award tickets may now come with a big price if something goes wrong.
Why is oneworld doing this? I spoke with Michael Blunt, VP of Corporate Communications for oneworld, he was happy to discuss in great detail.
The previous requirement dated back to the time when e-ticket interlining was introduced around 10 years ago (with oneworld the first alliance to have it in place across all member airlines), when the hopes and expectations of what the new technology could deliver exceeded the reality of the everyday business a decade on.
Experience has shown that using separate tickets for different sectors presents multiple problems in delivering an alliance’s through check-in/customer support promise – as many of who have blogged on this issue have highlighted.
In particular an airline operating a sector covered by one ticket may change the schedule for that flight, making the planned connection impossible. If the connecting flight was covered by that same booking, the airline making the schedule change would be aware of the implications for the connection and the appropriate action to maintain the customer’s itinerary could be taken well in advance – not dealt with at the last minute, when the customer checks in, when it is often too late to put simple, workable alternatives in place.
Also, the only way that through check-in of passengers (with their baggage) flying multiple sectors on separate tickets/bookings/[passenger name records] can be handled is by an agent at the original departure airport linking the various separate elements of the journey together, potentially covered by multiple different bookings/[passenger name records]. As anyone who has stood in a check-in line behind someone doing this can testify, that can be a lengthy process. And this at a time when, in response to the preferences of the majority of customers, check-in and baggage drop are now moving towards self-service and online options. And the reality is that this leads to a significantly higher failure rate, in terms of baggage delivery, transfers etc, than for multi-sector journeys covered by a single booking/[passenger name record].
So again, it’s that complexity issue. Technology hasn’t been able to properly serve the needs of travelers, so instead of fixing the technology, a policy change was put into place instead. It’s a lot easier.
To be clear, oneworld was way beyond what Star Alliance and Skyteam had as standards before. This just erases the benefit oneworld had over the others. I understand the rationale, but as I said above, it’s really unfortunate.
[Original luggage with bag tag photo via Shutterstock]