Beware booking connections with multiple airlines

by Janice Hough on March 30, 2010


Sometimes airline passengers have no choice. If they are flying to a small airport or between two airports with limited air service, the only option is to connect from “airline A” to “airline B.” Sometimes. Sometimes codeshare arrangements, such as between United and Lufthansa, are the only option for a good fare.

Often the only reason travelers attempt a trip with connections involving two (or more) airlines is presumed efficiency with a shorter connection, or a cheaper fare by combining two different tickets.

My usual response is to try to talk the person out of mixing airlines. The potential problems usually far out-weigh most perceived time and/or money savings.

An experience today was the latest in a long line of examples.

The client in question wanted to get from Boston connecting in London to Delhi to Kathmandu, admittedly not the easiest routing. British Airways would have gotten him as far as Delhi. But he didn’t like the times.

So he suggested a routing he had found online with British Airways to London, Virgin Atlantic to Delhi, and Jet Airways to Kathmandu. I couldn’t talk him out of it.

No, this is not another British Airways strike story. British Airways was on time with no problems at all, despite the strike, and they even checked his luggage through.

When he got to Heathrow, however, the fun started. Virgin Atlantic announced their flight would be two hours late. Which means they would miss the connection to his flight from Delhi to Kathmandu.

We were able to find another flight to Kathmandu on Indian Airlines, where he will probably make the connection, but then there was the matter of checked luggage.

Despite a five-hour layover at Heathrow, Virgin Atlantic insisted that because British Airways had checked the luggage all the way through, that they could not change it over to his new flight.

Virgin actually claimed this was British Airways’ fault for checking the luggage through. Now, had the plane been on time and British Airways hadn’t checked the bags through, resulting in the passengers and/or their luggage missing the flight, that would have probably received the same “not our fault” response.

Now, in this situation, it is all going to eventually work out, probably. My best guess since Virgin has refused to transfer bags to Indian Air in Delhi, they will probably put them on the next Jet Airways flight, the following morning. (We hope.) A colleague would then be able to pick them up for him. But at time of writing we don’t know, and won’t for another 24 hours.

In this particular case, while I think Virgin Atlantic is the guiltier party, it really matters little in the long run when one airline is blaming the other, or denying responsibility. The real loser is the traveler.

This happens over and over, the second carrier will insist responsibility resides with the first carrier (technically it usually does) or the first carrier will claim they did their job and it’s the second carrier’s problem. Sometimes it’s just an issue of luggage, other times its a matter of missed connections.

These issues crop up with airlines that actually have ticketing and interline agreements — translation, they will transfer bags and tickets between each other. If it’s a connection involving an international low-cost carrier or even a domestic major carrier like Southwest, don’t even think about any luggage transfer or ticketing cooperation.

In short, stuff happens. Before you or your travel agent, however, get too creative with fares and ticketing when choosing a multiple carrier itinerary, think of the worst case scenario.

Everything might go smoothly and the risk might turn out to be well be worth it. But can you live with it if it’s not?

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  • Graham

    Here’s a little story from the late 70′s. I’m off to Kathmandu flying Lufthansa London/Frankfurt/Delhi and then Delhi/Kathmandu on Royal Nepal. LH check my bag through to KTM. Get to Delhi and find I have to enter India to make the transfer. I pitch up at the RNAC desk and they say “where’s your bag?”. I confidently explain it’s checked through and show them the receipt. They look at me like I’m mad and take me through to the departure lounge (no security, just march me through). “Can you see your bag?”. Well, yes, as it happens I can so we pick it up and walk it back to check in where they recheck it and everything works fine from there on. Have things changed at Delhi in 40 years?

    Now, despite that I have few problems with booking connections across airlines. I’ve done it many times over the years and, apart from that one experience in Delhi, it’s never gone wrong (that’s asking for trouble).

    The IATA resolution says that (on a through ticket – separate ticketing is a nightmare to be avoided) the delivering carrier is responsible. BA did their bit and VS was delayed. It is the responsibility of VS to find the alternative at Delhi and, if necessary, provide accommodation etc.

    We need to understand the rules and make sure the airlines stick to them.

  • Greg Fischer

    You cannot compel an airline to behave from a remote location thousands of miles away, especially when simply reaching anyone with any authority is a struggle. They will do what they do and what they do now is not the same as what they did 30 years ago, IATA rules or not.

    Sound advice, Janice.

    – Greg

  • Robert

    There are SO many reasons not to mix airlines, and the possibility of checked baggage problems is just one. In Janice’s example, the traveler’s tickets was sold on BA. However he fly’s on Virgin to get to India. Now he has to change his electronic ticket in India so he can fly on India Airlines instead of Jet. He can’t go to Jet Airways to get his ticket changed in India. He can’t go to India Airlines or Virgin. He has to go to BA to change his ticket. This could be in a different terminal or it’s possible in cases like this that the ticketeing airline may be closed or it may not even exist in that airport. A problem like this might be unsolvable en route so the passenger would have to buy a new ticket to get to his destination. Then he has to deal with the administrative headache of obtaining a refund, sometimes easier said than done. The moral of this story is to keep airline ticketing as simple and straight forward as possible and to plan itineraries accordingly.

  • Terry

    Very interesting post. I get the point. I can see why it is risky to buy a ticket from one airline for Point A to B and then a ticket from another airline for Point B to C. But, are you saying that is problematic to buy a ticket from one an internet travel provider which entails the use of “multiple airlines” as they put it? In such a case, the whole trip would be on one electronic or ticketed itinerary. Are you saying that even those should be avoided, that is, that I should avoid “multiple airline” deals? They are often cheaper but are you saying the price difference entails unjustified risk?

    Thanks.

  • http://leftcoastsportsbabe.com Janice Hough

    If it’s all on one electronic ticket as Graham says above there are IATA (International Air Transport Association) rules that are supposed to compel the airlines to take care of the traveler. BUT, and it’s a big but, that’s the rule, in my experience the reality is far different.

    First, for example, airline A will almost never hold a plane for a delayed airline B flight where there is at least a chance they will hold their own flights, especially if there are a number of connecting passengers.

    And I do a lot of complicated international travel where sometimes these two airline things are unavoidable, (or it’s simple the client wants say, United miles as far as they can get.) Rules or not, when something goes wrong, one airline blames the other, and it takes a lot longer to get things resolved. Baggage is a particular nightmare. In worst cases I’ve had it take over a week as airline A says we got the bag to B, and B says they didnt get it in time… etc.

    Plus, and online sites seem particularly likely to cause this problem… two different airlines at a large airport can be a LONG way away between terminals. And when you have to get a bus, train or simply walk a mile between planes, all kinds of things can go wrong. Especially if instead of being a young able bodied adult you are travelling with a family or just don’t move that quickly.or have a heavy carry.

    The connection problems are better if the two airlines are part of an alliance – like Oneworld and Star Alliance – but even that isn’t as seamless as they claim.

  • Terry

    Thanks. This confirms a direction I was headed in but makes me feel more confident of changing my own approach. I had suspected these potential problems but had not yet been seriously harmed.

    The first thing that got me thinking was an experience late last year on a flight to Barcelona. We had one of those tight connections in Chicago and had to change terminals. We just barely made it ourselves (last ones on the SAS plane, which prides themselves on departure on time!) but, of course, our luggage did not join us. Although we had given ourselves an extra day before catching a cruise, the luggage did not catch up with us. Thankfully, the cruise line was pro-active about following it up and got our bags to us at a port of call a few days later but it was a significant nuisance.

    When we ticketed, I thought the connection looked tight but I told myself the airlines would not schedule a passenger for an unreasonable connection. Bad assumption! I am now more aware that I need to make my own judgments on connection schedules. I also plan now, however, as much as possible to book directly with an airline for the whole itinerary. I have always suspected that, if rescheduling ever did become necessary en route, we’d get better attention from the airline if they had sold us the ticket than if we had to work through Expedia or some other flight aggregator/consolidator etc. I now plan to check prices on a few internet providers but then go directly to the airlines that show up in the search.

    Thanks for the helpful advice.

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  • Graham

    Something like 35 years ago I flew London/Frankfurt/Delhi/Kathmandu and Lufthansa in London happily put a KTM tag on my bag (and I didn’t think twice about it, in those days we didn’t have alliances and interline was the way to go).

    When I got to Delhi I had to clear immigration for India and so, landside, I presented myself to Royal Nepal Airlines.   “Where is your bag?”.   I showed him the tag.   He sighed and said “Come with me”.   He marched through passport control and into the departures lounge.   “Can you see your bag?”.   It was a rucksack actually and yes, it was neatly parked next to a column.   We took it back to check in re tagged it and it arrived in Kathmandu.

    With that experience in mind, and having listened to tales from people who’ve been to India and Nepal in much more recent times I think these days that even if I could get a one airline connection if I had to change planes in India I might think about adding a night stop in there.

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