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…
 
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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…

American tries to entice top United fliers

American Airlines has finally decided to take advantage of the problems many United Airlines fliers have experienced since the merger with Continental Airlines was completed on March 3. In an extremely rare move, American is now offering conditions-free top-elite status match to United’s most loyal customers.

Having read and heard about many United customers’ troubles after the carrier adopted Continental’s reservations system — and having encountered some problems myself — I e-mailed American spokesman Tim Smith on March 16. Smith has been the best PR person to deal with at any airline since I started writing my column in the Washington Times in 2008. I asked him whether American had any intention of capitalizing on United customers’ dissatisfaction by stealing some of them away through a status-match offer…

Rare airport luxury, almost wasted

Turkish Airlines has built an impressive business lounge at its hub is Istanbul, with the best sleeping rooms I’ve seen anywhere in the world, including in First Class lounges. The best, that is, until you try to sleep — unless you don’t mind loud noise that even Bose headphones on top of earplugs can’t block out.

As I’ve written before, Turkish has made significant progress in recent years toward becoming a world-class carrier, but it’s still a long way from being anywhere close to the top. It rushes to do something it deems top-notch but doesn’t really think it through — and for high-end customers, a little glitz doesn’t sparkle brightly enough if the entire experience is inconsistent and unpredictable…

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…

Rethinking government air travel costs

It’s no secret that the U.S. government wastes huge amounts of money on airfare, and that waste has been institutionalized. So it’s hardly a surprise that Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul has done the same, as an Associated Press story pointed out yesterday.

The reason for the story was the apparent discrepancy between Paul’s crusade against excessive government spending and his own spending. But while he did waste taxpayers’ money, he didn’t break any rules. So perhaps it’s time for the rules to change. Government employees are usually required to buy full-fare tickets — meaning Y or B booking class — when traveling on business. The main reason for that is to have the flexibility to change and cancel those tickets for free…

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…

British Air loses bags on $12,000 ticket

There must be very few things more embarrassing to an airline than losing the luggage of a passenger who paid more than $12,000 for a First Class ticket. Even more shockingly, British Airways, which did just that last week, didn’t try to right the screamingly obvious wrong and offer some sort of a good-will gesture.

Many of us often wonder who would pay $10,000 or $15,000 for a plane ticket, but let me assure you, there are such people. Premium travel has staged a remarkable recovery in recent months. As I look at flight inventory, I’m amazed every day by how full Business and First Class cabins are on various carriers…

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…