Was Qantas the first airline to use the term ‘codeshare’?

Qantas departure board

Reading a blog post by aviation industry analysts OAG recently, I came across this interesting claim:

The term codeshare agreement was officially introduced with Qantas and American Airlines in 1989. They jointly offered a hub-and-spoke-style service using their home bases at the airports in Los Angeles, Sydney, and Melbourne.

OAG in turn sourced that date to Simple Flying, which makes the same claim but doesn’t list any primary source for it. Wikipedia makes a similar claim, citing as its source a 1989 article from the Australian Financial Review.

Note that the idea of airlines cooperating goes back well before 1989. The claim is that Qantas and American Airlines (AA) were the first to actually use the phrase “codeshare” to describe such an arrangement.

Is that really true? Let’s dig in and find out.

What is a codeshare flight?

A codeshare flight, as regular passengers know, is where your flight shows the code for one airline but is actually operated by another airline. This often happens when booking domestic flights connected to an international service.

You can see some examples in the departure board below. BA7460 to Brisbane and AA7273 to Alice Springs are actually Qantas flights (QF533 and QF791 respectively). However, those flights can be ticketed by British Airways (BA) or American Airlines (AA), and coded as if they’re a flight with that airline.

Qantas departure board showing codeshare examples

As a Qantas frequent flyer, I’d usually want the correct Qantas codes on my ticket to maximise what I’d earn. But if I was trying to build up my British Airways status, I’d want the BA option.

These days, codeshare deals are often with members of the same airline alliance. Qantas, BA and AA are all members of oneworld. But they don’t have to be.

Were Qantas and AA the first to use the term codeshare?

A quick plunge into newspaper archives suggests that while the Qantas/AA deal was indeed amongst the first international codeshare arrangements to launch, the term did exist before 1989.

Article about codesharing from the Miami Herald, 10 April 1988

In a column for the Miami Herald on 10 April 1988, travel writer Donald Pevsner rails against the “permissive approach to the practice of ‘air code-sharing’” by the US Department of Transportation. The article gives a history which highlights the term has been in active use for some time:

Code-sharing got its start in the United States, as regional prop commuter airlines borrowed the two-letter codes of the major jet airlines to gain a marketing reservations and ticketing advantage. The practice is inherently deceptive, but 90 percent of all regional airline passengers now fly on code-shared flights . . .

In 1988, the DOT was actively seeking to set up codeshare deals with foreign airlines in order to help US airlines gain access to overseas markets, which tightly regulated the number of carriers allowed to operate.

Pevsner notes that two such deals have already been approved; one for Qantas and AA, the other for British Airways and United. (The oneworld alliance didn’t launch until 1999, hence BA was looking more widely for partners.) He also lists another four being considered, including Pan Am/Malev Hungarian Airlines, Gulf Air/TWA, Air India/TWA and Continental/Transavia.

So we’ve learned two things here:

  • The concept of a “codeshare” was not new in 1988, but its expansion from the US into other markets was.
  • Prior to 1989, two deals had been approved and others were in the offing. So it’s not accurate to say that the Qantas/AA arrangement “introduced” the term.

Alright, so was it the first to become active? Not by the look of it. A report from the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s 25 December 1988 issue suggests that the BA/United deal was truly up and running before 1989 rolled around:

United is the only one of the Big Eight airlines that does not go to Europe, but it recently struck an important agreement with British Air in which the two exchange passengers, coordinate North American schedules and market services together . . . The key part of the pact is that airlines now “code-share” on certain routes. That means British Air and United flights are sold as one trip in United’s Apollo computer- reservations system

The bottom line? Qantas and AA were definitely amongst the first airlines to offer codeshare flying and to use that label. But the evidence suggests they shouldn’t be singled out as the originators.

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