In a move which could cause connection chaos for many travellers, airlines belonging to the Oneworld alliance – among them Qantas, British Airways and Cathay Pacific – are no longer required to check passengers and their baggage through to their final destination on some connecting flights.
The new scheme, which came into effect from June 1st, impacts passengers whose journey involves flights on more than one airline where their travel encompasses more than one booking, rather than all flights being listed under a single booking reference.
A spokesman for Oneworld has confirmed the unpublicised changes to the ‘interline’ accord between each of the group’s 15 member airlines, which also includes American Airlines, Finnair, LAN/TAM, JAL, Malaysia Airlines and Qatar Airways.
How the Oneworld changes will affect you
The best way to explain what the new rules mean to travellers is by way of example.
Let’s assume you’ve booked a Sydney-Singapore flight with Qantas, and also made a second booking with British Airways to hop onto one of BA’s Singapore-London flights on the same day.
As both Qantas and British Airways are Oneworld members, Qantas was required to tag your baggage from Sydney all the way through to London and ideally issue your Singapore-London boarding pass when you checked in for the initial Qantas flight at Sydney.
All of that becomes optional under the revised system.
Following the example above, instead of stepping off your Qantas flight to Singapore and heading to the airport lounge, or the departure gate of your flight from Singapore to London, you could be required to clear immigration, wait for the bags to arrive from your Qantas flight and take them through customs.
You’d then go to the British Airways counter, line up to check in your bags and collect your Singapore-London boarding pass, go back through passport control and then relax in the lounge – if you still have time.
Airlines choose their service level
Oneworld communications chief Michael Blunt tells Australian Business Traveller that “individual member airlines are free to offer service above and beyond the (Oneworld) alliance minimum standard if they so choose, so some may continue to offer through check-in for customers travelling on separate bookings.”
However, Australian Business Traveller understands that most Oneworld airlines are likely to favour the minimum effort of the new ‘minimum standard’ and check passengers through only to the final destination on their first ticket, not to the next destination on a separate booking.
“All our member airlines will be delighted to continue to check them and their baggage through to any of the 1,000 plus destinations on the alliance network, on multiple sectors,” Blunt says, “provided the itinerary is all on one booking so we are aware of where they and their baggage want to end up and we can plan accordingly and ensure the best possible customer service delivery throughout the journey.”
You’re safe with a single booking
The revised rules don’t apply to travellers with multiple flights listed under a single booking (even a booking which includes several individual tickets, as can be created by a skilled travel agent), who can continue to be checked-in for their final destination at the start of the journey.
That covers scenarios such as Qantas passengers jetting to the USA with domestic connections on American Airlines, or to Santiago with further flights on LAN/TAM (LATAM), when the entire trip was made under the one booking.
So why the change?
Blunt says the interline rules were relaxed to encourage travellers to book their entire journey on one reservation, as this obligates all airlines involved to help you reach your destination – even if onward connecting flights have to be re-booked or re-routed by the airlines at no charge to the customer.
“Experience has shown that using separate tickets for different sectors presents multiple problems in delivering an alliance’s through check-in/customer support promise,” Blunt reflects.
A delay or schedule change to the first flight in a journey can prevent travellers from catching an onward flight they’d booked separately, and which the fare rules of that second ticket may not allow to be changed.
“As anyone who has stood in a check-in line behind someone doing this can testify, that can be a lengthy process,” Blunt explains.
“And this at a time when, in response to the preferences of the majority of customers, check-in and baggage drop are now moving towards self-service and online options,” which don’t usually provide this functionality.
Relaxing the ‘interline’ obligations of Oneworld member airlines is likely to inconvenience passengers looking for flexibility in planning their trips, says systems engineer Shaun Ewing.
“l frequently book a return Qantas flight to Los Angeles or San Francisco before I firm up my travel plans within the US” Ewing says.
“Once my domestic US itinerary is set I’ll book separate flights, typically on American Airlines.”
Ewing is concerned the revised scheme is more likely to see him shuffling back and forth between baggage carousels and check-in counters rather than enjoying the streamlined travel experience which airline alliances claim to deliver.
“While the new arrangements may save check-in agents a few minutes at a time, the potential for impact on myself as a customer is huge.”
“I find that when agents have issues checking bags through it’s not because of the process, it’s because they’re simply unsure of the procedure. Check-in agents that are used to doing it can tag the bags through very quickly without adding too much time to the overall process.”
Mal Murray, a London-based IT security consultant, says his “loyalty to Oneworld airlines is in part based on the ability to through check baggage, collect boarding passes and not have to worry about immigration, customs and baggage collection at intermediate airports or complex interlining rules.”
“When attending a conference, I like the ability to book the single booking to and from the conference and then add some leisure time at the end. Without through checking of baggage, there is little incentive to choose a Oneworld airline for that second leisure flight.”
“Without interlining of baggage on separate air fares, it removes one of the main reasons why I'd fly Oneworld to connect to or from another ticket and makes changing plans difficult.”
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