Airlines wake up to benefits of mileage redemption for unsold seats

IMG_0439There are few more frustrating aspects of being loyal to an airline or a global alliance than the inability to redeem the miles you’ve worked hard to earn for what are known as award flights. There is, however, something even worse: Airlines choosing to send out flights with empty seats rather than make some of them available for mileage redemption.

I’m referring to saver award levels, not those that require double or triple miles. As it is, round-trip saver awards require as many as hundreds of thousands of miles these days.

Last week, I called out Air New Zealand, one of the worst offenders — particularly in Business Class — on Twitter. With a few hours left until its Los Angeles-London flight on Feb. 2, there were six unsold Business seats. Yet not one of them was available on miles. On the same flight the next day, 16 Business seats were open — again, no award space. The coach cabin was wide open on both days, so the carrier wasn’t protecting Business seats to accommodate a so-called oversell in economy…

Swiss Air overplays ‘mistake fare’ excuse

Airlines sometimes make mistakes when filing fares — it’s human and understandable. But when major carriers keep erring and then punish paying customers by unilaterally canceling tickets days or even weeks after their issuance, that raises questions about competence and responsibility.

In late September, Swiss International Airlines filed a first-class one-way fare from Burma, also known as Myanmar, to Canada that was between $600 and $800 after taxes, depending on the specific routing. Was that an obvious mistake? Under normal circumstances, an educated traveler would probably say that it was. But there is much more to the story.

That was not the first time such a low fare out of Burma had been published. Just five months earlier, Korean Air issued tickets at similar prices — they were later canceled, but the Department of Transportation eventually forced Korean Air to reinstate them. Although I noticed that fare at the time, I didn’t bother to take advantage of it, suspecting it was, indeed, a mistake that wouldn’t be honored…

How airlines could make more money

Even as most flights are packed these days, some planes still take off with plenty of vacant seats, including in First and Business Class, effectively losing the airlines hundreds of thousands of dollars. Offering lower last-minute fares on undersold flights seems a logical solution, and carriers do it sometimes, but those attempts are utterly insufficient.

Let’s look at a recent international flight — most U.S. airlines give away free upgrades on domestic routes to fill their premium cabins. I picked a United Airlines flight on a route with traditionally heavy demand in Business Class: San Francisco to Sydney. As the above image shows, on June 19, that Boeing 747 left with 18 empty seats in Business Class, including on the upper deck.

The lowest Business Class fare on United on that route is — and has been for some time — about $6,400, which requires a 50-day advance purchase. If bought at least 21 days before departure, a ticket costs about $9,800, and about $12,300 at least three days in advance. The lowest last-minute fare is about $12,800. You do the math to figure out how much money United lost as a result of those 18 unsold seats…

Round the world in a week, without pain

How do you make sure a whirlwind trip round the world in just a week doesn’t wear you out and affect your productivity? Things went surprisingly well for me last week, as I flew from Washington to Munich to Paris to Bangkok to Islamabad, back to Bangkok, on to Seoul and back to Washington, so I thought I’d share the experience.

The first thing I have to say is that I don’t drink coffee or take sleeping pills. My only medicine when it comes to air travel is securing the best comfort and luxury I can — I need my flat beds, gourmet meals, lounges with showers, and sometimes even chauffeur-driven cars to connecting flights. I certainly can’t pay for them, but we’ll come to that momentarily…

Airlines neglect non-flying experience

Why do numerous airlines, including those aspiring to be among the world’s best, keep focusing on improving the in-flight experience, but don’t seem to care what kind of service their customers receive before they even step foot on a plane?

It’s high time they understood that travelers are getting smarter, and mediocre reservation agents won’t be tolerated much longer. In April, I wrote about my disastrous experience with Singapore Airlines’ award-booking agents, who were so poorly trained they might as well have worked for a third-world carrier. In May, I mentioned British Airways’ arrogance and refusal to offer the slightest apology after losing the luggage of two First Class passengers who had paid $12,500 per ticket…

The benefits of non-airline credit cards

You may have seen TV commercials featuring American Express or Capital One credit cards that promise points or miles with the clout to get you any seat on any airline without blackout dates. Those financial services companies try to distinguish their own loyalty schemes from airline programs, which restrict access to award seats.

Non-airline programs are not affected by award seat limits, because they don’t need award availability to book you on a flight. Instead, they sell you a regular revenue ticket, charge the ticket price on your credit card, then credit the cash amount back to your card and take miles or points out of your account, whose number is based on a standard formula…

US Airways denies StarNet blocking

US Airways has denied recent suspicion that it has begun to block award seats made available by its Star Alliance partners for mileage redemption by members of its Dividend Miles program — a practice pioneered by United Airlines, which I first exposed in 2008.

The airline has been silent on the issue since reports about apparent blocking surfaced last fall. Many travelers said they found award inventory on various Star carriers, using one or more of the publicly available sources — the websites of All Nippon Airways, Continental Airlines and Air Canada — but US Airways agents were unable to see those available seats…

What’s the real point of airline rankings?

There are so many travel-industry rankings at year’s end, it’s hard to keep track. It’s even harder to figure out which — if any — of them are credible and meaningful. Looking at some of the results, one has to wonder when some of the respondents last flew on the airlines and through the airports they assessed.

Rankings are usually administered by various magazines — one exception are the new Frequent Traveler Awards. In the last several years, I’ve made it a habit to look at the Global Traveler Magazine‘s so-called Tested Awards, most of which make sense. However, as I was reading this year’s results during a flight last week, I couldn’t help but gasp in astonishment at some of the results…

The peculiarities of airline agent training

It’s one of the unavoidable realities of airline customer service that three agents will often give you three different answers to the same question. But I recently discovered a more rare phenomenon: Dozens of agents consistently doing something the wrong way. Was it lack of knowledge or deliberately ignoring the rules?

Before I continue, let me say that there are numerous superb airline agents to whom I’m grateful for unknowingly teaching me the ropes of the complex air travel system for years by satisfying my insatiable curiosity. I’ve also praised U.S. agents for handling rebooking during irregular operations better than their colleagues at foreign airlines…

Flying with Obama and earning miles

One of the questions I’ve been asked most frequently in the last decade is whether I’ve earned any frequent-flier miles from my nearly 200 flights with four U.S. secretaries of state. Sadly, the answer is no — and what makes it even sadder is that my press colleagues accompanying the president do get miles and even elite status.

I’ve known many journalists over the years who were top elites purely as a result of White House travel. Some of them didn’t really use their elite benefits because of their very limited commercial flying. There were also a few who didn’t even know they had the coveted status.

So why the differentiation? The above photo will help explain things. I snapped it while waiting for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Beijing a year ago — we flew to Afghanistan that day.

Clinton’s plane is the one of the right — as I wrote last year, it’s the Air Force version of the Boeing 757, also known as C-32. Air Force One — the Boeing 747 on the left — was waiting for President Obama and later took him to Seoul.

The State Department traveling press corps — about a dozen on average — flies on the secretary’s aircraft. Air Force One, however, has enough seats only for a pool of 12, and usually more than 100 reporters go on a foreign presidential trip. There is a rotation for the pool seats on every flight, but most of the time reporters fly on a so-called press plane chartered by the White House, usually from United Airlines.

What you don’t see on the above photo is that, across from the two Air Force planes, to the left of the traffic lane, there was a parked United aircraft, which was of course the press charter.

Everyone on that plane earned United miles, and many of those traveling with the president regularly have 1K status — United’s highest published elite level, requiring 100,000 flown miles per calendar year. Moreover, fliers get first-class mileage credit, which means 150 percent elite-qualifying miles.

Before every trip, different airlines bid for the charter contract, and the White House travel office and the White House Correspondents Association choose the offer they deem best. Although most of the time they select United, for Obama’s trip to Asia last week the winner was Delta Airlines.

The trip took travelers around the world — they flew over the Atlantic en route to India, then went to Indonesia, South Korea and Japan, before returning to Washington via the Pacific. According to the Great Circle Mapper, that’s about 22,000 miles. Delta spokesman Anthony Black declined to say whether the fliers will earn mileage, citing “customer privacy.”

I admit I’ve been a little jealous about all the “missed” miles over the years — almost half a million — but I never wanted to cover the White House because of the domestic politics involved in that beat.

I found another way to earn miles from official trips. After flying almost 100,000 miles with Colin Powell in 2003, I’d had it with non-mileage-earning flights. I still needed to re-qualify for 1K. The following year, I decided that I’d go on the secretary’s plane but would drop off at the last stop and come home commercially. Now I’ve been 1K for a decade.

Some of you might think I was crazy to give up a seat on the secretary’s plane and a hassle-free journey, not having to worry about passport control, customs and sometimes even security screening.

But I thought about it in a different way. I was paying half the price the State Department would charge me — yet, I was getting much better seats as a result of business-class upgrades, mileage credit and better food — yes, even on United.


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My trips with Clinton back in the news

In air with Clinton on first trip abroad

Clinton weathers job’s long flights

Press ready for Obama, Clinton travel