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…

United raises ticket change fees by $50, others follow

MIA 033United Airlines has quietly increased the fees it charges for voluntary changes on tickets for travel within North America, and between North and Central America by $50 to $200. The change took effect on April 18, according to an internal company advisory sent to employees.

The decision makes United the airline with the highest change fees in the affected markets. Other major legacy U.S. carriers, such as American, Delta and US Airways, still charge $150, and smaller airlines like Frontier and Virgin America charge $100. Alaska Airlines’ change fees are $75 online and $100 by phone. Those fees, which Southwest Airlines proudly spares its customers, are in addition to any fare differences. Changing the most expensive — or full-fare — tickets doesn’t incur penalties on any airline.

The United fee increase, coming just a week after the carrier was named worst in customer service in a national ranking tracking airline performance, is certain to anger United fliers even further. Industry watchers will be monitoring very closely whether other airlines follow suit — that has been the trend historically, though customer backlash and social media outrage have forced carriers, including United, to reverse controversial decisions in recent years…

‘Gardening’ your airline reservation

Many travelers consider all their flight-planning work done once they buy a plane ticket, and they don’t think about it again until it’s time to fly. In most cases, that’s a recipe for trouble. There are many things that could go wrong and ruin your trip long before you arrive at the airport, and paying just a little attention — I call it “gardening” your reservation — and knowing how to handle those issues in advance could prevent a travel disaster.

Let’s begin with the simple things. As you may have discovered, sometimes there are no seats available for you to select at ticketing. That could be a result of overselling the cabin, or the only seats left may require an additional fee. Many fliers simply leave it at that, hoping for a seat on the departure day.

It doesn’t take much to do better than that. Whether you have no assignment or are stuck in a middle seat, chances are a decent seat will open up before your travel day, as other passengers get upgraded or cancel their reservations. All you have to do is check the seat map from time to time. Convenience and comfort are very important to me during a trip, and I don’t like to leave anything to chance. That means there are certain things I have to do to “tend” to my bookings, so that any potential issues can be resolved in advance…

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…

Diplomats decry new United pet policy

Nearly 3,000 U.S. diplomats have urged United Airlines to extend to them a waiver from its more expensive and “unfriendly” new pet travel policy that the carrier has granted the military, the diplomats’ union said. While it took United just days to exempt the military, it has been mulling the State Department’s request for weeks.

The biggest hurdle appears to be the lack of understanding by United’s management — as is the case with most people — what the Foreign Service does, and why diplomats’ service to their country is no less important than the military’s. That’s exactly why — long before this issue arose — I decided to write my upcoming book “America’s Other Army“…

Did United choose the best rez system?

The decision by United Airlines’ management to use Continental’s Shares reservations system for the merged carrier has been causing serious problems since its implementation last weekend. So the news that the airline is working on a new version of its IT platform, integrating some of the features of the pre-merger United’s Apollo system, is very welcome, indeed.

It was hardly surprising that CEO Jeff Smisek and his team chose to keep Shares, given that most policies and practices of the combined carrier have followed the way Continental did business under Smisek. But in this case, the decision made good financial sense — Continental has owned Shares for years, while United paid Travelport, the company that owns Apollo…

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…

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…

How much slack do the airlines deserve?

The 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks this week reminded me of how much can go wrong in the airline industry to no fault of its own. Despite everything outside the airlines’ control, there are many reasons to criticize their performance. But how much slack should we cut them?

I’ve written several times about the increased scrutiny of the airlines by both the media and the public, compared to other industries, simply because of the nature of their business. A commercial carrier has more front-line employees than almost any other company, and it’s easier to complain about a person we see in front of us than about an invisible — and sometimes anonymous — representative…