Topic of the Week: Making Clear Which Airline is Operating Your Flight

I’ve received several emails from readers on the topic of regional airlines. People hate that they think they’re booking one airline but then they find out that it’s being operated by a regional partner. The airlines are required to disclose the operating airline, but some think it’s not made clear enough. So here’s your chance to weigh in. Knowing that airlines are not going to stop outsourcing flying to regional partners, how would you make sure it’s disclosed properly? What needs to be done?

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40 Responses to Topic of the Week: Making Clear Which Airline is Operating Your Flight

  1. Neil S. says:

    Am I missing something? Why do I care? I book a ticket, I choose my seat – it’s easy to tell if it’s a big or small plane. I know what I am getting myself into. And if matters that much to me, I can search around to see if someone is operating a mainline jet on the route.

    • Jim M says:

      +1. As long as I know the plane, and if it has Wi-Fi, the exterior colors and seatback magazine are irrelevant. They all have the same safety restrictions so that’s all I care about.

      • Noah says:

        Flying regionals or partners wont stop me from flying. I flew a DL regional over a US mainline twice a week for 40 weeks last year and feel safe flying them.

        However, the safety standards may be the same, but the pilot experience is not. Regionals pay less, require longer days of their crew, and use less experienced crew who are paid near slave-wages (http://skift.com/2013/08/28/the-u-s-airline-pilots-who-barely-make-minimum-wage/). The minimum hours needed to fly are not the same nor is the average experience. Sure, it is “paying dues” and there is always someone junior in every position, but don’t make the false equivalence to say they are the same.

        In the codeshare example, there are also differences. Booing a Delta flight number for an AF flight may mean changing terminals at JFK. If I weren’t a seasoned traveller, I would not know that at time of booking. It also may mean a different product, particularly for J and F tickets. Lastly, if the flight is cancelled, there are sometimes problems changing flights as the marketing carrier tells you to talk to the operating carrier who tells you to talk to the marketing. It can get messy for the average traveller.

        I think airlines do a good job, generally, of showing it at time of booking, on the boarding pass, and on the side of the plane. Not sure how much clearer they can make it.

  2. MW says:

    I’ve never understood this complaint that various travel columnists always seem to complain about. I think it would be really useful to actually get an example of how people get confused about this, because I feel like it’s already disclosed in several places.

    In all of my flying, there has only been one time where I was confused about which airline was operating my flight, and that was on a regional flight within Europe. I always knew which plane it was, an E175, but I booked Etihad Regional, which ended up using Darwin Airlines, which was a regional affiliate of Alitalia. The confusing part of that wasn’t which airline was operating (Darwin was disclosed on my ticket), but the fact that no one disclosed that it was an Alitalia regional flight at any point in the process, so I was wandering around FCO looking for the Darwin checkin desk for some time.

    I think this is really just a proxy for people complaining about getting a regional jet instead of a mainline aircraft. At the end of the day, if you look at which aircraft you’re booking a seat on, you’ll know if you’re flying a regional airline or the mainline airline. As to whether you get Shuttle America or Chataqua, I’m not sure that anyone has a preference (beyond the aircraft they fly) and in any event, it is disclosed throughout the booking process.

    • Shane says:

      I agree. The bigger confusion is codeshares such as AA & US Air where you end up at the wrong desk or don’t realize that the perks you have on one airline are not valid on the other. Particularlly on international flights what is more important to know than who is operating the flight and their flight number. Many times itineraries and tickets do not give the operating flight number which can be tricky in some airports where partner flight numbers are not shown or are not obvious. Also, who is responsible for you as a traveler. Lost luggage, missed connections, mistake in booking record, etc. Is it the ticketing or operating airline?

      Perhaps tickets should say:
      AAxxxx operated as British Airlines xxxx
      Check in with British Airlines
      If you have problems, call xxxxxx
      (enter your snarky response for the entity responsible here ….. or none at all)

  3. Jonathan says:

    I fly United out of a small airport and I would argue that 90% of my flights are regionals and with some form of partner flying the regional jet. Though I have no firm #s to back this up and its mostly just a feeling, the regionals that I fly seem to be more on time than the regular mainline United planes. Also the staff on these regional jets seem more friendly and like they actually enjoy their job compared to the mainline flights.

    I don’t understand why it matters whether or not I’m flying Shuttle America or Chataqua or whatever as long as I get there on time.

  4. TRC says:

    I’ve never looked at, let alone booked, a flight in which I didn’t know the regional carrier and plane. I don’t know what sites these Emailers are using, but it’s pretty clear on Kayak (my preferred site), and airline sites I’ve used. The problem is not disclosure, but people not paying attention.

  5. Sean S. says:

    Honestly regional airlines aren’t the confusing part for most people, atleast in my anecdotal experience, as the regionals all share their contracted providers name. It’s code sharing. I don’t know how many people I see confused about being booked on “Air France” or another foreign airline showing up at an airport with no international connections and looking for x,y,z foreign airline. And some of the codeshare displays at the gate are almost hilarious in number; I have seen flights booked under about 3 or 4 code shares. Honestly I think the easiest thing is provide the information at booking and to get away from these rotating LED signs towards larger monitors that include all relevant codeshares in one easy to look at screen.

  6. Joe says:

    I’m with Jim M, as long as they have the right aircraft displayed; it doesn’t make a difference to me. The people who complain about this are probably the same people who complain about “hidden bag fees”.

    Having the DOT reporting (OTP, complaints, MBR, Denied boardings) on marketing carrier instead of operating carrier is what really needs to change.

    Also, change the MBR formula to (mishandled bags/bags carried) instead of (mishandled bags/(passengers carried/1000)).

  7. Jeremy anderson says:

    The regionals have less training and less experienced pilots. That’s why people care.

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/flyingcheap/

    What I would like to know is why Skywest does not sell its own tickets, or what it would take for Skywest to become it “own” airline.

    • RBR says:

      Regional airline pilots do NOT receive less training. That’s a myth. All FAR Part 121 carriers (includes Mainline and Regional Airlines) receive the same type of training. The difference is PAY and most of the time EXPERIENCE.
      A agree that the same people that complain about hidden baggage fees are the same that complain about regional vs. mainline. Don’t be ignorant and life will treat you well.

  8. Bravenav says:

    I never have understood why airlines are singled out for a practice common in most every industry. On your travels you may rent a Buick (but really a Daewoo) from Hertz (but really a local regional agency), fill up at an Exxon (that got their gas from Texaco), and stay at a Hilton (that is probably really XYZ properties and was a Marriott last year and might be a Sheraton next year). There’s a good chance your TV at home isn’t made by the brandname on the outside, that imported beer you’re drinking was actually brewed in the US (or by Molson in Canada), and the doctor you visit won’t be the actual doctor that sees you. The airlines actually seem to be the only ones that tell you the provider up front.

    • Noah says:

      airlines are singled out becuse this isn’t a commodity product with perfect substitutes like gas, same formula like the beer, and it is not uniform across the brand like the Buick Daewoo example. XYZ Property still meets brand standard and is a Marriott/Hilton/Starwood whenever you are staying there and few hotels are corporately owned.

      We can debate whether the outsourcing needs to be made more clear, and I agree that airlines are generally transparent, but I would not say that airlines are unfairly singled out.

      • Chris says:

        same formula like the beer ???
        Afraid not : same beer can have different tastes in different part of the world !

      • Airlines do have brand standards for their regional operators, and those standards have been getting stronger. The interior and exterior of the plane is in the brand of the major, the drink service closely matches, the brand of the major, the onboard announcements mention the major. They have WiFi like the major. The checkin desk looks like the major airline, even though it might be operated by an outsourced provider.

        I’d argue that the major airlines are as good as, if not better than the major hotel chains at enforcing their brand.

  9. John G says:

    I agree with Joe, and I’ll add some other comments.

    The on-time percentage you see published? That’s mainline. Look way below that for the regionals. Much worse, but they don’t count against the carrier. Same with baggage stats, bumps, and complaints.

    If you are going to sell a fare as on “American Airlines”, then your DOT statistics should cover all legs of the flights operated under the name “American Airlines”.

    I don’t have a problem with not understanding who is operating the flight, or what it’s on. If you hate regional jets, there are usually ways of avoiding them if you want to bad enough. The only thing I’ve had problems with is the AA and US systems not always talking to each other. Case in point this week, I had a flight back from Philly to DFW, on an AA ticket but on US metal. And for some reason the US ticket showed it was a free ticket, which it most certainly was not. They would not put me on the upgrade list even though I showed them my paid receipt.

  10. Aviation Attorney says:

    Nothing. It’s clearly disclosed at booking. Regional carriers and contacting smaller cities has been around long enough the public is more than on notice to the practice.

  11. SEAN says:

    Look at your flight numbers first. If the number generally starts with 3000, it is most likely a code share ore regional especially with 5000 flight numbers & up. The only exception is Wn who have flights over 4000.

  12. DesertGhost says:

    I’ve never had a problem figuring out if a flight is on the mainline or a regional carrier. As far as I’ve been able to determine, it always seems to be displayed prominently. But then, I take the time to look at what I’m doing when I book a flight. Maybe the problem isn’t with the airlines?

  13. Ron says:

    Looking at the above comments, it appears the question was put to the wrong crowd — the commenters seem to be far more informed about their flights than the typical passenger (I’m afraid I might fall into this category too).

    Really, the biggest problem I have is when it’s not clear where to check in. Sometimes it is actually the full disclosure that causes the problem: back in 2008 I was flying out of Little Rock on a Delta Connection flight, and the instructions kept repeating that the flight was operated by ASA and that I had to check in with ASA; of course at the airport it was all branded as Delta. I had a similar issue more recently with KLM at LAX — I don’t remember the details, but somehow it implied I had to check in with Delta for my KLM flight; fortunately I’m familiar enough with LAX to know to go directly to Terminal 2 for KLM rather than stop by Delta’s check-in at Terminal 5 (I believe it is Delta employees who handle ground operations for KLM at LAX, which is nice to know, but it’s more important to keep the check-in instructions consistent with the branding and location at the airport).

    Of course, branding can go wrong even with a single operator; one time at Hethrow I stood in line with an older British couple who had a hard time believing they were in the correct place — “This line says World Traveller, but we have tickets for coach.”

    Confusion aside, there is something fun about flying with different operators — next month I’ll be flying Skywest operating as American for the first time, having already flown with Skywest many times operating as United or Delta. I wonder if I’ll notice any difference.

    • Chris says:

      Well, looking at the down comments, maybe the crowd is not that bad. Just one type seems to be waking up earlier than the other :-)

    • At this point the airlines should have a handle on the whole checkin communications thing. Mergers throw things for a bit of a loop, but once they’ve merged the reservation systems, there isn’t really an excuse.

      Though much of that is an IT problem, and they’re just now getting to the point where they’ve got profits to roll into cleaning up the IT. Though IT isn’t one of those things that pops out instantly.

  14. Keith says:

    Code shares should go away! Airlines need to be forced to sell tickets using the name of the carrier operating the flight. I’m ok with purchasing Skywest for my first leg, United for my second leg, and Lufthansa for my final leg. They all have interline agreements with each other. The current code share process is convoluted and deceptive.

  15. Chris says:

    Wouldn’t it be nice to get a screen / email saying ?

    you are purchasing a seat to travel on xxx flight number xxx from A to B.
    Baring last minute changes, this flight should be operated by xxx on an Axxx / Bxxx / CRJ / ERJ / …
    Here are the amenities that you’ll be able to experience during your flight : refreshments / wifi / x class of service / …
    Based on your class of service and status with us, you’ll be able to carry / load xxx bags for free / a small fee of xx$

    And, really, how difficult would that be ???

  16. JoEllen says:

    Having been a reservationist and also an airport agent for many years with a mainline carrier, when I harken back to the beginning of codesharing, it was mandatory that agents advise passengers if they were on a codeshare partner. Still is mandatory, as far as I know, and don’t the airlines (majors) get fined if they don’t do this ?
    Nevertheless, in the heat of the moment (very busy check-in, irregular ops, etc.), I’d be hard pressed to find any agents who “reveal” this information (myself included) regarding regional jets. It’s just too much of a can of worms to start explaining to people that they are really not on a mainline flight/carrier and all the small airline stuff etc. Of course if people asked about the equipment and cabin features etc. then we would tell them. Unless passengers specifically complain, no one is getting fined (laughable).

  17. Don Beyer says:

    The reason you should care is The major has no operating control of a flight on a regional carrier. The major takes no responsibility for the safety of a flight on a regional carrier. The major does not hold itself liable for any wrongful actions committed by a regional carrier. If you are injured or die on a regional, the major is not liable. See Delta Connection aka Comair crash at Lexington and CO Express aka Colgan at Buffalo.
    Delta has absolutely no more operating control over or the safety of a Delta Connection Flight than Delta has over an American flight, etc. The majolr does not hire or train any employee of a regional. The major does not schedule the flight crews, maintain the plane, dispatch the flight nor insure the aircraft is airworthy. You have entrusted your life and the lives of your family to the major airline. The major airline has forsaken that trust.

    go to http://www.swlaw.edu/pdfs/lr/43_3podsiadlo

  18. Don Beyer says:

    The reason you should care is The major has no operating control of a flight on a regional carrier. The major takes no responsibility for the safety of a flight on a regional carrier. The major does not hold itself liable for any wrongful actions committed by a regional carrier. If you are injured or die on a regional, the major is not liable. See Delta Connection aka Comair crash at Lexington and CO Express aka Colgan at Buffalo.
    Delta has absolutely no more operating control over or the safety of a Delta Connection Flight than Delta has over an American flight, etc. The major does not hire or train any employee of a regional. The major does not schedule the flight crews, maintain the plane, dispatch the flight nor insure the aircraft is airworthy. You have entrusted your life and the lives of your family to the major airline. The major airline has forsaken that trust. The majors want you to think everything about a flight on the regional partners is theirs, until something goes wrong. Then it’s “that’s not our plane, our crews. That belongs to that other carrier. We’re not to blame. The majors are reprehensible and disgusting.

    go to http://www.swlaw.edu/pdfs/lr/43_3podsiadlo

  19. Don Beyer says:

    Copy of email I sent to Delta. No reply from them

    Please Delta Air Lines, Please be totally and completely honest and forthcoming regarding when Delta puts their customers on a Delta Connection flight. Please inform the customers of Delta Air Lines on your website, itineraries, tickets, boarding passes, notices at the airports and on seat back cards on Delta Connection planes these things.

    “Flights on Delta Connection are contracted to an independent certificated carrier. The employees of this carrier including pilots and flight attendants are not under any direction or supervision by Delta Air Lines managers or officers. These employees are not hired or trained nor can they be dismissed by Delta Air Lines. A Delta Connection plane is maintained and dispatched by the Delta Connection carrier, not Delta Airlines. Other than flight schedules, Delta Air Lines has no operational control regarding any flight operated by a Delta Connection carrier. Delta Connection carriers Skywest, GoJet and Shuttle America also operate flights for United Airlines.”

    Customers of Delta Airlines have entrusted their lives to Delta Air Lines. Your customers deserve to be fully informed and completely aware when Delta has forsaken that trust.

    • Air crashes are so rare in the US, that its more dangerous to cross the street than it is to fly.

      In 2013 the only passenger airline crashes that come to mind in the US are Asiana Airlines Flight 214 and Southwest Airlines Flight 345. Both aircraft were operated by the majors.

      In 2014 there have been no passenger airline crashes, so far.

      Do you also ask the same of your packages? Sadly a FedEx equivalent of a regional operator, Skyway Enterprises, had an airplane crash this passed Wednesday. In 2013 UPS Airlines also had a crash. UPS, FedEx, and USPS operate much, but not all of their own ground equipment, so even there it is outsourced.

      Ground passenger transportation is also outsourced, and is much more dangerous than air transportation. Disney contracts to Mears in Orlando for some services. Las Vegas’s public transportation system is also wholly outsourced to other operators.

  20. David SF eastbay says:

    The big issue is codeshares between large airlines and which if the operating carrier and where each carrier is at the airport. A regional may be a different airline but if it says United on the side at least you know to follow signs to UA counter/gates. But connecting between major carriers, a person could get confused and go to the Delta sign at one terminal and find out they are flying KLM out of another part of the airport that needs a bus to get to.

    And for any codeshare you could think being booked on CX means having excellent inflight service, but you could find yourself on a American airplane with not so good inflight service or personal.

    Also with codeshare partners you could think you booked the front cabin of a two-cabin international airline using J/C-type booking codes with lie flat beds, and then find yourself on the operating carrier with a three-cabin layout and you are in their business J/C cabin with recyling seats, big difference.

  21. JayB says:

    Don Beyer said it well. There is a vast difference between the contracting compaines, that is, the UAs, the DLs, the WN, etc. and the contracted companies, that is the SkyWests, the ExpressJets, the Silvers, etc.

    Tell me there is no differerence between the two groups’ company financial structure and condition; mananagement experience and capability to run an airline; their pilots and crew training, experience, and pay; infrastructure for maintaining aircraft; customer service experience and capability; etc; and the amount of historical statistical performance there is about each. I think there is a vast difference between the two.

    Tell me that customers are better served when an airline contracts out, often to the particular contractor that they already know isn’t the class of the group, rather the cheapest.

    DOT is doing a terrible disservice to the public by allowing airlines to offer service where the lead characters of the flight number don’t equate to the actual operating carrier. Marketing carrier, yes; operating carrier, no. No amount of carrier “asterisking” disclosure corrects what I want to know: who is going to operate the flight?

    When ATC guides an “operated by…” flight across the airways, it uses the actual operating carrier code and flight number, not the marketing carrier code and flight number. If they want to handle flights that way, so do I.

    Now, if a marketing carrier wants to provide service on any flight not using its own equipment, but rather contract it out, fine. Just market it with the contracted carrier’s code and flight number and save the “disclosing” for who’s marketing the service. (Now, you and I both know if the airline did that, many, many customers would book away from the service…not what any airline would want. So?)

    I’m not saying the airlines can’t contract out. But, when they do, do it with real transparency, showing the operating carrier and flight number right up front. Let me know what is going on before I decide to make a purchase when I can see who is really providing the service. Maybe, the result would be the airline would decide not to contract out as much, or be more likely to use a contracted carrier that might be best of the lot.

    • JoEllen says:

      You’re so right. Why do these express carriers bother to have their own codes. If you search for their websites, one could not even make a separate booking on their airlines (if they even wanted to). To name a few:
      Pinnacle 9E
      Colgan 9L
      Mesaba XJ
      Atlantic Southeast, Express Jet, EV
      Atlantic Coast DH
      Trans States AX
      Sky West OO
      Go Jet G7
      Chautauqua RP
      Mesa YV
      Cape Air 9K
      Silver 3M

      Really, why do they even bother having their own 2-letter codes?. All of this should be as transparent as the nose on one’s face. These airlines should have their customer service and complaint desks instead of United, Delta, American answering for their mistakes when the complaints come in !!

  22. Bgriff says:

    If anything the disclosure of regional airline operations is more confusing since it almost always doesn’t matter in terms of where you go to check in — but when a flight is a codeshare operated by a different mainline airline, where you go to check in *does* matter. It’s completely unclear to me how people who aren’t industry experts are supposed to know the difference.

    • JoEllen says:

      Agree, and it’s no bargain even when the codeshares are linked with other carriers in the same alliance. Telling United passengers they were really on USAir (different terminal) was an exercise in futility. The arguments, objections, etc. when their itinerary clearly read “OPERATED BY USAIR” was not to be believed. As someone already said, a lot of the blame lies with passengers (and even airline employees) not looking at and reading the itinerary !

  23. drybean says:

    Airlines strive to build loyalty. It would seem identifying the regional carriers would go against that goal as well as confuse, if not anger the passenger. If you are a regional airport you quite likely have more than one regional carrier serving the same airline. In the small airport’s fight for more air service confusing and angering customers is a recipe for failure. I say, inform the passenger only if necessary, to make their travel more seamless and to improve your customer service and grow your passenger loyalty to your carriers and to your airport.

  24. Ron says:

    To all the people complaining about regional codeshares, I think the reason for these is that back in the early 80s some GDSs were messing around with the ordering of flights displayed to travel agents, basically collecting payments from airlines to move their flights up in the queue. To fix this, the Feds issued a strict rule as to how flights should be ordered, and one of the provisions was that online connections had to be displayed above interline connections. This pretty much forced all the regionals to codeshare with mainlines, in order to get their flights to show up as online connections.

    Of course, now we’ve moved beyond the mainframe terminal interfaces, and at least the consumer-facing booking engines allow travelers to sort through flights using many different criteria. I’m not sure what it looks like to a travel agent, but my guess is that the online/interline distinction is a lot less important than it used to be. So perhaps it’s time to get rid of this ruling, and show all regional-mainline connections as interline…

    • Hrm. Putting interline on the same footing as Major/Regional codesharing would be a bit more of a mess. What happens when someone interlined between Delta and American misconnect at O’Hare? It’ll be harder to be reaccomadated and there will be finger pointing back and forth. Whereas if its American and American Eagle the finger pointing is all internal to American, and since the customer only purchased the ticket from American its much clearer who is to blame.

      Online connections between Major/Regional should be at a higher priority in the booking engines because there is a higher level of cooperation between the carriers.

  25. adeej says:

    I have two responses to this, as someone living in New Zealand.

    1) It’s my observation, certainly here in New Zealand, but I suspect in the US as well, that if it’s there is bad weather, 737s and above have the appropriate technology to still fly, while regional aircraft do not and the flights get cancelled. When there is heavy snow, heavy rain or very strong winds in New Zealand, it’s always the regional flights that are cancelled first. Is it the same in the US?

    2) If you think there are too many codeshares in the domestic US, look at International flights. It’s not uncommon to have even 6-9 codeshare flight numbers attached to one flight. Let me give you an example. There is a flight on most days operating from Sydney to Auckland – operated by Air New Zealand as NZ102. This flight has codeshare flight numbers as follows:
    Air China – CA5112; Etihad – EY4402; Asiana Airlines – OZ6552; Singapore Airlines – SQ4208; Thai Airways Intl TG4825; Turkish Airlines – TK8776; United Airlines – UA6772; Virgin Australia – VA7402
    That’s 9 flight numbers for one flight! You have to check-in at Air New Zealand counters at Sydney, even though counters for Etihad, Asiana, Singapore, Thai, United & Virgin Australia exist. Even more confusing for some passengers is that Air New Zealand only offer tea, coffee or water on this flight for passengers in the lowest two Economy fare types. Customers from airlines such as Singapore Airlines may be expecting much more.

    Looking at flights between New Zealand and the US, a similar situation arises. Say Air New Zealand NZ8 – Auckland-San Francisco. This has codeshare flight numbers from Air Canada, Lufthansa, United & Virgin Atlantic on top of the NZ8 flight number.

    I think for the average punter, codeshare can be very confusing.

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