Code Share: what it’s for and how it works

Have you ever booked a flight on one airline and, just as you were about to board, realized that you were going to fly on another? However, this very common and normal practice in the airline world continues to surprise neophyte passengers and raise questions among the others.

What is Code Share?

As the name suggests, Code Share means letting several airlines “code-share” the same flight or, more concretely, having flight numbers for several airlines on the same flight.

For example, you could have an Air France aircraft with the number AFxx, some of whose passengers will have bought a ticket for flight AFxx, but others for Delta DLxx or Alitalia AZxx. There is only one flight, one plane, but the tickets will have been marketed by several airlines with their own flight numbers.

Take, for example, these flights from Roissy CDG to New York.

For example, not 5 planes leave for JFK at 10.20, but just one! This is the Delta DL263, but some of the seats on board will have been sold by Virgin Atlantic, Air France, KLM and Alitalia.

Ditto for the 10.30 to Newark, which is in fact the United A056 also sold by Air Canada, Brussels Airlines, Swiss or Lufthansa.

It should also be noted that the Paris Airports site is not really up to scratch because when I ask about the TAROM of 14.20 it tells me I’m flying on a TAROM Boeing 777-300ER when in fact it’s a B777….Air France because the Tarom RO9527 is none other than AF006.

We therefore distinguish between the airline operating the flight and the one marketing the ticket. In the case of Tarom RO9531, the flight is operated by Air France and the ticket is marketed by Tarom.

In practice, we have an “Operating Carrier” and a “Marketing Airline” (often abbreviated MKT CXR for “marketing carrier”).

Why do airlines code-share?

1°) Pour mieux remplir leurs avions

An airline may not be sure of filling all 300 seats on a daily flight between two destinations, and therefore have to choose between two alternatives: not serving the destination at all, or doing so with a low load factor and therefore low or negative profitability.

On the other hand, it can decide to operate the flight and offer its partners the possibility of selling some of the seats to their own customers.

And if you choose not to operate a flight, you can create a “virtual flight” to sell its customers seats on a partner airline.

This is also the prevailing logic for airlines organized around hubs, which will try to rely on regional or secondary airlines to feed their long-haul business. Conversely, for the “small” airline, the attraction of the “main airline” on long-haul routes enables them to sell their flights to the hub.

2°) To offer more frequencies

One flight is fine, 3 flights… Customers are increasingly demanding flexibility in their travel schedules, especially business travelers.

Here again, how can you satisfy customers by offering 5 or 10 frequencies to a destination and still be sure to fill all 10? Not to mention the fact that it would mobilize 10 aircraft!

Here again, it’s the same logic as before. On a Paris-New York route, Air France may offer 4 flights per day, Delta 3, making a total of 7 frequencies available to customers of both airlines.

3°) To serve markets where they cannot go

For regulatory reasons, an airline cannot serve any route. For example, a European airline cannot operate a domestic flight in the United States and vice versa.

Codeshare enables an airline to market flights it does not have the right to operate, by having them operated by a partner who does.

For example, Air France cannot operate a New York-Miami route, but it can sell it to its customers and it will be operated by Delta. Ditto for Delta, which will sell its customers a Paris-Marseille flight operated by Air France. This is what is known as market sharing.

Please note: these flights can only be sold as a continuation of a flight on which the airline has traffic rights. In this case, Air France can sell the New York-Miami flight as a continuation of a Paris-New York flight, but not a “dry” New York-Miami flight, which passengers will have to buy directly from Delta.

4°) To be better positioned in the GDSs

GDSs are the distribution systems that enable airlines to offer their seat inventories for sale through various channels, such as travel agencies, price comparison sites, etc.

Human beings being lazy by nature, you should know that when searching for flights, 80% of sales are made on the first screen, and on this screen 80% are made in the first lines.

By making the same flight appear several times under different numbers, you “occupy” more space and are more likely to be chosen by the customer.

5°) Because they are members of the same alliance

The difference is subtle, but here we’re not talking about code-sharing, but code multiplication. In the end, the motivations are the same, the result is the same for the passenger, but the technique is a little different for the airline.

It is now very common for a flight within the same airline alliance to be automatically offered with the codes of all partner airlines, without any specific agreement having been drawn up.

For example, Delta and Air France are both Skyteam members, and many of the flights operated by each airline also use the other’s code, almost automatically. Finnair is not a Skyteam member, so CodeShare with Air France on the Paris-Helsinki route is a specific agreement.

What are the benefits of CodeShare for passengers?

Code Share enables passengers to benefit from a “one-stop shop” by booking with a single airline.

Let’s take the example of a New Yorker who wants to travel to Marseille. Delta can only sell him New York-Paris, and only Air France can sell him Paris-Marseille.

That’s two purchases, two tickets and the risk of finding himself in an uncomfortable position if, due to a problem, the connecting time isn’t sufficient and he misses his second flight (a typical case of self connect going wrong).

Thanks to code share, Delta will be able to sell him a single ticket for New York-Paris and Paris-Marseille, which will of course be an Air France flight, but will also have a Delta flight number. End-to-end check-in (passenger and baggage), reprotection in the event of delays that cause passengers to miss a connection, a single ticket to buy from a single contact…

When the airlines are not members of the same alliance, codeshare allows the passenger to earn points/miles on the loyalty program of the airline marketing the flight.

Example: I’m an Air France Flying Blue member and I fly Delta. Both are Skyteam members, so I don’t need a codeshare to “credit” my flights with Delta on Flying Blue. However, if I fly from Paris to Helsinki on Finnair, I can credit my miles to Flying Blue because there is a codeshare. Please note: to do this, I must purchase my ticket from Air France under the Air France flight number, even if the flight is operated by Finnair. If I buy it from Finnair, I can only credit it to Finnair or a OneWorld member airline.

A code-share flight can also be very useful to passengers in the event of delays. European Union law provides for compensation of €600 if a flight is 3 hours late, but only under certain conditions:

  • When the flight departs from the European Union, regardless of the nationality of the airline operating the flight.
  • Or when the flight departs from a non-EU country, in which case the airline operating the flight must be a national of an EU member state.

In other words, if you fly from Paris to New York on Air France and then (on the same ticket) from New York to Miami on Delta, and the second flight is late, you are theoretically not entitled to any compensation under European law. However, case law has recently recognized that once a flight has been operated by a European airline, European law applies even if the second flight is delayed.

Similarly, if you buy a New York-Paris flight from Delta and the flight is operated by Delta, you are not entitled to anything in the event of a delay. However, if it is “operated by Air France” then you are eligible for compensation.

What are the limits of Code Share for passengers?

The first is obvious: not flying your favorite airline even though you’ve purchased a ticket from it! Today, this is a limited risk, insofar as airlines, in the case of code share, are obliged to indicate this to the customer by means of the famous “operated by” disclosure. That said, customers who are unaware of these practices may be unaware of it and be in for a surprise when they travel.

Sometimes you gain in service quality, sometimes you lose…

This also means that the carrier’s terms and conditions apply. For example, on an Intercontinental Air France flight operated by Delta, the Delta baggage allowance will apply.

And be careful with loyalty programs benefits. If the airlines are members of the same alliance, they will apply (e.g. Air France and Delta); if they are only partners (Air France and Finnair), this will not always be the case.

How does code share work?

There are two ways of marketing seats: “block seat” or “free flow”.

  • Block Seat: an airline buys some of the seats on an aircraft and sells them to its customers. It will pay them to the airline, whether or not it has succeeded in selling them.
  • Free Flow: one airline has access to all or part of another’s seat inventory for resale to its customers, and will only pay the latter for what it has actually sold.

What are the consequences for the customer?

In the case of a “block seat”, an aircraft may appear to be full when there are still seats available.

For example, airline A “buys” 50 seats on a flight from airline B. For airline B, these seats are sold and no longer appear in its inventory. For airline A, they are still available in theirs. So if you go to buy your ticket at B they’ll tell you “it’s sold out” and at A they’ll sell you the seats.

There can also be significant price differences between two tickets on the same flight, in the same booking class, depending on the airline selling it. There are several reasons for this

  • The airline operating the flight does not give its partners access to its cheapest booking classes.
  • The airline selling the flight sells it at a higher price than the one operating it, either because of its pricing policy or because it prefers to fill its own flights before those of its partners.

How can I find out the different flight numbers?

Nothing could be simpler. Simply go to FlightStats, for example, and enter a flight number.

Take AF006 Paris-New York, for example.

At the bottom of the page you’ll find all the Code Share numbers.

And AF7662 (Paris Marseille) is marketed under no less than 10 other flight numbers in addition to the Air France one.

Now you know just about everything you need to know about Code Share, and we hope you’ll no longer be surprised to board a plane that doesn’t belong to the airline that sold you the ticket!

Imagine : booking airline tickets by McLittle Stock via Shutterstock

Bertrand Duperrin
Bertrand Duperrin
Compulsive traveler, present in the French #avgeek community since the late 2000s and passionate about (long) travel since his youth, Bertrand Duperrin co-founded Travel Guys with Olivier Delestre in March 2015.

Trending posts

Recent posts