United’s Award Filtering Makes the News

In what’s the first instance I know of the mainstream media picking up on United’s underhanded practice of refusing to book award tickets that their partners are offering, the Washington Times runs a piece that touches on United’s filtering and rebuts some common explanations for it.

United Airlines, however, has decided that, in addition to its own award inventory, it should “manage” that of its partners as well – more precisely, seats made available for booking with United miles by fellow members of the Star Alliance, a global network of 24 carriers.

“We manage award availability on our Star Alliance partners just as we do with United’s own saver awards,” said Jeff Kovick, a United spokesman.

The piece outlines how it’s possible to use US Airways to book partner award seats that United won’t permit to be booked, and quotes Lufthansa and a Star Alliance representative as saying that airlines are offered the same award seats — contra a claim frequently offered by United reps that each partner offers different availability to different Star Alliance members (another version of which is that United ‘must have used up its allocation of seats’ when an award seat is being offered to other partners but United won’t book it).

And the article even lays out how extreme United’s filtering can be, using the example of Lufthansa’s Frankurt-Munich flights (a route that United doesn’t serve, also contradicting the occasional theory that United is just trying to push passengers onto its own planes). The author of the piece finds Lufthansa offering award seats on an average of 10 of its 12 daily flights, with United unwilling to book a single seat on two random days in October.  (I once found 53 flights over 51 days between Heathrow and Bangkok where Thai was offering not one but two first class award seats, and United would not permit booking of a single one.)

While United is quoted suggesting they filter out award seats to protect their revenue (so that available partner awards don’t encourage customers to use miles instead of paying for tickets), the filtering of Frankfurt-Munich belies the claim since United doesn’t really stand to gain from purchases on that route outside of incremental codesare purchases (and recognizing the fact tat miles are generally used on that route only as an add-on to other award flights rather than as standalone tickets).

Ultimately I find the tactic of refusing to book award seats that partner airlines are offering to United to be deceptive.  This is especially true whenthe common explanation is that award seats aren’t being offered on the flight (or in one common manifestation of award filtering, the flight doesn’t show up as even existing.   And it’s one reason that contra conventional wisdom I’ve suggested that in the short run at least, and despite higher booking fees, US Airways miles are more valuable than United miles.  (Anything can change in the future, so I don’t endorse US Airways as a place to bank miles over time necessarily, but I do recognize that today. a US Airways mile in many cases is worth more than a United mile.)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. US Air does exactly the same thing with United miles. Often I can find dozens of United award seats available on United’s site but US tells me that they are not made available to Dividend Miles users.

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