Who’s Your Airline? Behind the Mystical World of Code Sharing

airline2Show of hands if this has happened to you while flying to or from a conference or vacay:

Your plane arrives at a stopover destination. Your connecting flight is hopelessly delayed by weather. You make a beeline to the Delta check-in counter at which you just arrived to discuss your options. The friendly face at Delta takes one glance at your ticket and promptly directs you to United. Confused, you bid adieu to Delta and hasten to the United desk, muttering under your breath, “Who’s my airline anyway?”

Welcome to the confusing, frustrating, event-planner-delaying world of airline code sharing.


According to the U.S General Services Administration, code sharing is a commercial agreement between two airlines that allows one airline to put its two-letter identification codes on flights operated by the other airline as they appear in the computerized reservation systems.

For example, in the above connecting flight you almost missed, Delta (aka the “operating” airline) provides the aircraft and ground support to the flight listed under the two-letter UA code of United (aka the “marketing” airline). If you look closely at your ticket, you’ll see the familiar United logo and UA flight number, with a shaded notation underneath it that reads “Operated by Delta Airlines,” or similar verbiage. Chances are, you’ll also find this code-sharing disclaimer on the online schedule of the marketing airline.

Think of it this way: your ticketed flight number represents the airline from which you purchased your ticket. However, if that airline has a code share agreement in place, you may actually be flying on the operating airline’s aircraft rather than one owned by the airline that sold you the ticket.

So who’s your airline?

Generally speaking, you’ll always check in for your departing flight with the marketing airline that sold you the ticket, not the operating airline providing the aircraft. In the event your departing or connecting airport doesn’t have a ticket counter that matches the logo on your ticket, you’ll want to check in at your operating airline’s counter.

Things get a bit fuzzy where baggage is concerned, as baggage policies and charges differ carrier to carrier. If you have specific questions concerning your luggage, you may save yourself some time by inquiring directly with the operating airline.

The airlines maintain that selling seats on flights operated by other airlines ultimately benefits the traveler by simplifying airline booking, check-in, baggage and schedule coordination. GSA notes that code sharing agreements also benefit the carriers by enabling them to expand their service offerings without additional resources, equipment and costs. Little wonder that most U.S. carriers participate in some form of code-sharing arrangement, according to GSA.

Now if they’d only done a better job of helping us frequent flyers crack the code!

Photos: Shutterstock.com

Jay MacDonald

Jay MacDonald

Jay MacDonald is an award-winning journalist, author and blogger who incorporates humor and human interest into a broad range of topics. Follow him on Twitter @omnisaurus

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