Code Sharing Between Airlines

Q: With all this talk of code-sharing between airlines in the news lately, could you explain what, exactly, is a code-share?

Simply put, a code-share is an arrangement whereby an airline sells seats, under its own name, on another carrier’s flight.

Waiting in a concourse in Boston one night, a woman walked up to me in a state of obvious fluster trying to find her flight. She was traveling to Amsterdam, she told me, on KLM, and couldn’t find her gate. I asked to see her ticket, which sure enough was emblazoned with the familiar powder blue livery of the Dutch airline. The most obvious problem here, though, is that KLM doesn’t fly to Boston and never has, despite large lighted signs and announcements on the inter-terminal bus to the contrary. “No,” I explained. “You’re actually flying on Northwest.” Complicating things was the fact her flight operated under two different flight numbers, one each for KLM and Northwest.

Welcome to the world of code-shares, alliances, and partnerships. Virtually all of the world’s top-20 carriers are in cahoots with at least one other airline, and many have joined in powerful partnerships of several carriers, with names like Skyteam, Star Alliance, OneWorld, etc. The idea is for the combined route structures to cover as much real estate as possible, and the bigger alliances typically consist of at least one major carrier from each of the US, Europe, and Asia.

In some cases partnerships have become, for all practical purposes, single economic entities, as illustrated by a Northwest spokesman who recently commented that it no longer matters, from his company’s point of view, whether a passenger flies across the Atlantic on Northwest or KLM.

Carriers are supposed to inform passengers if they’re being sold a seat aboard a plane operated by another company. This can be important for those of you squeamish about flying on turboprops or regional jets (not that you have reason to be), whose seats are largely — often exclusively — sold via their major airline affiliate. Many of the larger regionals, such as American Eagle, Comair, ASA, and Continental Express, are in fact wholly-owned by American, Delta, Continental, etc.


This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.