Even for premium passengers — the best code-shares can still go bad

by Janice Hough on October 6, 2010


Code-share problems are not unusual, and most travelers have at least one story of an unpleasant experience when travel wasn’t quite the “seamless experience” that the airline marketing departments promise. Even the most-frequent of fliers can have their hassles.

Assuming the passengers make it to the right carrier and have ticket information in hand, these problems seem to be exacerbated with discounted tickets, infrequent fliers and smaller airline partners.

Last month, however, a Global Services (translation – “next to God”) United frequent flier found out the hard way that the United-Lufthansa partnership, one of the longest-established in the skies, isn’t perfect either. It almost cost him his trip.

It wasn’t a complicated trip – A Sunday afternoon trip San Francisco to Dusseldorf via Frankfurt. The client had a United flight to Frankfurt, over two hours of connection time in Frankfurt and a Lufthansa flight to Dusseldorf. He could have booked a straight Lufthansa connection, as Lufthansa has a flight leaving San Francisco to Frankfurt at about the same time, but for Global Services members United gives some space-available first class upgrades. And first-class for no additional charge is a powerful inducement.

Besides, not only do the two airlines partner and code-share, because this passenger was continuing on to Asia with another airline, he had a one-way, United-Lufthansa only, full-fare business class ticket too — almost $7,000.

So he checked in and everything was fine, but right before boarding an announcement was made that there would be a mechanical delay, and that United would have a “decision” in two hours.

Regular fliers have learned to dread the word “decision,” because it means they are going to decide if they can fix the plane or not. At that point, a two hour delay meant a chance to make the connection, longer meant it would not happen. And his meeting in Dusseldorf was critical with several others who were flying in just for the day.

Fortunately, Lufthansa had that nonstop flight leaving in just under an hour. In fact, the two carriers have long had these almost twin flights leaving at nearly the same time, and both of them sell seats on both flights as code-shares.

So, this should have been easy. Lufthansa told him they had seats, but only in first class. He asked United to try to organize a swap, saying he was willing to pay the difference. In short, they said no.

Now, some situations at the airport are complicated. This one wasn’t. The Lufthansa flight even also had a United flight number. The client had his ticket number, the original credit card, and there was clearly no penalty involved. (He didn’t even try to reach me because he KNEW it was a simple exchange that they should be able to do in a few minutes.)

Moreover, while this might be overly technical information, these two carriers are not just “Star Alliance partners.” United contracts for travel agency commissions, consolidator fares, corporate discounts and any other concessions have been joint contracts with Lufthansa for years. In fact, representatives of the two carriers often almost talk as if they were merged, except that they don’t want to run afoul of anti-trust legislation.

One United sales representative once said to me, “Consider us one airline.” Great, except when they aren’t.

In the end, after arguing with United for a while, my client realized Lufthansa was about to close their flight and so he ended up buying a completely new ticket for the flight. He did end up making the meeting.

On the other hand, not everyone has as much credit card float as he did. Plus, this meant that he had to max out the card he planned to use for the trip.

In addition, while we could quickly request a refund of the original ticket, airlines routinely take a month or more to credit money back, so the funds will stay tied up on his card for a while.

Could anything have been done differently?

Had the passenger lucked into someone different at United, there wouldn’t have been a problem, but so close to flight time he didn’t have a lot of options. (For passengers with more time, polite persistence often will get you to someone who can solve a problem.)

All things being equal, it’s safe to book one airline all the way through for a trip, rather than ANY code-share partners. But all things are not always equal. Had Lufthansa had the mechanical problem, the situation could have been reversed.

Perhaps the lesson, other than the fact that code-sharing and partnerships are just two more things that airlines oversell, is that incompetence and poor customer service don’t just happen to people in the back of the bus.

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  • dcta

    This is wild. Why wouldn’t UA exchange his full fare, refundable ticket with an “add/collect” to First Class onto the Lufthi flight using the UA codeshare flight number? It almost sounds to me like no one at the gate actually knew how to do an exchange? This should have been very simple.

  • MVFlyer

    He had two options that probably would have worked:

    1. Called the super-secret Global Services line–they apparently will do nearly anything for their customers.

    2. Gone over to the Red Carpet club–the agents there seem to have more latitude and will make changes if the tariffs allow (which this one certainly should have)

    I think this goes to show that the Star Alliance isn’t as strong as it should be. In theory, it should be seamless for the passenger, but in fact, it isn’t–the airlines don’t get along very well. If there’s a problem, it should be *any* of the Star Alliance airlines should help a stranded passenger–but in practice, they all point fingers and send you elsewhere. Despite what Star says, the airlines do not generally recognize elite flyers from other partners (e.g. UA doesn’t allow partner elite FFs into Economy Plus as they do their own). The only Star airline that formally recognized my UA status was Singapore–on a trip to Hong Kong on SQ, I neglected to put my UA number in, and while I was treated very well, it paled in comparison to the return trip where I did put my UA number in the system, and was greeted by name, offered all sorts of stuff others didn’t seem to be getting, etc.

    In many ways, I feel the Star Alliance is a sham.

  • Jason

    A few years ago I was traveling GOT-FRA-JFK on LH and misconnected in FRA (on an economy ticket). Because it was a mechanical delay LH was willing to re-route me through IAD on UA but they had to re-issue the ticket to UA.

    Because I have Star Alliance Gold status I went right to the first class area in FRA and was helped right away but it took two agents to make the change.

    MVFlyer’s advice is spot on…go somewhere that they usually staff with more experienced people. Generally the rank and file gate agents aren’t trained to do ticket re-issues, changes etc.

    I fly on LH and UA a lot and found them to be pretty competent when it comes to changes and disruptions.

  • dcta

    Oh this is just stupid! He had a refundable ticket – there should have been absolutely no problem for the UA Gate Agent to exchange that for another UA tagged flight – should have been able to do it in a total of four minutes – no one should need to resort to special phone numbers or the Red Carpet Club for that – even the passenger knew this and this is why he didn’t call his Travel Agent!

  • Arizona Road Warrior

    So far, I have had a problem with every code share flights between US Airways and United that I have booked with US Airways. After the last fiasco, I will book directly with United instead of booking a code-share with US Airways.

    In regards to United and SFO, I agree with the other commenters that he should have called the Global Services line and/or went to the Red Carpet club. I am not impressed with the United ‘front-line’ employees at SFO. Last month, I had a flight (SFO to ICN) on United then a flight on Asiana (ICN to PVG). The United agent at the Business Class Check-in counter screwed up the boarding passes for our connecting flight on Asiana. Luckily, I made a stop at the ‘ticket counter’ (there are two counters…one for the lounge and one for tickets) in the Asiana lounge in ICN as we were leaving the lounge where the mistake was discovered.

  • Scott

    A few comments:

    1) In SFO, the International Gates are common-use so all the equipment is owned by the airPORT and not the airLINE. There are no tickets (different from boarding passes) available at the gate.

    2) With a mechanical delay on a flight to Frankfurt with probably 200 or more outbound-connecting customers, nothing is ever “simple.” The “in short” does not tell us what prevented this customer from getting assistance or why, so it makes it really difficult to comment further. That’s the beauty of refundable tickets. Tell someone you aren’t going, refund the ticket and buy another one. While this could — and likely should — have gotten done easily, there are always extenuating circumstances, especially in a case like this. Far too many customers think that you should be able to do something on any allia

  • Scott

    A few comments:

    1) In SFO, the International Gates are common-use so all the equipment is owned by the airPORT and not the airLINE. There are no tickets (different from boarding passes) available at the gate.

    2) With a mechanical delay on a flight to Frankfurt with probably 200 or more outbound-connecting customers, nothing is ever “simple.” The “in short” does not tell us what prevented this customer from getting assistance or why, so it makes it really difficult to comment further. That’s the beauty of refundable tickets. Tell someone you aren’t going, refund the ticket and buy another one. While this could — and likely should — have gotten done easily, there are always extenuating circumstances, especially in a case like this. Far too many customers think that you should be able to do anything on any alliance carrier when they are still different airlines. That is not the point of the alliance.

    3) @MVFlyer: If UA allowed ALL alliance FFs to have Economy Plus, it would never be available for you. They used to do this. It didn’t work. Star Status is honored in all kinds of ways, but unfortunately when people find something they *don’t* get, they complain everything is worthless. And when customers find themselves “stranded” because of a flight problem, any Star Carrier can exchange any other Star Carrier’s ticket to find an alternate routing (EXCEPT for Singapore, who disallows this and considers themselves Star only when it benefits them).

    4) @ Arizona: While I normally think you have some very insightful things to say, I read your novel regarding this particular flight. When people complain about each and every single thing and there was a problem with everything, it really dilutes the power of anything that really might have been wrong.

    As far as your comment here about the agent “screwing up” your boarding passes, you are simply off base. Agents do not have the ability to do anything in another airline’s computer system. All that happens is the system issues your connecting boarding passes when you check in. If there was something wrong, it is either from a computer error between the systems or from a problem that already existed in your reservation prior to check-in. But I understand it does make your story better to blame the agent.

  • David Farnham

    I’d really like to hear United’s response to this before rushing to criticize.

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