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..
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!