There was a time when you always knew, when you booked a flight, what airline you'd be flying. After all, it was right there in the timetable, wasn't it?
And it's still there today, isn't it? Yes . . . and no.
Consider: Flight WA 1431, Los Angeles to Bakersfield, 7:05 a.m. You figure that's Western Airlines, right?
Consider: Same route, AA 5057, 6:32 p.m. That, surely, is American Airlines.
Consider: UA 3303, Burbank to Fresno, 11:05 a.m. That has to be United, of course.
In each case, the assumption--that WA means Western, AA means American and UA means United--is wrong. None of those carriers operates those flights.
In all of the instances cited, the segment listed is operated by a smaller regional, or commuter, carrier sharing the flight designation, or code, of a larger partner. Depending on what part of the country you travel in, that smaller carrier could be WestAir, ComAir, CCAir, Britt, Air Midwest, Horizon, Jetstream or any one of dozens of others.
They are part of a growing trend toward "feeder" arrangements among airlines.
Take the case of Western. It has major hubs in Los Angeles and Salt Lake City, two centers through which hundreds of its flights pass every day.
Obviously, it is important to Western to be able to feed passengers from interior California and Utah points to those flights, and to offer them a way of getting home. So the company has a deal with WestAir, based in St. George, Utah, which has services in both states, to reschedule its arrivals and departures to coincide better with Western's, and to share a code.
Similarly, United has feeder needs in the Midwest and California. So it, too, enters into an agreement with WestAir, and Air Wisconsin, among others.
Pan Am wants to get people from within New York state to its European and domestic departures from JFK. Here comes Empire Airways, by way of a code-sharing pact.
The list is a long one. Very few airlines don't have localized tie-ins these days.
Delta has the Delta Connection, American calls its network American Eagle. There's the Piedmont Commuter System and the Eastern Express. And on and on.
The advantages to the larger carriers are obvious. They get the interior-points transportation systems they want to support their self-operated hub schedules.
The regional carriers get promotional and advertising assistance, computer reservations services and plain, old prestige out of their involvement with trunk lines, even though they usually have to pay a per-passenger fee to their larger partners for the privilege.
A friend recently bought a ticket for a flight around the Southeast, believing she was booked on a major trunk line throughout. Only when she arrived at the airport did she learn that part of her trip would be on a 16-seat aircraft of a company she'd never heard of.
Like millions of Americans, my friend isn't all that fond of flying at the best of times. She has a passionate dislike of flying in small airplanes.
She was a "victim," if you will, of a feeder arrangement in which the first leg of her trip was operated by a small airline sharing the code of a large one.
She should have been warned, of course. Her travel agent should have been able to tell her.
But most of the airline computer reservations systems commonly used these days don't break out such details as those. There may be an asterisk or some kind of key that draws attention to the fact that it's a code-shared flight, but it won't give the name of the airline or the type of aircraft.
Certainly, the airlines have a responsibility to inform the passenger, in advance, of such arrangements. They rely so heavily on the help of travel agents in distributing their product that there ought to be some way for agents to get such information quickly and easily.
Watch for Asterisk
If you're reading the schedule, watch for the asterisk. Watch also for four-digit designations. Most airlines keep a specific "bank" of four-digit numbers for their code-share partners.
Any United flight numbered between 3100 and 3319, for example, is operated by WestAir. Other carriers have the same kind of system.
If you're in doubt, call the airline, or check for fine print, or have your travel agent spell it out for you before you buy.
In the meantime, it should not be assumed that the code-sharing regional partners are any less safe or less service-oriented than their bigger partners. On the contrary, the Westerns and the Uniteds of this world don't rush out to make deals with any line whose performance will reflect badly on them.
Code-sharers are well scrutinized before they're allowed to sign up.