When a complicated multi-airline international itinerary goes awry, passengers often don’t know how to fix it. Do they ask the airline that issued the ticket? Do they pester the carrier that caused them to miss a connection? Or do they contact the airline whose flight they missed?

It’s an issue that vexes even the most-seasoned customers. Why must they call Delta Air Lines because Air France took a two-hour delay from Paris to Guangzhou, which made them miss their China Southern connection to Chengdu? If they bought the ticket from Delta, they’ve generally had to contact Delta to fix it.

SkyTeam, one of the world’s three major airline alliances, is trying to make this process easier. It has recently introduced a platform that allows any agent at any member airline to rebook a customer, no matter which carrier is at fault or where the passenger bought the ticket.

SkyTeam claims this rebooking engine is the first of its kind in use by an alliance. It is available at 43 airports in 21 countries in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Later this year, SkyTeam plans to bring the platform to the U.S. and Canada.

“This eliminates all of that shuttling back and forth and getting bounced to different desks,” SkyTeam CEO Perry Cantarutti said in an interview.

This seems like a simple idea. But it’s more complicated than it appears for technological and competitive reasons.

SkyTeam’s 20 members use four reservations systems, and they weren’t built to talk to each other, so the alliance built what it says is an easy-to-use platform making it possible.

While customers expect alliance members to cooperate, airlines don’t always want to. Many carriers in each alliance are fierce competitors, tied together only by SkyTeam, a looser marketing coalition than most travelers might expect.

Some airlines may not want to assist another’s customers, even though both belong to the same alliance — a problem alliances sometimes struggle to articulate.

“Customers expect that if I am traveling on SkyTeam that all the carriers are connected and there should be a huge degree of interchangeability,” Cantarutti said. “That’s not always the case. You have close partners. You also have some competitive situations. That sometimes can be difficult to explain to customers.”

But in the case of irregular operations, sometimes it’s easier to explain to member airlines why they should help each other, Cantarutti said. At that point, he notes, “the ticket has been sold,” and airlines aren’t really competing with each other. Still, even with the new functionality, he expects airlines will try to rebook passengers on their closest partners.

“Every airline goes through a list of priority options for getting customers re-accommodated,” he said. “Clearly, if there is an economic benefit, then the airline would like to be able to realize that.”

A Technology Company?

SkyTeam is introducing the new functionality as the leaders of the three major alliances, — SkyTeam, Star Alliance, and OneWorld — reckon with their future.

Two decades ago, when the alliances were new and smaller, airlines tended to cooperate with each other as much as legally allowed. Today that’s less true. Some airlines within SkyTeam, such as Delta and Aeromexico, have antitrust immunity, and essentially operate like one cohesive entity. But others, like Delta and Aerolíneas Argentinas, have virtually no commericial ties.

Since the airlines don’t need each other like they used to, SkyTeam is trying to remain relevant in a different way, Cantarutti said.

“For sure, the value and the proposition of the alliances have changed a lot from when they first started forming,” he said. “It is transforming and in the next couple of years SkyTeam will be largely a technology company providing technology and tools that bind the airlines together.”

It’s not a bad idea. While the airlines would prefer to work with their joint venture partners, since they often share revenue with each other, sometimes they have no choice but to put their loyalists on another SkyTeam carrier with which they have few commercial ties.

And when a Delta elite flyer takes a China Southern flight, presumably Delta wants that customer to have a seamless experience across all SkyTeam airlines. The new SkyTeam technology is designed to make that possible.

Photo Credit: An agent at Xiamen Air, a Chinese airline, speaks with passengers. SkyTeam has introduced technology that allows its member airlines to rebook passengers on other alliance members. SkyTeam