With international checked baggage on code-share flights, which airline’s rules apply?

by Charlie Leocha on October 27, 2011


One of the most confusing areas of flying these days concerns the charges and rules for checked bags. The Department of Transportation (DOT) in its latest rulemaking moved to clarify the rules by mandating that the same baggage allowances and fees apply to a passenger throughout an itinerary that originates or ends in the U.S. The new rulemaking comes into effect on January 24, 2012 and airlines are scrambling.

In the case of a codeshare itinerary originating or ending in the U.S., the marketing carrier’s baggage allowances and fees must apply throughout the itinerary.

How did we get into this situation where consumers have no idea of what baggage rules apply to their flights even as airline alliances and code-sharing steadily grows?

Basically, the airlines have created a system to allow themselves to appear to offer a larger network of destinations without actually flying there by teaming up with other airlines. While airlines have to go through extensive reviews in order to actually merge, the requirements to set up a codeshare arrangement are far more expeditious.

The airlines claim that consumers benefit by seamless connections, common ticketing, better schedules and time saved. But, stating those goals in a plan and making them operationally doable are two far different things.

Basically, the consumer has been forgotten when it comes to the details of the codeshare and alliance operation. Airlines are reaping benefits, but consumers are confounded by confusing uncoordinated rules.

Even mergers blessed by the government face years of consumer disruption because of conflicting rules, battling labor unions, new executives and incompatible computer systems. Even simple issues such as what color to paint the aircraft and the time to paint each one cause delays, when seen from the outside. However, those consolidation problems, once surmounted, eventually allow two different carriers to morph into one over time.

But, in the case of a code-share operation with a foreign carrier or that of an airline alliance with antitrust immunity, the ability to merge operations and make them seamless for travelers borders on the impossible. Consumers end up faced with alliances and codeshares of a Frankenstein nature. Worse, in most cases, these alliances have several different computer systems or “brains.”

Stepping into this codeshare and alliance world that the airlines have created, DOT is taking its first baby steps at protecting consumers and bringing some sanity to airline baggage operations when it comes to flights marketed by carriers that shift between operational airlines within alliances and codesharing.

In other words, in today’s airline world a customer theoretically can purchase a ticket from Delta Airlines for a flight from New York to Paris, then onto Italy, with a return from Italy to the USA via Amsterdam. Though the ticket is sold by “Delta” with a “DL” code, none of the flights are operated by Delta.

New York to Paris may be on Air France. Paris to Venice might be on Alitalia. Venice to Amsterdam to New York would probably be on KLM. Not one single Delta flight, but every flight has a Delta flight number.

The question is, “Whose baggage policy applies to this flight?” Is it the Delta policy? The ticket is sold by Delta subject to their Contract of Carriage. Or, does the Air France policy apply since it was the initial carrier? Or, does the Alitalia policy apply from Paris to Venice, since there may have been a stopover in Paris? Or, does KLM’s policies apply since it is the “most significant carrier” on the itinerary?

Right now, the airlines make up the rules as they go. There is an IATA Resolution 302 that requires the baggage policies of the “most significant carrier” to apply if there is a conflict between the marketing and operating carrier. However, airlines themselves admit that they are struggling to follow that rule and determine which carrier the “most significant carrier” might be.

In comments filed with DOT airlines noted [I have added paragraphs and formatting to clarify the airline comment]:

In almost all cases, carriers do not have the ability to access information on marketing carriers within check-in systems and also cannot readily access each other‟s fee schedules; indeed, no central repository for carrier baggage policies and fees currently exists.

Under the new rules, there are hundreds of carriers and hundreds of fee policies that each carrier must be able to access and charge. Each individual fee policy has many rules and conditions that change regularly and take into account external factors such as frequent flyer status and carrier credit card membership.

There is no comprehensive solution currently in place to exchange data between carriers about

    (1) general allowances and fee levels;
    (2) which customers qualify for special fees or exemptions, or;
    (3) which passengers are elite-level, U.S. military, have subscribed and paid for an annual baggage program etc. This information would be needed in order to accurately tailor baggage prices by passenger.

It will be extremely difficult for each individual carrier to build a solution that will account for hundreds of carrier policies and each set of conditions within each policy.

Carriers are working with partners to develop an industry solution to comply with the Department‟s new rule but this will take time.

Wow! I’ll agree with the airlines on this one. It is complicated. But, what about the consumer? Should the airlines be allowed to place passengers under such a complicated arrangement, that even the airlines can’t figure out? Should consumers be left to random rules and regulations determination with no recourse?

The coming DOT rule will clarify this. The marketing carrier’s baggage rules will apply as far as DOT is concerned.

Will this solve airline consumers’ baggage fee problems and conflicts between various carriers’ baggage rules? Probably not.

Passengers may find themselves allowed to carry on a bag from New York to Paris and then find that they must check that same bag on an ongoing leg of their ticket. Perhaps there will be a charge to check the bag even though the passenger is traveling on a codeshare flight operated by an airline alliance partner. However, with this new DOT regulation in place, passengers can right the wrong after their travels.

Starting January 24, 2012, passengers will be able to write to the marketing carrier (send a copy of your complaint to DOT as well using their online form) and get any charges refunded and receive some kind of compensation for their troubles.

Those will be the new rules. Finally, consumers have some clarity.

What are your thoughts on the complexity of baggage charges these days across airlines both domestic and International?

Photo: Carry-on bags ©Leocha

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  • Kiki

    This code share “alliance” has recently tripped me up regarding seat assignments. I booked two business class tickets on Orbitz from JFK to VIE, then MUC-EWR.  The first leg is marketed by United, but serviced by Austrian Air.  Neither United, Austrian, or Orbitz can cofirm my seat assignment!!  United and Austrian claim that they don’t have access to each others’ computer systems and said I could request seats together “at the airport”.  So I splurged on biz class fare and am not even guaranteed I can sit with my significant other on the flight!  There are hardly any seats left in biz class, much less together– after many, many calls, I was able to get Orbitz to put a “request” in for seats together that is not even guranteed. 
    I did not even consider the code share issues with baggage allowance. United biz allows 3, Austrian 2, Lufthansa (MUC-EWR leg, 2)– which applies??

  • AirlineEmployee

    Thanks for a clear explanation……well said……..
    As an airline employee, I agree the disparities are wide.    With the airline I work for the originating ticketed carrier rules apply.   Currently we apply bag charges to anyone who is not at least a “silver” level or above.   Also, if the passenger has only domestic segment(s), the bag fee will apply with no status.   Even if they are continuing internationally, but on a separate reservation, the bag fee will apply on the “stand alone” domestic reservation.    So international travelers to/from the United States should really book their travel all on one record -  both domestic and intl segments –  so the international bag rules will apply (generally one or two bags free).   

  • Anonymous

    What a remarkably tone-deaf comment by the airlines:

    “We’ve set up, via a confusing non-uniform system of bag fees, a situation where we haven’t the least clue, at any one time, how many fees a customer is going to be charged.  We’ve made up arbitrary rules that can change at will and enforce at a whim.  But instead of giving us a hard-and-fast rule, please give us an indefinite amount of time to pretend to come to a solution.”

    THIS sort of crap is EXACTLY why we have government regulators.

  • Charles Leocha

    That is a great point. When traveling internationally, having all segments on one ticket allows, in most cases, passengers to take advantage of the international rules rather than the domestic rules.
    If possible, try to get all your segments under one PNR, otherwise each flight may be treated as a separate flight. If the flights are designated with one airline’s code for the entire trip, and the rules change half-way through your trip, you will have file for reimbursement when you return home.
    The marketing carrier is becoming more important in January.

  • PauletteB

    On my first trip to Australia, my wheel-aboard was OK as carry-on for my AA flights between Providence and LAX. Qantas had no problem with it on the LAX-Sydney-Melbourne leg either. But when I checked in for my flight to Adelaide, the Qantas agent  told me the bag was over the approved carry-on size. Just before I panicked about what to do with my camera and gear, the agent said “No worries!” He closed his station, walked me to the gate, and told the gate agent that he had OK’d the bag. Before I flew back home, I purchased a cheap nylon duffle (regulation size) for my camera and other valuables and checked the wheel-aboard. Now I make sure I know the size regs for overseas!

  • Tim Scott

    Gee, why not send the pertinent information via the PNR or a tag file to the PNR?  That way, in Charlie’s example, when I book my ticket with Delta, they know I am a prima donna so I get the first two bags checked free and the third one will be $30.00.  That information then travels with my PNR to Air France, Alitalia, and KLM so they know what I should and should not be charged, and we are all (relatively) happy.

    Am I being too logical?

  • janice

    My son and his girlfriend ran afoul of this.  They booked a ticket as a code share – ticket showing lufthansa, but flights were united from san francisco to frankfurt and frankfurt to san francisco. Lufthansa only from frankfurt to and from room. He is a premier, so no baggage problems on the way out. On the way back lufthansa charged 60 euro for the second bag, even though they only had the short flight.  Had the ticket been booked as united, they were told there would have been no charge. (although the same flights booked as united cost more. Sigh.)

  • Bodega

    Right now, the over the water carrier rules apply. On international fares that allow for a stopover, the over the water rules still apply.   If you break the fare then you have two different fare rules. The most restricivet fare rule applies on each ticket. So you do not want to mix a nonrefundable fare with a refundable fare on one ticket as that refundable fare portion has to follow the nonrefundable rules since it is the most restrictive part.

    You know, if you we didn’t have cheap travelers who want menu pricing this wouldn’t have happened.

  • Ssheldo

    We booked a trip to Alaska on Delta for all segments due to the SkyMiles free luggage allowance for one bag each.  When we were ready to fly home, our Delta flight passes were exchanged for Alaskan Air and we were charged their baggage fee.  It was embarrassing as I had bragged to all in our party about not having to pay the baggage fee as I was an Am Ex Skymiles member.  I did complain to Am Ex and was refunded the fee that I had charged to my card.  Others in the party were not so fortunate.

  • Bodega

    There are various ways to send messages, but the bottom line is that someone has to read them.  Sadly they often don’t get read.

  • lostlady

    back in January I booked a flight to England with a return ticket booked as well, through Delta. I had to call Airfrance to change my flight date, which was complicated. I received a new ticket confirmation from Airfrance which tells me that I am flying with KLM back to memphis, TN. I am SO confused on which airline rules to follow in regards to carry-on baggage weight. KLM and Airfrance is 26 lbs while Delta does not have a carry on weight limit. HELP! Flight is in two days!

  • http://www.tripso.com/author/leocha Charlie Leocha

    Contact the marketing carrier — the carrier whose code is on the flight number. Their rules should be used througout the trip. If you get charged more on one of their code-share partners, you can claim the difference upon your return.

  • SD

    what do you mean by marketing carrier? which baggage policy will apply?
    If one had a ticket with itinerary from A to D via B & C. Suppose it says for A to B LH 8888(some random no) Operated by:/SKYWEST DBA UNITED EXPRESS FOR UNITED AIRLINES . Then from B to C LH 9999 and C to D LH 1000. Then which is the marketing carrier here? Its an international flight with A to B in the US.

  • Ro

    I bought and paid for a delta flight which is apparently operated by Alitalia. Alitalia will not let me check in online because I don’t have a ticket “purchased from Alitalia” hence will not let me pay for my extra bag online- which is 20% cheaper than doing it at the airport. I tried to reason with the Alitalia operator and am now on hold with Delta to see if they can help. Doubt it. This is infuriating, why should I have to pay more for my second checked bag than passengers who bought a ticket with Alitalia- I’m not flying Alitalia by choice, Delta puts you on this flight automatically. This has to be illegal, it’s a total rip-off in my opinion.

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