When an Agent Says Award Seats Are Unavailable But You Know They Are…

Back in the era of United’s Starnet blocking — programming computers to say that frequent flyer award seats on partner airlines weren’t available, even when those partners were offering the seats, because United didn’t want to pay for the tickets — things got pretty silly.

Agents would say, “I’m sorry, Lufthansa doesn’t fly to Frankfurt that day.” Or, “It doesn’t look like All Nippon flies from Washington Dulles to Tokyo.”

Excuse me? “It’s call ANA flight number 1. I was at the party they held in DC to celebrate 20 years of continuous service.”

See, at one time United’s computers ‘blocked’ award seats by simply not showing the flight existed. In the very beginning, the most common thing to block was Lufthansa seats inside Europe, the connections simply wouldn’t show up. Then Lufthansa transatlantic space, because award availability just got too good. Thai Airways Europe – Bangkok and on some Central Asia routes like Bangkok – Kathmandu. Eventually it expanded to include, at various times, most of their partners.

When you’d explain the seats were available, including as awards on various partner airline websites, agents would say that different airlines have access to different seats and that United must “already have used up theirs.” Which wasn’t entirely wrong but not true either. Certainly Lufthansa and Swiss and Singapore make more seats available to their own members than to partners. And what was really going on is that United had used up…. not all of ‘their’ partner seats, but at least had been expected to use up their full budget for the fiscal quarter for spending on award seats with a given carrier.

I always found that blocking loosened up about a week into February, May, August, and November. They would start off a quarter with inventory controls or ‘throttling’ tight, then spending would be below expectations, they’d loosen the reins, spend out the budget, and block seats again.

In order to combat this, I became practiced at asking agents to “request the seats manually” (I avoided using reservations jargon). By submitting the seats on a “NN” or “need need” basis the seats would then come back confirmed. In other words, they would ask the partner for seats, the partner would confirm those seats, because the award seats were available.

United, though, caught on to this trick and specifically instructed their agents not to do manual or ‘long’ sells of award space any longer.

One of the absolute best things about the United-Continental merger is the abandonment of Starnet blocking. United miles are worth orders of magnitude more than before the merger was announced, simply because the airline isn’t preventing its members from booking those award seats that its partners make available.

And of course award seats are much more bookable online, the new United website (read: the old Continental website) is really quite good at it, though there are sometimes pricing glitches which require a phone call to sort out, the website makes pricing mistakes more than agents on the phone do. Though when it happens with a phone agent, good luck, because Continental trains agents that the computer is always correct.

United, though, wasn’t the only airline which found itself refusing to book partner award seats for its members.

US Airways has historically had one of the most generous frequent flyer programs because of how easy it’s been to acquire miles, how non-existent routing rules have been, and how their agents never seemed to know much about geography so virtually any award would be permissible — such as awards between Australia and Europe via South America and the United States.

But folks with US Airways miles ran into a wall when it became next to impossible to redeem for Lufthansa transatlantic first class award seats. Occasionally US Airways would have special problems with United flights as well, that was usually when United was updating its schedules and it would take about 24 hours for US Airways’ systems to catch up. But Lufthansa transatlantic first class was another issue, their computers simply wouldn’t show the seats as available even when offered.

Business class wasn’t a problem. First class from Germany to elsewhere in the world wasn’t a problem. Just transatlantic first class.

All of my inquiries suggested that it was an IT glitch. I heard it speculated that it was an ‘AVS sync’ issue, that in order to fix could actually take down the entire Starnet booking system if done live (and if done offline, would show false availability, not a pleasant proposition for the airline).

But the problem persisted, and it seemed as if US Airways had no interest in fixing it. Which could be the case, because the problem was saving the airline money on partner award seats, similar to the current issue with Delta being unable to book Air France business class award seats due to an “IT glitch.”

So I became really practiced at asking US Airways for the long sell. US Airways, too, has told agents they shouldn’t do this. So it may take 6 or 8 agents to get them to check, I don’t feel bad though because all US Airways is doing is asking a partner if award seats are available, and if they are, they book those seats for their members.

It’s rarely an issue these days because Lufthansa has been making first class award seats available, for the most part, only within a couple of weeks of travel.

But for booking tickets close-in, it’s still a problem and still a big deal to overcome. One date this morning that I checked availability for saw at least four first class award seats available for Dallas – Frankfurt, albeit less than a week out.

This morning D. emailed me,

Have you had any recent success booking [Lufthansa First Class] using US[airways] miles? I am trying to book LH465 [Orlando-Frankfurt] on [early April date]. United and ANA show it as available while US[airways] claims it is not. I have no problem paying your fee if you can book the following for me..

I replied:

Don’t pay attention to the United website for Lufthansa First Class availability. That’s been showing lots of false positives recently. But if the All Nippon website says it’s available, it is. US Airways has long had issues with Lufthansa first class transatlantic award space.

The only way to grab it is to find an agent willing to do a long, or manual, sell – if they do that, the space will come back confirmed.

However, that’s not something I’m willing to offer on a paid, commercial basis since US Airways agents are specifically not supposed to do that, I won’t take money from anyone to get an agent o break an airline’s rules, if that makes sense.

The only approach is calling up enough US Airways agents with something like “the seats were available just a few minutes ago, I should have held them, but the agent at the time said she had to request the seats manually and they come back confirmed, is that something you’d be willing to try?”

A short while later I get an email back,

Four calls later and I am all booked. That fourth agent is a keeper. She was stunned when seats came back confirmed!

Thanks for the advice.

Congratulations! And enjoy Lufthansa first class!

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. The only thing I got out of this was that you have to get the agents to do a LONG sell, which is not going to happen 95% of the time. Why would you encourage this path ? Causes more problems than it solves!

  2. Asking for the long sell has worked 100% of the time for me. Just hang up and call back. Eventually you get a CS rep that actually knows what they are doing and even though it may be “against” policy they know their stuff. The lady I got last time worked for US before they were American West and US.

  3. Hi Gary,for booking *A award with US Air, any changes in routing will result in $150 fee for non-elite, right?

  4. @lelee, what’s the problem? This is EXACTLY the kind of information that’s only available from Gary and a small number of other very knowledgeable, kind, and helpful people. I think Gary makes clear just how persistent you have to be to find someone willing to actually book the seat.

    Where’s the problem?

  5. Gary, that is good advice!

    I actually saw F space on SEA-FRA several weeks out and called United – they did not budge to my request for a long sell 🙁

    Interestingly enough agents at United and USAirways could see C availability for many days which did NOT show on ANA tool or United website on the direct flight with LH.

    So if you have a C ticket it may be worthwile to just call and ask.

    Btw US Airways enforces a 10 minute limit for asking for availability – kinda odd as they have really short wait times these days.

  6. Jeff,

    And you cannot make any changes once you commence travel. So, at that point, if you cannot travel as ticketed, your ticket is worthless and you will have to find another way home.

  7. Is it star net blocking if only a certain flight on a routing is not showing available? For example MUC-IST there are several flights a day but the flight time I want is not showing space available (the morning and evening flights show availability but not the noon flight) or is it really just no seats available?

  8. @DS if you check the Aeroplan and ANA websites and the flight is not available as an award, then it is not available as an award [to a 99% approximation, and assuming you aren’t using Lufthansa’s Miles & More mores].

  9. Great post! I must have gotten in before the issues started because I booked a first class seat using US miles in August 2011 for travel in June/July 2012 with out any issues at all; first call, first agent, done. BOS-MUN-AMS/VIE-MUC-BOS in LH F! So excited!

  10. “United miles are worth orders of magnitude more than before the merger was announced” This is more hyperbole than I’d expect even from their own marketing team. Unless you mean something like “0.1 orders of magnitude” (i.e. 25% more than before).

  11. I’ve tried and did not work out.

    I’m sitting with 1m Us miles.

    I’ve tried to redeem 1 FC ticket next week to NRT from MRS. NH tools ok, AC tools ok. US air agent (called more than 10 times) said nothing sir on LH F only business.

    I work for my own, hence I call travel whenever I want, I told them, try to find me a seat for april or may… Zip, zero sir !!!

    The worst I’ve tried a lot of destinations….

    I’m about to change my FFP…

    Tks Gary anyway.

  12. Good article, Gary. As I wrote on MilePoint, in well-controlled and polite frustration, when the US agent told me that they don’t have access to the LH FC seats I saw online, I told them that respectfully, this was not the case. That I could have the tickets with a simple mouse click if I had CO miles but mine were with US Air – that I was a Platinum elite and that what they were doing was wrong and unfair. I asked for a Supervisor and after being told they would not have any more power to help me, the Supervisor listened to me, put me on hold, and ticketed us.

    Yes, you can hang up and keep trying, and I only have one data point here – but in avoiding contentiousness and telling them how I felt an airline that I had status with was taking pitiful advantage of me – well, it worked! And by the way – it was fabulous!

  13. Hi Steve,

    I’ll try to be rough next time I call them. Since I’m CP… but It’s a shame to raise your voice to get what you have the right to expect. I mean, if there was no single seat, ok it’s the deal, but if the seat is open to another carrier within *A the deal must be the same for every carriers.

  14. FWIW, I was able to book LH F from ORD-MUC via US DM without requesting a long sell, but can’t say if the CSR took the initiative and requested it when I indicated that a previous agent had found space. This was about 8 days out from travel date, in early March. There were other issues with that booking (no electronic ticket was issued initially; apparently the first agent had set it up for paper ticketing), but it all worked out. (SFO-ORD-MUC-ZRH-HKG-SIN-LAX-SFO, including LH and LX F and SQ C)

  15. The US forum on FT claims that US can only book an award seat if there are 2+ seats available on the route, even if you’re only requesting 1. I was trying to book NRT-ZRH on LX which had 1 available and US could not do it. PEK-ZRH on LX with 3 available worked fine.

    Have you run into this, and is it a similar issue with LH?

  16. @Joe, I’ll try harder but I’m getting weary.

    @Arcanum, I was able to snag 2 FC with LX in may with my wife to PEK.

    I’m dying to try the new LH F. That is why I keep calling them.

    I don’t like the way they say : no first class available…

    I looked up till dec and they did not find any FC seat with LH…

    Tmr I will try to speak with a supervisor.

    US is becoming a pain in the a…

  17. @Gary: You’re really claiming that you’d pay 100 times as much (i.e. two orders of magnitude more) for a UA mile now than you would before the merger?

  18. OK – help me with this award ticket. Trying to book as part of a Hawaii award 2 Hawaiian inter-island flights. They both show up on Hawaaiian’s website as available for “super saver coach” which should be bookable for a US economy award. However, when I try to book with US on the phone, they say “T” class is available for purchase, but not for miles. I even had the do a long-sell and it would not come back confirmed. Has anyone seen this glitch for an inter-island Hawaaiin US Airways flight?

  19. Will this method of asking the reservation agent to “request the seats manually” work for AA as well? Quantas shows significant award availability in September from JFK to Madrid on Iberia that AA reservations advises me is not available to them.

  20. @Jim Definitely ask AA to search SEGMENT-BY-SEGMENT there are many flights that won’t show availability searching origin-to-destination that involves a connection. There HAS been some phantom availability on the Qantas website, so that’s possible as well, you may verify with the British Airways site to see if the flight shows as actually available. And then hang up,call back if the first agent doesn’t see something you see.

  21. Gary, are you really so sure that Starnet blocking is gone? I’ve had issues recently with a few partners, and heard the old refrain, “I can’t see that availability”.

    Seems to me that Continental and United took some of the worst parts of each airline – Starnet blocking being the most odious to me – and have run with it.

  22. @Savvy Traveler occasionally there are some isolated instances of blocking,, it is apparently unintentional (the architecture remained, though I haven’t experienced it post March 3). Each time I would send it into United and they would address.

  23. Hi Gary,

    Have you noticed any of the above issues on Asia-FRA flights? I’m noticing a lot of award space within 14 days on LH KIX-FRA and back, but some FT’ers have been knocked back on that too.

    Thanks!

  24. Hi Gary, old post but hopefully still relevant. I’m trying to book a Lufthansa award (FCO-FRA-MCO) with SQ miles and although ANA says FCO-FRA is available, the agent says it is not. Should I ask for them to request them manually, or do you know of any other reason SQ doesn’t see LH award space?

    Thanks!

  25. @john are you having SQ search for the seats the same way you are? Lufthansa does sometimes practice journey control on awards, they will show available FCO-FRA-MCO but not if you search separately FCO-FRA and FRA-MCO. Or vice versa.

  26. @Gary Leff, the first itinerary I wanted included FRA-MCO which turned out to be phantom space (checked UA but not ANA for that segment), so I scrubbed that. I still wanted to confirm the FCO-FRA was available, though, and in two calls one agent said it was not, and the next agent said it was.

    I have a new itinerary, FCO-FRA-YYZ-FLL, and the first call to the agent said FCO-FRA was available, but FRA-YYZ was not (insisted on long-sell, she said she did that already, doubtful). She also insisted that she checked segment-by-segment.

    Hung up, called again. This time I asked the agent to look up FRA-YYZ only, and it is available. So then I gave him the other two flights and it miraculously worked. Still no clue why I got a total number of 8 different answers for availability for particular flights (I kept track too!)

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