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Points101: What Are Partner Airlines?

If there’s one term you’ll want to familiarize yourself with early on, it’s “partner airline.” We’ll be using this a lot when we discuss frequent flyer programs. You’ll also see this term pop-up in some deals and other blog posts. If you’re a seasoned frequent flyer, you’d think this term is a no brainer and, in a lot of ways, it is. However, there are numerous ways in which we can use the term “partner airline.” So, what exactly does that term mean? Here’s what we mean when we use the term “partner airline.”

In its simplest form, partner airline is a term that means exactly what it says. A partner airline is an airline that is partners with another airline. For example, American Airlines is partners with British Airways. However, the degree to which two or more airlines partner up can vary. In the airline industry, there are multiple types of partnerships between airlines. Some of these partnerships have no effect on the average customer, while others can have a significant impact on a travelers itinerary or their ability to earn and redeem frequent flyer miles. In short, however, the term partner airline is used when referring to a situation in which one airline works alongside another in some capacity.

Airline AlliancesWe could easily devote an entire post to the concept of airline alliances. Eventually, we’ll dive into the intricate details on airline alliances; however, for now, we’ll review the basics.

The first airline alliance was founded in 1997 when five major airlines across three continents announced a unique partnership. Those airlines, United, Lufthansa, SAS, Air Canada, and Thai Airways, formed Star Alliance which, today is the largest airline alliance in the world. Their partnership made it much easier for the airline to work together to transport passengers across the globe. Eventually, two more alliances were formed. Today, the three largest airline alliances are Star Alliance, SkyTeam, and Oneworld.

Airlines join alliances to streamline operations and to offer a more extensive global route network. On the passenger side, this means more options when booking with major airlines, the ability to check a bag on one airline and not have to recheck checked luggage when connecting at major airports, more options when redeeming frequent flyer points or miles, and shared elite benefits across numerous airlines. There are numerous other benefits to both passengers and airlines; however, we’ll save those for another post.

The primary takeaway from the concept of airline alliances is that when a group of major airlines partner up, you’ll have more options when booking flights and a more streamlined travel process even when traveling internationally.

In an airline alliance, each airline is a partner airline with the other alliance members. This is just one way we use the term partner airline. The term also applies to a few other common scenarios as not all partner airlines are in the same airline alliance or in alliances whatsoever.

Codeshare Agreements

​You may have taken advantage of this partnership and not even known it. Codeshare agreements are often implemented between airlines that are in the same airline alliance. However, this isn’t always the case. Codeshare agreements allow two airlines to sell seats on each others flights.

For example, American Airlines may sell a flight from New York to London that’s operated by British Airways. Passengers can book that flight on American Airlines’ website and even manage their itinerary without having to go to British Airways’ website. In this case, while American Airlines sells seats on this flight under their name and an American Airlines flight number, they’re not actually operating the flight. British Airways is operating the flight while also selling seats as it usually would to its passengers. Similarly, British Airways may sell seats on a flight between London and New York that’s operated by American Airlines.

Codeshare agreements allow airlines to offer its customers additional options and destinations without having to serve a destination or increasing its own flights. In some codeshare agreements, airlines may also allow the partner airline’s frequent flyers to take advantage of reciprocal elite benefits. In most cases, you’ll also be able to earn frequent flyer miles for codeshare flights.

A few notable examples of codeshare agreements in which the partner airlines aren’t in the same airline alliance include American Airlines and Alaska Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Qantas, Delta Air Lines and WestJet, JetBlue and Aer Lingus, JetBlue and Emirates, and American Airlines and Etihad.

Frequent Flyer Program Partnerships

​In some cases, partner airlines don’t offer codeshare agreements or belong to the same airline alliance. However, the two airlines will still allow each airline’s frequent flyers to earn and redeem frequent flyer miles on each airline’s flights. Airlines that aren’t in a major alliance often partner with numerous airlines to increase the value of their frequent flyer program. Plus, in addition to earning and redeeming frequent flyer miles on each airline, frequent flyers with elite status on one airline may be able to take advantage of their elite benefits on another airline.

Alaska Airlines is a popular example of an airline that offers a variety of partnerships with another airline’s frequent flyer program without entering into a codeshare agreement. For example, Alaska Airlines does not allow travelers to book flights from its destinations to destinations in Europe served by Condor unless they use Mileage Plan miles. However, Condor does allow its customers to book seats on flights operated by Alaska Airlines on connecting flights within the United States. Alaska Airlines also offers its Mileage Plan members to earn and redeem miles on several other airlines that include: Icelandair, British Airways, El Al, and Emirates. Frequent flyer partnerships are one of the reasons Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan program is considered one of the best airline loyalty programs.

Interline Agreements

Interline agreements aren’t like the other partnerships listed above. Interline agreements have become more common in the last decade following the industry’s transition to electronic ticketing. On the surface, an interline agreement is similar to a codeshare agreement; however, there is a significant difference.

In a codeshare agreement, two airlines sell seats on the same flight, with each airline selling seats using a different flight number. For example, British Airways flight BA178 from New York to London is sold as both BA178 and American Airlines AA6143. In the case of an interline agreement, one airline has access to another airline’s flights; however, passengers are simply booking with two different airlines on one itinerary.

In an interline agreement, if you were to look at your itinerary, you’d see flights operated by two different airlines. For example, if you booked with American Airlines, you might see both American Airlines flight 123 and United Airlines flight 456. Though you booked with American Airlines, because American Airlines doesn’t codeshare with United, you won’t see the United Airlines flight sold as an American Airlines flight.

Again, this is less of a partnership and more of an industry-wide practice that allows airlines to better manage operational issues like severe weather or computer outages by putting their passengers on a competitor’s flights. Additionally, you may be unable to earn frequent flyer miles in the event that you book an itinerary that’s the result of an interline agreement.

Airline interline agreement itinerary

In this itinerary, United is selling its flights alongside a flight operated by Delta. This is thanks to the two airlines’ interline agreement. (Image via United)

The Bottom Line

​Hopefully, now, when you encounter the term “partner airline” either on this site or on an airline’s own website, you’ll have an idea of what the term means. Airlines partner with other airlines across the globe for a variety of reasons. Airlines will form partnerships to expand their overall global reach, streamline operations, offer additional benefits to frequent flyers, or to offer passengers a more seamless travel experience. Whatever the reason may be when two airlines team up, this resulting partnership is often a goldmine for frequent flyers and travelers.

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