The Travel Adviser: The truth about code-sharing

AA can claim it flies to Israel; El Al can say it flies all over US.

el al american airlines  (photo credit: Bloomberg)
el al american airlines
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
The recent announcement that come February 1, El Al and American Airlines will embark on a code-sharing program has led to a flurry of enquiries on that subject. First the facts, according to the press releases: • The agreement is for two years, and will be reviewed annually unless one of the airlines terminates the agreement. • The agreement will apply on El Al routes between Tel Aviv and New York, Los Angeles and Miami. It will also apply on El Al routes to Europe, from where American Airline flights will continue to their 23 US destinations including Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Fort Worth, Orlando, San Francisco, San Diego and Seattle. Now for a quick dose of reality: • El Al already uses American Airlines flights to fly inside North America beyond the three cities in the United States that El Al services itself. • El Al passengers can already avail themselves of the possibility to fly to Europe and then continue on an American Airline flight to many US destinations. • You can already use your American Airlines frequent flier number and receive credit when flying El Al. So let's tackle the quite innocent question asked by Nathan Grossman: "With the announcement that El AL and AA have signed a code-share agreement, does that mean American Airlines will be flying to Israel?" To answer, we need to digress and explain exactly what "code-share" means. Or, more to the point, what a code-share flight means, as this can be both a bane and a benefit to the consumer. Next time you're at an international airport, be it Ben-Gurion or LAX, take a close look at the flashing arrival screen. Astute eyes will notice that many flights appear at identical times but with different headings. A simple flight Tel Aviv to Zurich, for instance, is listed as both an El Al flight and a Swiss flight. Are planes truly able to land at identical times, having traveled the same route to the same destination? Of course not. What you've noticed is a code-shared flight. In fact, without advance knowledge, you wouldn't even know if the actual plane is being flown by El Al's pilots or Swiss's. This is what American Airlines and El Al hope to market in the future. Subject to antitrust approvals on both sides of the oceans, American Airlines will soon offer unsuspecting tourists direct flights to the Holy Land. The reservation system and the ticket itself will show an American Airlines flight number. American Airlines will promote that it flies to Israel, albeit on an El Al plane. And El Al, for its part, will soon promote that it flies to dozens of cities in North America; it too will start issuing electronic tickets all the way to Dallas, Orlando, Seattle et al using El Al flight numbers. Fortunately, there is one basic rule in the code-share playbook that lets you in on the secret. Whenever you see a flight with more than three numbers, this means the airline listed is not the airline that's piloting the flight. Take El AL flight 8853 to Zurich, for example: It is operated by Swiss, piloted by Swiss, and if you require a special meal, or a baby basket, El Al is not responsible. But you can earn El Al frequent flier miles for taking it. Just don't make the mistake passengers often make by trying to check in for it at an El Al ticket counter. Many's the passenger who has missed the plane as a result. WHY IS El Al so grandly touting its code share agreement with American Airlines? Simply to increase its market share. When El Al can market itself throughout North America as "flying" from dozens of cities, this can only be beneficial. Many tourists, both Christians and Jewish, feel safer when flying El Al. And when El Al can market itself throughout Israel as flying to dozens of cities in North America, it can compete head-on with Delta and Continental - airlines which do actually fly to dozens of cities in North America. Will this result in lower prices? That's not entirely clear at this stage. Certainly not on the flights beyond New York; these add-on fares will remain the same. But EL AL may be able to lower the prices when a passenger desires to stop in Europe to or from the US. Today, stopping one direction in Europe but flying the other non-stop does not always make for a competitive fare. Hopefully El Al will change its policy and lower the prices. The one certain benefit to the consumer is the chance to accrue more frequent-flier miles. (Redeeming them, though? That's a whole other story...) The one vital lesson: always check the details of your reservation. Assiduously review your electronic ticket. And never be embarrassed to ask questions: It's usually our "smartest" clients who mess up, as they simply assume they know the correct flight. Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at [email protected]