A Case Study in Starnet Blocking: Booking United Awards to South Africa

As many of you know, I probably book more frequent flyer award tickets than anyone else in the world. So I get a lot of regular experience dealing with a wide variety of frequent flyer programs. After Delta, United is my second least-favorite to deal with (Singapore is no bargain, either). All for different reasons.

Delta just offers the least amount of premium cabin international award availability at reasonable mileage prices, and has all sorts of hidden rules like too many segments bumping up mileage prices (when they’re the ones who force you to go looking for extra segments to find available flights in the first place).

While United as a Star Alliance carrier has access to some incrediblle partners and award inventory, regular readers of this blog kow that they are the only Star Aliance airline that blocks there members from booking partner awards — and the blocking varies from very light (e.g. only refusing to book Thai Airways premium cabin flights from Europe to Bangkok) or very heavy (won’t book a single Lufthansa flight between Frankfurt and Munich all month, let alone a transatlantic flight). It varies based on where they project they’ll be for the quarter with a given airline compared to their budget for spending on partner awards with that airline. It’s airline by airline, and the blocking goes into effect route by route and day by day. So United might block Asiana’s Seoul – Chicago flight one day but not the next, even though Asiana offers award availability on both days.

United is most famous for blocking Lufthansa transatlantic awards as well as intra-Europe awards. Their award availability just tends to be so good — you can usually find what you’re looking for on Lufthansa — that it’s unsurprising that United members would find themselves wanting to book seats frequently with Lufthansa, and United doesn’t like paying for them to do so. Of course every other Star Alliance airline lets you book any award seat being offered by other Star Alliance airlines to their Star partners. Only United engages in ‘blocking’.

The most frustrating thing for me is the lack of transparency. Since United doesn’t allow access to partner awards on their website, and doesn’t publish what they’re blocking and not blocking at any given time, you have to hunt and peck for flights on the phone with United agents. You can start with flights you find using the All Nippon Airways website, for instance, since ANA publsihes awards for most Star partners (notably absent are Air China and Swiss). But while this works well when calling US Airways, with United you never know what you’re going to get until you’re on the phone.

My United strategy is always to put together perhaps four different potential outbound itineraries, using a mix of different airlines, and four different potential returns as well. That way when I call I have backups, I can go through each in order until I find one itinerary that’s offering award seats that United will actually let me book. Sometimes I’m successful on the first try, other times I get down to number four.

For the past few weeks, United has been pretty good about allowing members to book Lufthansa transatlantic award seats (though they did deny me a couple of flights last week when award seats were being offered). I had them set up Denver-Frankfurt but then got stymied when they claimed no availability on Frankfurt-Istanbul, which had at least four business class award seats available.

Here’s what I found when trying to book with United miles to South Africa in a premium class of service (for about the third time in the past month):

* South African Airways business class awards from New York or Washington, DC to Johannesburg are virtually non-existant. There might be only 1-2 days in two months where the DC flight is available. Inventory on the JFK flight is a bit better. But don’t count on getting these. South African is equally hard to get on Europe-South Africa routes like London and Munich to Johannesburg. I have never had United block South African, though.

* JFK to Cairo (in first class) and then to Johannesburg (in business) is widely offered on Egypt Air. But United seems not to permit this routing. Continental even suggests it on their website (since Egypt Air can be booked online with Continental miles). I might be able to play hang up and call back enough times to get someone to ticket it, but I’m consistently told no routing via Middle East to Africa.

* Lufthansa from Germany to South Africa goes in fits and spurts of availability, I’ve seen it pretty good in the past but recently it’s been tough to get. Looking for May, 2010 I found one date in the first half of the month where Frankfurt-Johannesburg was available in first class (nothing in business), and one date for the return where first was available in the second half of the month (nothing in business). Fortunately and surprisingly, United was not blocking this availability. Unfortunately, the outbound and return dates didn’t line up with my needs, I grabbed the return but needed a different outbound.

* Swiss availability is amazingly good for Zurich-Johannesburg (and in general, really). Maddeningly, United was blocking Swiss flights to and from South Africa virtually ever single day of May. I could manage Johannesburg – Nairobi on South Africa connecting to Nairobi-Zurich on Siwss (likely to push over the maximum permitted miles on a routing to JFK but not to Denver, though only slightly, and a decent agent will still book it or get approval to book it). Still that adds an extra flight onto what’s already a long trip. United didn’t seem to be doing much blocking of Swiss transatlantic, for what it’s worth.

* A consistently workable option is Turkish. I have never seen United block Turkish. Availability from JFK to Istanbul is outstanding, but grabbing that flight when you aren’t starting in New York (or San Francisco, Los Angeles, or DC) is a real pain involving change of airports, as United doesn’t offer any Chicago or Denver to JFK flights. Turkish does offer flights from Chicago to Istanbul as well. From Istanbul they fly to Johannesburg and onto Capetown, and as with most Turkish routes availability is outstanding. What’s more, United permits the routing. So this was the outbound I had to use.

My number one frequent flyer wish for the New Year remains an end to Starnet blocking. But if that won’t come to pass, then some upfront guidance as to what is being blocked, either by putting Star partners online for booking via united.com or some other method to just tell me upfront not to bother searching for Swiss awards, because even when I find the seats they’ll tell me know anyway. Then I would save huge amounts of my time and agent time and have a much more satisfying award booking experience.

Update: For the sake of completeness, I realize that when posting early early this morning I neglected to mention Star Alliance service from Lisbon to Johannesburg 3 days a week on TAP Air Portugal…

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 Milepoint.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. “but I’m consistently told no routing via Middle East to Africa”.

    Perhaps someone could politely point out to United that Egypt is in Africa, not the Middle East?

  2. Aargh, posted before I had finished!

    “but I’m consistently told no routing via Middle East to Africa”.

    Perhaps someone could politely point out to United that Egypt is in Africa and the Middle East?

    The majority of the country is in Africa, surely it’s in both zones at the very least!

  3. Interesting post, Gary. I’ve recently been focusing on the US-SA route, too, and thought I’d share a few things (I’m booking for the World Cup, so that adds a level of complexity):
    – For next June, there was some availability on South African right around 330 days out, but nothing since then. No route, no class, nothing.
    – Swiss is very interesting. They have JNB-ZRH available for most of the last week in June (but no ZRH-JNB prior to that). I was able to get United to put me on JNB-ZRH (in C) on the 28th, but when I tried to switch to the 29th or 30th (both available via expertflyer), United was blocking both days. I guess I found it surprising that the same route, one day apart, would be subject to different blocking.
    – I was able to get LIS-JNB on TAP, though only in Y. ANA is tricky for TAP, since it often shows the triangles.
    – I saw a lot of options on TK and EgyptAir right around 330 days out. I grabbed one itinerary but I haven’t seen any options since then, except some flights through Nairobi.
    – I have seen nothing on LH, out of or into any city.

    Here’s a couple questions for you, if you’re willing:
    – I was under the impression that an award could take any route under the MPM (your about middle east issue notwithstanding) or follow a valid routing if over MPM. But when I suggested to agents, for example, IAD-JFK-LIS-JNB, they are typically unwilling to book it. I don’t believe that’s over MPM (since I can do IAD-FRA-LIS-JNB). Any insight on navigating the routing issue with United?
    – Regarding the Swiss issue I mentioned above, any suggestions on how frequently it’s worth calling in? I’ve done so twice in about two weeks, but with constant LX availability and no way to know when United adjusts its blocking, it’s hard to know how to balance time on the phone with getting a preferred routing.

    Lastly, thanks for your recent post on how to suggest specific flights. That’s a useful suggestion.

  4. It’s worth noting that one TP flight per week in each direction stops in Maputo, Mozambique which adds about 3 hours to the journey time.

  5. @FBKSan, various United agents make up their own routing rules. When you get one of those you just have to hang up and call back. Frustrating but it can sometimes take 4-5 agents to find one willing to book something that you do know to be valid.

    My best guess or observance of patterns is that when blocking is really bad you have a chance that they’ll reset beginning of February, May, August, November. But that’ could be wrong.

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