Air Transport World

Consumers, activists support shared designator use. (small airlines share reservation systems)

One of the industry's most discussed issues could prove to be a case of much ado about nothing, at least as far as consumer's attitudes are concerned. Airline passengers don't seem as upset about the practice of shared computer reservations systems designators as opponents of the practice indicate, based on the Department of Transportation's consumer complaint files.

United Airline's Monte Lazarus, senior VP-external affairs, called the practice "the greatest consumer fraud ever perpetrated upon the American consumer." Many other carriers expressed similar sentiments in filings to DOT's rules docket.

Of course, an equal number of others felt quite the opposite, while some took the middle ground--it's O.K., with some restrictions and caveats. The only consensus seems to be that participating commuter and regional airlines gain from sharing the dual-letter code of a larger major or national airline.

So with all this srong sentiment, just how does the flying public feel? Ambivalent, for the most part. "We identified only 32 consumer complaints stemming from passengers flying a carrier other than the one they bought their ticket for," said Tim Kelly of DOT's Office of Consumer and Community Affairs. These figures cover the past 18 months.

According to Kelly, 20 complaints were received in 1984, the other 12 in the first five months of this year. "At this rate, we'll probably have more complaints for the year in 1985 than in 1984," he added.

Still, there's not exactly a ground swell of passenger dissatisfaction at only 32 complaints. Certainly more than 32 passengers probably complained to the Civil Aeronautics Board during the 16 years between the inception of the Allegheny Commuter system and CAB sunset. But, Kelly noted, consumer affairs professionals who transferred to DOT from CAB didn't have a code for tracking these types of complaints until earlier this year.

"We developed the ID for these complaints not long after (CAB) sunset, then went back and captured the 1984 comments," Kelly explained. "There just wasn't enough need, nor interest, until the practice (of shared CRS designators) started spreading. And," he added, "previous complaint levels never reached a point where they required separate attention."

For future use, however, such complaints ae now identified as stemming from shared designator partnerships and are filed accordingly. But does the public really suffer from this "deception?"

Not according to Christopher Witkowski, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, a Nader group concerned with issues affecting the passenger public. "We feel that the public probably benefits from small carriers banding together with a larger airline," Witkowski said.

ACAP sees benefits in several areas. "For one, these arrangements help assure service to many small cities because the commuter airlines gain some of the visibility of their larger partners. The lower costs of on-line fares also seems to help reduce the cost of flying, and that helps the consumer, too."

On the bandwagon

In fact, Witkowski indicated that almost all the advantages promoted by participating carriers work out to the benefit of the passenger. "If the situation should show that the consumers are suffering in regards to service, cost or treatment, ACAP would have to reassess its position," Witkowski concluded.

Despite the past rhetoric, even the most vehemently opposed large carriers recognize the operational and competitive advantages of code sharing. Recently they've been jumping on the bandwagon one after the other.

And considering that CAB's regulation proposal on shared use is now about eight months old, the likelihood of any new changes to current rules is doubtful, according to DOT officials. …

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