Limited through check-in — BA and partners slash service

British Airways and its oneworld partners have announced limited through check-in. This will make travel even more complicated and will slash customer service.

No longer will passengers with separate tickets booked in separate records be able to check in for connecting flights and have baggage transferred. Now, with this new rule, many British Airways (BA) and American Airlines (AA) travelers will be forced to collect baggage at intermediary stops, re-check-in, and go back through security, in order to continue their itinerary.

I really don’t want to believe this, but I think there are devious executives at the major airlines who wake up each morning and ask themselves, “How can I make the customer experience more miserable?” This latest limited through check-in policy change from British Airways and its oneworld alliance partners, most notably American Airlines, will add complexities and additional travel time to millions of travel itineraries.

Plus, this new rule allows oneworld partners to collect separate baggage fees from passengers for each leg of a trip should the tickets not be issued on the same reservation.

Here’s the official notice, sent by British Airways to travel agents last week:

Along with our oneworld partners, we have implemented
a policy change on through check-in for a customer
traveling on separate tickets. Only customers with
separate tickets issued in the same PNR/booking will
be accepted for through check-in.

Customers travelling on separate tickets issued
in separate PNRs/bookings will not be accepted for
through check-in, regardless of which carriers they
are connecting on to, including BA or any oneworld

Customers who have booked a through ticket
will continue to receive the full benefits,
including through checked bags and full
assistance should their journey be disrupted.

This announcement may seem like a lot of jargon. However, it will be an earthshaking change for many international travelers and domestic travelers as well. This kind of change, effectively retroactive for many passengers who have already been ticketed, is anti-consumer.

“Through check-in” means the airline at your first airport checks you, and your bags, all the way to your destination. This means that passengers don’t need to start over and check in again at their connecting city or cities. The “same PNR” (Passenger Name Record) means it’s in the same booking computer record.

For example: If a traveler flies from San Francisco to London to Rome, with a stop in London on the way back to San Francisco, all on British Airways, and all on the same reservation, nothing changes. Through check-in is permitted. However, should there be a discount BA fare to London, it might be less expensive to book the transatlantic flights on one ticket, and then a separate BA London-Rome-London on another.

This means two separate BA tickets and two separate passenger records. In the latter case, BA would require a through passenger to collect their baggage in both directions in London, exit security, re-check in, go back through security and then board the continuing flight. Connection times for this kind of transfer process will be time-consuming and complex.

Because of other BA/AA/oneworld rules, single passenger reservation ticketing is often not possible.

For one thing, British Airways has very tight ticketing time-limit rules. The clock starts when the booking is first made. So, if a traveler knew when they were flying on to Rome in the above example, but not the return date for the stopover, they might decide to wait to book that middle ticket. Booking the less expensive ticket will eliminate the ability to be “checked through” in London. Meaning passengers will have to collect their baggage in both directions in London, exit security, re-check in, go back through security and then board the continuing flight.

In a simpler example, if someone is originating in the U.S. from an airport served by American Airlines but not British Airways, there might not be a through fare from Nashville via Chicago to London, or such a fare might be very expensive. So, again, a traveler or travel agent would want to book two tickets. While domestic tickets must be issued in 24 hours, many international tickets may be held for 3 days. This means passengers deciding two days after their original booking might need to start over with a separate “PNR” or “reservation” for Nashville to Chicago flights.

Since American and British Airways also have different reservations systems, it’s hard to know in advance what they would consider the same record, even if the flights were ticketed at the same time.

In addition, British Airways, like other airlines, often has short-term sales, where travelers might quickly buy a ticket to London and then decide later where they might travel in Europe.  Eminently reasonable, but now a potential real headache.

And then there’s the common combination of frequent flier award tickets with paid tickets, when a mileage award is not available for the entire itinerary. In that case, there is no way to put a paid ticket and a free ticket together on the same record. This will make using frequent flier tickets even more difficult.

Airlines have been getting tighter about through check-in, especially when non-partner airlines are involved. But this new change affects even travelers staying on the same airline and within the same alliance. The repercussions can be serious indeed.

Many travelers are about to get a rude shock. British Airways, American Airlines and the other airlines who follow this limited through check-in policy are abandoning their “duty of care” requirements as common carriers. Worse, they are doing this with less than one month notice. DOT needs to step in and stop this unilateral change in rules that violates the rationale for antitrust immunity and for the creation of airline alliances.

So far, AA will still allow through check-in when both tickets are on American Airlines and American Eagle or on oneworld partner airlines and affiliates, but with different BA rules, whose check-in rules will apply and when. This will be a mess.

When airlines are permitted by their regulators to create fare rules and service rules that eliminate competition and slash customer service without notice, something is amiss.