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Separate transportation contracts

A little-known problem of travel bookings

Many consumers book their flights via an intermediary, like an online travel agency. A problem which can occur and is often hard to recognize, are separate transportation contracts. In case of cancellation or delay, this may lead to massive problems.

What are separate transportation contracts?

Imagine you want to fly from Vienna to New York. There is no direct connection, so you have to make a stop in Frankfurt. So you have two flight routes: Vienna – Frankfurt and Frankfurt – New York City.

There are two options: Both flights are either ONE transportation contract or TWO separate transportation contracts. It doesn’t matter if the flights are operated by the same airline or different ones.

A few examples:

  • You fly both routes with Austrian Airlines.
  • The first route Vienna – Frankfurt is operated by Austrian Airlines, the second route Frankfurt – NYC by Lufthansa. Both airlines belong to the same company.
  • You fly the first route with Brussels Airlines, the second with Air Canada. Both airlines are members of Star Alliance.
  • The routes are operated by two different airlines that have no connection whatsoever. They are not business partners, they don’t belong to the same company and they are no members of any association.

For each of those examples, separate transportation contracts are possible!

What is the problem with separate transportation contracts?

You may think that it doesn’t matter to you, as a passenger, who operates the plane. As long as you arrive on time and without any problems, that is true. However, as soon as a problem occurs, it is probably much worse than it has to be.

Separate transportation contracts mean that each contract partner (= airline) is only responsible for his part of the route. As soon as he transported you to your destination, his work is done.

But what happens if the first flight is delayed and you therefore miss your second one? Or if one of the flights is cancelled and you are “stranded” somewhere?

You would not be entitled to onward carriage free of charge. From the second airline’s point of view, you simply didn’t show up to board the plane. The second airline probably didn’t even know that you booked a connecting flight. After all, it is possible that you only booked the flight Frankfurt – NYC.

The same applies if the outbound flight and the return flight are two separate transportation contracts. What do you do with a return flight from a Greek island to Austria when you never even got there in the first place?

Furthermore, you can only claim a compensation payment and the refund of the ticket price from the one airline on whose flight the delay, cancellation or denied boarding occurred. After all, the other airline did everything right, legally speaking. You can only ask for a refund of same taxes and fees (which are often only a very small part of the ticket price).

How do I recognize separate transportation contracts?

Each transportation contract has an individual and unique booking code which is sometimes called PNR code. It usually has six figures, containing capital letters and/or digits (e.g. PTS35Y oder RTBUHX).

If you find more than one of those codes on the booking documents from the travel agency or intermediary, you concluded separate transportation contracts.

Please note: The intermediaries have their own booking codes which are also stated in the documents! It is therefore important to carefully check which codes refer to the flights!

Tip: The PNR code for the flight is the one with which you can do the online check-in on the airline’s website.

Two examples (the last two figures are blackened due to data protection):

  1. At the online portal KIWI, the codes look like this:
  2. At Elumbus, the terms and layout are different, but the concept is the same:

The only relevant factor to find out whether you booked separate transportation contracts are the booking codes that only directly refer to the flights. If there is only one code for all flights, there is only one contract. If there are two or more codes, then there are separate contracts.

Tips from your ECC

We always recommend to book your flights directly at the airline, if possible, and to resign from intermediaries like online travel agencies. If you do so, you will never have separate transportation contracts.

If you book via an intermediary, pay attention to the booking codes. If in doubt, ask the travel agency if it is one or more transportation contracts, before you conclude the booking.

In our Little dictionary for booking a journey, we explain terms like "intermediary" and "contract partner" in detail, as well as their respective duties. Find out more about your rights as an air passenger in our article Problems during air travel.

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