Randy Petersen's Opening Remarks – December, 17 2009

Randy Petersen's Opening Remarks – December, 17 2009

My New Year’s Guest
One of my favorite frequent flyers is Gary Leff, whose knowldege of the pursuit of miles makes for great reading at BoardingArea.com in his blog called View From The Wing. His recent wishes for 2010 caught my eye and I welcome him this month as a guest editorialist.
A Mileage Redemption Wish List For 2010
1. An end to United Starnet Blocking

I genuinely believe that United Mileage Plus offers the best top-tier elite level. But their award redemption is truly sub-par. They block award seats that their partners make available–something that no other Star Alliance airline does. Their award chart isn’t cheap relative to the competition, say US Airways or Air Canada. But those airlines let you book any seat that Star Alliance partner airlines are making available. Same is true for Continental, whose award chart is competitive with United’s (and CO makes many of their Star partners bookable online!). United could have a truly great frequent flyer redemption program. Instead agents tell customers that their partners just aren’t making seats available–even to incredibly absurd ends such as being told, “Thai Airways doesn’t fly to Bangkok that day” and “Lufthansa doesn’t fly to Frankfurt.” My dream is that United would behave just like every other Star Alliance airline by letting members book the award seats that the partners offer. At least, if they’d make the inventory they’re letting members book be searchable online, I could deal with blocking because I could search for bookable flights, and phone calls would be much shorter and less frustrating. But I know this is not an IT priority for United. I’ll just hold out hope that the blocking practice isn’t sustainable. It’s my number one wish for the new year.
2. That American and British Airways miles could be used for each others’ transatlantic flights.

Oneworld isn’t nearly as big as Star Alliance and there aren’t as many options for international partner award redemption. The two biggest transatlantic carriers, American and British Airways, won’t let you book each others’ flights with their miles. Ostensibly this began as an anti-trust concern, that they couldn’t codeshare to Heathrow because of possibly monopolizing the Heathrow market. It’s never been clear that award redemption restrictions had anything to do with this and the airlines have simply left it in place for years. British Airways offers pretty good award inventory from the U.S. to Europe in premium classes, but I can’t use my American miles to redeem for it. There’s the workaround of flying from Canada or the Caribbean to London, but that adds extra flying. My wish is for this restriction on award redemption to finally come to an end.
3. That Delta would bring back award holds.

Delta miles are hard enough to use as it is. Their award inventory is tight. Their Web site prices available seats at higher prices than inventory requires. Delta won’t let you hold awards when you call reservations anymore, but the Web site isn’t viable and so it’s tough to construct awards. The technology and inventory make premium class international award bookings so hard, that Delta could go far to make it a little less stressful by simply returning the ability to put an award on hold–at least it would help the process along–a process that Delta impedes in the first place.
4. That US Airways, Continental and Air Canada don’t change.

Sometimes you feel like things are just too good. At least I do. And paranoid that I am, I figure when that’s the case it cannot possibly last. Right now US Airways, Continental and Air Canada are almost too generous with award bookings. Air Canada more than all the others. They offer a great award chart, 80,000 miles for business class to much of Europe and 100,000 for first (some destinations are higher). It’s 120,000 miles for first class from the U.S. to South Asia, as far south as Singapore (Malaysia and Indonesia are higher). So their awards in most cases are cheap. What’s more, they don’t block partner awards. And their award routing rules are incredibly generous. While limiting you to 10 generous segments on an award, they permit you to transit either the Atlantic or the Pacific on an award to Asia, or cross one ocean in each direction. In other words, you can book a ’round-the-world’ trip for a basic award redemption. And they offer two stopovers or a stopover and an open jaw. Air Canada Aeroplan’s rules are just too good. And they’re an American Express Membership Rewards transfer partner–you can ring Aeroplan, have them set up your award, and while they wait on the phone you can go online and transfer points into Aeroplan from American Express–instantly. I just hope this value lasts.

When Continental joined Star Alliance, they introduced a competitive award chart with no Starnet blocking and made many partners bookable online. They’re also an AMEX transfer partner with points posting instantly–and they’ll put awards on a 24-hour hold without points in the account.

Finally, US Airways will be a surprise member of this list for many. But they offer Star Alliance award redemption without blocking, they very rarely enforce any sort of routing rules (if someone tries, just hang up and call back). They even waive their telephone booking fee on Star Alliance awards because those can’t be booked on their Web site. They’ll put awards on a three-day hold and their miles are easy to get with their promotions.
5. Alaska Airlines mixed partner awards.

Alaska offers an interesting, valuable program–even for folks not living in Seattle or Alaska. They partner with Delta and American (as well as many SkyTeam and oneworld members). So if you’re not a regular American or Delta flyer, you can credit your travels on both carriers to Alaska Mileage Plan. And you can redeem on much of oneworld and SkyTeam. The one drawback is that you can’t mix partners. You can’t fly Seattle to Dallas on American to pick up a British Airways award flight from Dallas. Mixing and matching of partners would be a huge boon to award redemption, and reportedly something that Alaska is “working on.” I have no knowledge of likelihood or timetable, but it makes my list of hopes and dreams for the new year.

Those are the big improvements in frequent flyer programs I’d like to see, all relatively minor changes that would make programs much more valuable. I think they’re all within the world of the possible. What are your similarly-constrained wishes?

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