Probably the biggest challenge faced by airline mileage programs is the frustrations of their members trying to redeem points.
The cynic says that’s by design, airlines don’t want members to redeem because redemptions cost money!
But that charge isn’t really true — members who redeem their miles become even more engaged in programs, ramping up their earnings even faster in the future. In contrast, redemption frustrations turn off customers and mean those customers won’t be accumulating miles as quickly in the future; accumulations that provide revenue to the frequent flyer program.
So they’re all trying different ways of improving the redemption experience. Some are even considering upending their entire underlying value proposition to treat miles as a cash currency that’s just used to pay the price of any ticket. That would reduce frustration but also make each point less valuable in the process.
Others are investing in their websites, making them easier to use and more effective at finding seats. Of the major frequent flyer programs in the US only US Airways Dividend Miles doesn’t offer any ability to see airline partner award space on its website. Delta and American have limited functionality in this regard. And United is clearly tops.
American has just introduced a new tool that will help some members find places they can travel to with points, and it’s fairly intuitive and friendly — although I tend to think that there are better, more effective investments they could be making to help members succeed in using their miles.
Why Award Booking is So Hard for Most People
Award booking is intimidating. People think they can never do anything with their miles, and I’m often struck by how common a thought this is. Sometimes people will come to me looking for an award and it’s hidden in plain site — right there on an airline’s website. What was so hard about this? But it’s deeply ingrained n the culture, and while I generally have a pretty good track record at finding award seats it’s based on a great deal of knowledge about how the system works, about where airlines fly, and also knowing what’s available before I even make a phone call so I know when I get a rotten phone agent not to be discouraged.
There are really four main things working against consumers trying to book award flights, and only one of those things has anything to do with whether seats are available or not.
- Terrible technology
- Poor phone agent quality (coupled with bad incentives)
- Full flights
When you use an airline’s website, or call them up, and you ask for flights between two cities you will often be told that nothing is available even though plenty of permissable flights are indeed available. That’s because systems search only a limited subset of possible routes and flights to get you between the cities you’re looking to fly from and to.
Usually they just search the most logical or most common routes and connections. But I find that when I put together awards I can often find space using the less common connections — and that the flights are available precisely because they’re the less common connections. International flights departing on partner airlines from a city that’s not a hub of the carrier whose miles you’re using don’t have as much feeder traffic, so there are often empty seats, and often mileage awards available. But those aren’t the “logical” routings for an airline so they don’t tend to offer them to you.
Because I know each airline’s flights, I search them individually — one transatlantic or transpacific flight at a time — and then figure out how to get to the international gateway city.
Airline websites don’t do that. Call center agents could do that, but most of them simply aren’t very good. And they aren’t incentivized to be very good.
I often tell non-experts who are just going to ring up the airline that their best approach is never to take the first no as definitive. Always make at least three phone calls, until you’re told no three times, before you assume it’s likely that the seats you want aren’t actually available.
When you find a really good agent they’re worth their weight in gold – agents who know their systems, know their partners, and are willing to try harder than just plugging in city pairs and saying nothing’s available.
On the whole I find that US Airways agents don’t know geography, Delta agents don’t even know who their partners are, and American agents are reasonably good but don’t know the limitations of their systems (such as that computers often price international awards with a stopover in the U.S. more expensively than they should, and that Cathay Pacific flights in particular don’t always show as available when searching from origin to destination but you can get them to come up when searching one segment at a time).
Agents aren’t incentivized to do a good job for customers, though. They aren’t paid or rewarded based on the number of successful award bookings that they make (which would encourage them to learn more and try harder). If anything spending too much time with customers reflects badly. Hence I’ve been told on more than one occasion by Delta agents in the past “we’re only allowed to search three things on a call, if you want to search more you have to call back.”
Incentives could be changed here but the better potential is in better technology. And to a certain extent that could put my award booking service out of business — if you could just go online and request the seats you wanted and actually get a true indication of what was available, there’d be little need to pay for help in doing so!
But the programs also remain complex. It’s difficult to understand what awards can be pieced together, who the partners are, what airlines fly where, how you can or cannot route an award ticket — let alone plot a strategy to use miles from one program in one direction and from another program for the return flight. And that doesn’t introduce transferrable points and which programs like Ultimate Rewards or Membership Rewards transfer to which airline frequent flyer programs, and how long those transfers take as well as which airlines let you put an award on ‘hold’ before making the transfer and which ones take awhile so you have to hold your breath and hope seats are still available by the time points show up in your account. I suspect that as long as programs remain complicated, there’ll be a market for assistance.
None of these factors – the biggest elements in making award booking difficult — have anything to do with whether seats are or are not available. Although it’s also true that flights are more full than they’ve been in the recent past, and airlines want to release those seats as awards which they aren’t going to sell (full flights mean there are fewer of those seats). So the game can be a challenge of hunt and peck sometimes. But it wouldn’t be such a tough challenge if technology were being better leveraged.
American’s New Tool to Help Members Find Award Seats
American has released an award map tool that lets you enter your starting city and the number of miles you want to spend. It will show you the places you can go.
Of course this requires you to decide how many miles you want to spend, and it’s helpful to at least have some passing familiarity with the airline’s award chart (I am sometimes surprised how frequently folks contacting me for help booking awards don’t have a sense of how many miles an award ‘should’ cost, whether that means asking whether 350,000 miles are enough for a business class roundtrip or being surprised when 40,000 miles doesn’t get you first class to Australia (after all, the trip should be only about 20,000 miles of travel).
It doesn’t distinguish between saver and double miles awards (although if the amount you will spend precludes anything but saver that’s all it will show).
You do have to enter travel dates, since this isn’t an award calendar (those are already common). And you can filter by region or type of destination (beach/ski/golf) as well as restrict the display to coach or premium cabin travel.
Playing with the system it was smart enough to know my departure city presumably based on my IP address when I wasn’t logged into my account. I was searching from London, so it populated LCY as the airport code (London City airport, though ironically I was doing the search near Heathrow).
The Low Hanging Fruit is in Getting Partner Award Inventory Online
This is an interesting technological tool. I think much of the solution to the frustrations that folks have finding award seats is technological. And the interface is reasonably friendly. But this isn’t where I’d focus.
American’s biggest challenge with online award booking is that they offer only a limited number of partner airline awards on their website, for most partners you need to call. British Airways, Qantas, Alaska, Hawaiian, Air Berlin and Finnair are available for online booking. But most partner airlines — whether in oneworld or not — are not. And that also means that online booking tools like this one aren’t showing options with their other partners, either.
That’s not something most customers realize, although it’s certainly something American discloses on its website. Most program members (quite reasonably) think that they enter an origin, a destination, and the website shows them the flights that are available — when the website may only show them a fraction of the flights that are available.
Compared to many other airlines the American site does a good job coming up with available routings, but the partner constraint is huge. And I think that the biggest payoff for AAdvantage members would be in getting more partners available for online booking. That would leverage the tools that do exist as well as new tools and make the award booking process much easier (and potentially put me out of business in my award booking practice).