Understanding codeshare flights

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Have you ever booked a flight with an airline, only to find out later that the flight was operated by a different airline?  This is called a codeshare, where one airline puts its airline code and flight number on a flight operated by another airline.

Here’s a simple example: A traveler wants to fly from Seattle to Frankfurt and back, and books through United.com.  The first option that appears is a nonstop flight. But United doesn’t fly from Seattle to Frankfurt, so what’s going on?  The flight is actually operated by United’s Star Alliance partner Lufthansa.  Take a look at the visual below:

UALH

Under the United flight numbers, there’s a note that says, “Operated by Lufthansa”. In this case, both flights are codeshares operated by Lufthansa.

In other cases, an itinerary may consist of most flights on United aircraft, and then one or two on partner aircraft, under United’s code.  If our traveler is going to Bangkok instead of Frankfurt, one of the options between Seattle and Tokyo will be operated by ANA (even though United has its own flight on this route, unlike Seattle-Frankfurt):

UANH

In these examples, it’s easy to identify the codeshare flights, since the website clearly states which flights are operated by partner airlines.  But it’s not always this clear.  One easy trick to spot a codeshare is to look at the flight number.  Typically codeshares are very high four digit numbers, usually in the 7000-9000 range. Airlines’ native flights usually range between 1-2999.  There are exceptions, but this is a useful general rule.

Why do airlines codeshare?

Essentially, codesharing with other airlines is an easy way to expand destination options and generate additional revenue.  Let’s go back to United, which does not fly to Guangzhou, China.  Air China does fly to Guangzhou, so by placing its code and selling seats on the Air China flight, United expands the destinations it offers and captures additional revenue.

What are the benefits and costs to travelers?

Like most quirks of air travel, codesharing has pros and cons for travelers.  Here are a few key points to be aware of before booking a codeshare:

Codeshare advantages:

  • Travelers earn full frequent flyer miles on the booking airline (but not necessarily on the operating airline).  For example, a fare class on ANA that would not normally earn United miles would qualify for miles if the traveler is booked under a United flight code.
  • Everything is on a single ticket, so there shouldn’t be any issues with checked bags or having to do multiple check-ins.  Codesharing is meant to be a seamless experience for the traveler.

Codeshare disadvantages:

  • No upgrades.  Codeshare flights just don’t play well with upgrades.
  • In cases where the booking airline operates the route as well as its codeshare partner, codeshare flights are sometimes the more expensive option.

Use codeshare flights strategically.  Codeshares can be used to earn full miles on routes and fares that normally wouldn’t earn miles at all.  Remember: If the flight is booked under the code of your primary airline, you’ll earn full miles in your home program.

About the Author

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Ryan has been a travel expert for more than ten years. His journeys have taken him to all six inhabited continents, including living in the Middle East and backpacking across Australia, Asia and Europe.

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  • EDixon

    I have a United Flight, with United Airline flight numbers, but it is operated by Lufthansa.(Atlanta to Germany). I’m supposed to check in at the Lufthansa counter when I get to the airport. Will I be on a United flight or a Lufthansa flight? Thanks!

    • Hi – if you are checking in with Lufthansa it will be a Lufthansa-operated flight. It’s probably a very high United flight number – in the 8000s or 9000s, right? That’s a United codeshare on a Lufthansa-operated flight. Hope that helps!

      • EDixon

        Thank you! Yes, it is high 8000s! Thank you for helping me understand!