Flights to UK ‘operated by’ American airlines have a hidden cost.
A Which? Travel investigation has revealed that British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and other European airline customers are inadvertently losing their rights to flight delay compensation.
Both BA and Virgin have so-called ‘codeshare’ agreements with American airlines, among others. These are flights booked through one airline but operated by another. This means that you can book flights on BA’s website that are operated by American Airlines, for example, while many Virgin bookings are actually Delta flights. Although this information is reasonably clear on airlines’ own websites, it is not always the case on third-party agent websites. Some passengers have even arrived at the airport only to find that they’re not flying with the airline they expected.
A codeshare arrangement can provide more flexibility in the flights you choose, making connections between airlines easier when there is more than one leg to get to your final destination. But it can also result in you unwittingly flying with an airline that has smaller seats or worse customer service than the carrier you booked with. Crucially, it can also mean losing rights to compensation.
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No flight delay compensation
European airlines, such as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, are obliged under EU legislation to compensate customers whenever they are responsible for a flight being more than three hours late. This is as much as €600 per person for a transatlantic trip. But non-European airlines, such as Delta and American Airlines, only have to compensate customers flying from a European airport.
And it’s the operating airline, not the one that made the booking, that is responsible for paying flight delay compensation. That means that even if you bought your ticket with BA or Virgin Atlantic, if your flight home is with American Airlines or Delta you won’t be due compensation.
One Which? member was offered just a $200 voucher when her British Airways booking, flight BA1500 from Chicago to Manchester was cancelled. That’s because, despite the BA flight number, it was actually operated by American Airlines. This ‘operating airline’ small print cost her and her partner €1,200 in compensation.
Lastminute.com and Edreams confusion
Which? Travel has received complaints from passengers who have told us that they didn’t realise they weren’t flying with the airline with which they’d booked, until they saw their boarding pass.
While it’s reasonably clear on the airline websites who is the operating carrier, some online travel agents, including Edreams and Lastminute.com, make it much less obvious. On both Edreams and Lastminute.com’s booking pages (the first page you land on if you visit them from an ‘aggregator’, such as Skyscanner) the airline actually operating the flight is not mentioned, unless you click on ‘flight details’.
Tale of two airlines
Codeshare confusion means some travellers have found themselves crammed into Vueling seats (28 to 30-inch seat pitch) when they expected to be flying BA (29 to 34-inch on short-haul, and often up to an inch wider than their low-cost partners).
Smaller seats aren’t the only problem. Customers who have picked BA in anticipation of receiving a certain level of customer service, may well be disappointed to find themselves with Vueling or American Airlines. Both received lower scores for customer service and overall customer score in our recent survey of the best and worst airlines. It’s a similar story with Virgin Atlantic and Delta, with the US carrier ranked below its codeshare partner.
British Airways and American Airlines blame each other
Other passengers have found themselves caught between two airlines when something goes wrong. BA customers Chris Pile and his wife Laura Trevino, returning to Europe from Washington DC, had a flight cancelled by ‘operating airline’ American Airways.
American Airlines told them to go to nearby Dulles Airport where they could catch a British Airways flight. Unfortunately, after a $100 cab to Dulles, BA told them that they were merely on stand-by and were unlikely to get on the plane.
They ended up paying BA $760 for upgrades as the only way to guarantee seats. BA staff told them to remember to keep their receipts so that they could claim compensation later.
Unfortunately when they did just that British Airways told them, ‘I’m afraid we aren’t able to compensate you or cover your expenses, as we weren’t operating the flight that caused the disruption you suffered.’
When they contacted American, the airline told them: ‘I understand your tickets were originally booked and paid to British Airways. They have received the funds for your trip and we are unable to refund any money that we did not receive. Please contact BA directly to further escalate your claim.’
Ultimately they were just offered $200 in vouchers by American. British Airways offered them nothing, denying it had done anything wrong.
Chris took BA to its arbitration service, CEDR, which ruled in favour of BA on the grounds that the carrier hadn’t operated the initial cancelled flight. Unfortunately American Airlines are not members of CEDR so it had no power to consider American Airlines’ behaviour.
American told us: ‘The reason the flight was cancelled was a major winter storm. Our system rebooked them on a British Airways flight, a joint business partner of ours. Our system is only able to confirm passengers on alternative flights where seats are available. You will have to speak to British Airways regarding their experience at Washington Dulles.’