How Does Airline Code Sharing Work?

Code sharing can give you more flight options with your favorite airline, but it can also take away valuable benefits you’re used to getting.
Last updated Sep 18, 2020 | By Ben Luthi
Passengers sitting in airplane seats

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If you’ve ever booked a flight on one airline, only to step onto a flight operated by another, you likely booked a ticket that’s subject to a code-sharing agreement. Code sharing is common in the airline industry and makes it easier for airlines to provide more options for their passengers.

But while code sharing has its advantages, there are also some downsides to consider. Here are some things to watch for and think about as you book your next flight.

What is code sharing?

Code sharing refers to an arrangement between two airlines that allows one to sell tickets for flights operated by the other. These common agreements make it possible for airlines to offer tickets to destinations they don’t serve themselves. Code sharing also helps them stay competitive with airlines that serve those areas.

You can generally find code-sharing partnerships between domestic airlines, as well as between domestic and international airlines. Examples include:

  • American Airlines and British Airways
  • Delta Air Lines and Jet Airways
  • JetBlue Airways and Turkish Airlines
  • United Airlines and Lufthansa

Code-sharing agreements aren’t always obvious when you’re booking a flight. If you’re not looking closely enough, you may book a flight operated by a different airline without realizing it. That’s not always a bad thing, but it could potentially cause some problems for you.

Pros and cons of code sharing for passengers

For airlines, code sharing is a win-win proposition. But for passengers, there are both perks and drawbacks of code-share flights to consider before booking one.

Pros

The most important benefit of code-sharing agreements is that they provide more flexible flight routes. If your preferred airline doesn’t fly to the destination you want to visit or doesn’t have flexible route options, code sharing can help you get to where you want as conveniently as possible.

Also, you’ll be able to still earn points or miles with the airline you booked with, even if you’re not flying on one of its planes. If code sharing wasn’t a thing, you’d have a harder time staying loyal to one airline’s frequent-flyer program. In other words, the best airline credit cards may pack as big of a punch. 

Cons

If you’re not aware that you’ve booked a code-sharing ticket, you may get confused when you arrive at the airport. Even checking in before you get to the airport can be tricky because you have to check in with the airline that’s operating the flight, not the one that booked it.

Also, different airlines have different policies. For example, if you qualify for free checked bags with one airline, either because of the credit card or your status level, you won’t necessarily get that fee waived through the other airline.

And if you qualify for free upgrades with your booking airline, that benefit won’t necessarily transfer over to the one operating the flight.

Finally, if you regularly fly with one airline, you’ve likely become accustomed to the services and amenities it provides. If you unintentionally end up on a code-sharing flight operated by another airline, not getting that same level of service you were expecting may be frustrating.

Best practices when booking a code-sharing flight

Flying on a code-sharing agreement isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can make things more complicated. Here are some things you can do to make the process go more smoothly.

Pay attention during the booking process

Spotting a code-shared flight isn’t always easy, but if another airline operates one or more flights in your itinerary, it will typically show up under the details of the trip; watch for notes that say a flight is operated by another airline.

Also, be aware that sometimes you’ll see flights to the same destination from both the booking airline and a code-sharing partner. If this happens and you stand to lose some perks with a code-sharing agreement, make sure to pick the flight that will be operated by your chosen airline.

Know who to contact about what

Even though another airline is operating your flight, you may still need to reach out to your booking airline for certain things, such as rewards-related questions and canceling or changing the flight. When it comes to checking in, though, you’ll need to do that with the airline that’s operating the flight.

In situations where different airlines operate various legs of your trip and you miss a connection, you’ll contact the carrier that caused the missed connection to get on the next flight.

If you have a question and you’re not sure who to talk to, reach out to the booking airline and find out where you’re supposed to direct your inquiry.

The bottom line

Code-sharing agreements can cause you to miss out on some perks when you fly, and they can also make things like checking in and asking questions a little more complicated.

But they can also make it possible to rack up rewards or redeem your points or miles with your favorite airline without missing out on destinations that airline doesn’t serve. If you're looking to get the most rewards out of your travel credit cards, code sharing can help. 

Before you book a trip, however, make sure you understand which airline is operating your flight and what you stand to gain or lose in the process.

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