United ‘blocks’ award seats that their partners offer when it doesn’t want to pay for those seats. They’re the only Star Alliance airline that does this. A Lufthansa seat to Europe might be available with Continental, US Airways, or Air Canada miles but United might claim the seat is unavailable.

I’ve been beating this drum for quite some time, not just here on this blog but in other media like Inside Flyer and Conde Nast Traveler, and I’ve helped to drive coverage elsewhere such as in the Wall Street Journal.

Now, blocking wasn’t much of an issue from early May through early August. It would creep up occasionally, but nothing like in the past.

Take the end of April, for instance, virtually no Lufthansa space that the airline was offering was bookable with United miles. United agents would simply say that the seats were unavailable. And agents still give customers false information, that Lufthansa isn’t offering those seats to United when in fact Lufthansa is offering the seats to all of their partners including United but United had programmed their computers not to ‘see’ the award seats.

United has to pay its partners when members redeem their miles for those seats, at least when United members are redeeming more on the partners than those partners’ members are redeeming for United seats. And Lufhansa availability tends to be quite good, much better than availability on United aircraft, so it winds up costing United Mileage Plus a good bit of money. Which they don’t want to spend (even though Mileage Plus has been very profitable for years despite the ups ad downs of the airline industry as a whole and of course United Airlines itself).

Every other Star carrier’s miles have thus been more valuable than United’s miles, because other Star carriers have had access to the seats that United refuses to book. What’s more, United’s award chart is no longe rthe value that it once was. They’ve increased the price of awards significantly, first in October 2006 and then in January 2009. Now the US Airways chart and the Air Canada Aeroplan chart are both better in most cases. And in several instances international program charts like Asiana and All Nippon and British Midland are better as well (though not in all cases). The United and Continental charts have been made pretty much identical, but Continental doesn’t block partner award space (and Continental has much more generous routing rules) making those Continental Onepass miles far more valuable than United miles.

When United blocking mostly lifted in early May, I thought we might be on the right track given the pending United-Continental merger. I was able to book flights that had always been impossible with United miles, such as first class seats Europe – Bangkok on Thai. There were even reports on Flyetalk of folks booking Air New Zealand’s Los Angeles – London flight in business class, something which hadn’t been allowed by Mileage Plus in years.

But blocking is clearly back, take for instance some recent searches where I found award seats on Lufthansa for January 2 and 3.. four seats in business class were available Dusseldorf – Chicago on the former date, and for Frankfurt – Chicago on both dates. United claimed those seats were unavailable.

So blocking is not dead. And it’ll be an interesting question for the future, and to me the biggest single issue as to whether the United-Continental merger is a boon or disaster for collectors of miles in the Mileage Plus and Onepass programs.

Now, it’s fully expected that the merger will be consumated this year. But that the mileage programs will continue to operate separately for most of next year. And during that time I imagine it’ll be possible to move miles back and forth between the two programs, the way Delta-Northwest allowed it and the way that US Airways-America West did as well.

During that time, and assuming that Continental doesn’t implement blocking, the entire thing will be a non-issue — United won’t book the award? Just move your miles to Onepass.

But what abotu when the merger completes? Will they follow United’s or Continental’s lead on this and any number of other issues.

  • Blocking is the biggest one.

  • Routing rules. United requires you to fly to India via the Atlantic, to Australia from North American to the South Pacific without transiting Europe or Asia, and will only let you travel either on a published routing or within the published maximum permitted mileage for a city pair. Continental imposes none of those restrictions. And Continental will allow a stopover and an open jaw whereas United allows only one or the other. So Continental is more generous in all of these respects.

  • One-way awards. United offers it, so far only on their own metal but indicated they’d roll it out to partners as well. Continental doesn’t have this option. I imagine the combined program will offer one-way awards.

  • Award pricing. Continental will let you mix and match classes of service, fly to Europe in first class one-way and back in business class and they’ll price hte award at the average of first and business class. United will take the higher award price.

  • Combinability of Star and non-Star partners on one award. Continental allows it now, United does not.

On the whole I expect the more restrictive United position to prevail, including on expiring miles where United expires them and Continental does not. Mileage Plus is the bigger program, no doubt it’ll be the name of the surviving program, and the architecture to be more restrictive already exists so there won’t be an IT issue in implementation. I can only hope that Continental miles don’t devalue by adopting United’s blocking practices.

Now there are of course other issues for frequent flyers. To me, the big aircraft issues are whether the combined carriers keep Economy Plus (my bet is they will) and three-cabin international first class (my bet is that they won’t, which saddens me greatly).

And there are of course elite benefits which are different. The programs have already aligned somewhat with unlimited automatic domestic ugprades. And Continental now even has introduced meaningful international upgrade certificates. And United has introduced international mileage ugprades from the lowest fares with a cash co-pay. But there are still significant differences and of course the Onepass top mileage-earned tier is at 75,000 and the United top tier at 100,000. Certainly there will still be a 100,000 mile tier, and I’d be surprised if they followed the US Airways model of having 25/50/75/100.. simply too many tiers even though they don’t want to offend their 75,000 mile flyers. And there will remain a revenue-based true top tier along the lines of GLobal Services, no doubt.

But to me, it all comes back to award blocking. And for lower tiered members, economy plus. That will determine whether the combination is good for members or not. And we’ll have to wait, nervously, to find out.

  1. Ram said,

    Thank you for continuing to fight on our behalf.

    The United agents are perhaps not giving out misinformation but merely towing the “company line”. If the United computers are programmed to not show these seats as available, they have no way of knowing otherwise. Just my $0.02.

  2. sjs said,

    Missing two key differences – changes after departure (United allows none, Continental basically says anything goes). And tiered fees – ie Change fee is $75 for GM, $50 for Silver, $25 for Gold, and free for Plat. UA is $150 for everyone but 1K/GS. Also the > 21 day no fee rule.

    I also respectfully disagree with you on the issue of First Class. No way will they simply cede routes such as ORD-HKG which have respectable amounts of paid first. I very much expect to see a significant reduction in the number and diversity of routes where it is offered, but highly doubt it will disappear in its entirety.

  3. Gary said,

    @Ram that’s correct, the agents themselves aren’t behaving badly (“lying”) rather the company gives them information which is false, I blame the company not the agents.

    @sjs I agree with you, I’ve written about the change after booking issue in the past several and Continental is absolutely excellent in this regard, the very best among Star Alliance. And I bet something akin to United’s change *fees* will prevail as well. You may be right that the world’s largest carrier will retain international first on some routes, but the extent to which it’s offered will almmost certainly be curtailed. Perhaps they will keep it to Hong Kong and Sydney, maybe Europe to San Francisco and even LA, But Chicago/Dulles – Brussels/Amsterdam? I doubt it. And certainly they won’t add it to Continental routes like Newark – Manchester.

  4. Jon said,

    Thanks for fighting the good fight, Gary!

    I just posted on FT that last night I was able to book 2 F awards North America to South Asia via Europe for next summer with my UA miles…the agent could book CDG-BKK in TG F (much to my delight) and HKG-FRA in LH F, but unfortunately couldn’t “see” availability on FRA-SFO in LH F so he had to put me in UA F for the time being.

    So some blocking is still there but some is not? Here’s hoping they can see those transatlantic LH flights again soon…

  5. RAPC said,

    Add bmi Diamond Club to the list now along with United. At best they are restricting awards from some markets, at worst they are operating Starnet blocking. All of this has happened since Lufthansa have taken over.

    You’d almost think they are trying to restrict redemptions to keep miles in our accounts to be exchange to lower value M&M miles on a like for like basis as and when the merger happens.

    A poor show.

  6. Frank said,

    Gary, agree with you about the two big issues: Starnet blocking and Economy Plus. If they stop blocking and keep Economy Plus, I’ll be ecstatic. If they do the opposite, well, I’ll be considering my options.

  7. hobo13 said,

    I can confirm all that Gary says and more. Was working to book some friends back from Europe during the first week of January. ANA showed FRA-EWR/ORD/PHL/DTW as available with 2+ C seats, but *every* one of them was blocked by United.

    This was about the worst that I had ever seen it.

  8. Ofer said,

    Gary, I would think United is doing it in violation of Star Alliance rules. If every Star Alliance member acted like United, there would be no Alliance. Have you tried sending a letter to Star Alliance and the other airlines?

    I think that will put an end to this practice.

  9. Halothane said,

    Looks like it might have loosened up again. I just booked North America to Thailand via Europe for 2 pax in First and had no difficulties with *net blocking. I was able to book several long haul on LH and a ZRH-BKK Segment on TG.

  10. jarusoba said,

    Great news!

    Let UA block those precious *A premium seats so that other *A FF can book them!!

    Having said that, this is only a very small reason for me not to fly UA. UA sucks big time!!

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    […] merger (err, Continental acquisition of United) — don’t forget, we haven’t seen Starnet blocking in a long, long time. Airline mergers do not always spell doom for customers however, argued Leff, […]

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    […] in the era of United’s Starnet blocking — programming computers to say that frequent flyer award seats on partner airlines […]

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