Where Did All of the British Airways Award Seats Go?

Lucky noted a lot of recent chatter about British Airways award space drying up in the past few weeks.

He says it just isn’t so — space dried up a long time before that — and I agree. I’ve even had a note to myself since December to write about “where have all the premium cabin award seats on BA gone?”

Although he’s also correct that there are plenty of cities where you can still find seats.

Ben notes Boston (this has always been a great place to look for transatlantic awards), Seattle (Lufthansa space from here is good too), Philadelphia (I used to see 7 award seats in first class from Philly but no longer, Houston too), Washington Dulles (used to be great for first class but now seems mostly good for business), and Atlanta.

What these cities have in common is that they are not hubs for British Airways’ oneworld partners. Seattle is Alaska Airlines’ base, but Seattle isn’t that premium a market even though it’s quite long haul to London.

And space out of New York is quite good — though American has a hub there, there’s also so much lift, so many seats from New York that plenty remain for awards.

I’d note that while San Francisco and Los Angeles are much harder to get than before, and Dallas became really hard once you could use American miles to redeem on British Airways between the US and London, it’s even harder to get other secondary cities in the Western U.S…. Las Vegas, Phoenix (!), San Diego for instance with the former two once gimmes for awards no longer easy to get.

While Lucky is correct that the phenomenon isn’t new, it definitely exists.

The first commenter on Lucky’s blog offered a theory about where all of the award space has gone.

@abcx wrote:

Now put your fingers in your ears and yell, “it’s not the bloggers! it can’t be us”. Thanks for driving thousands of new people to the miles and points hobby and shamelessly mooching from FT to line your own pockets.

(Yes, I know correlation is not causation, but in this case, it’s pretty clear how and why the number of people in the game have grown.)

Every joyride and convoluted routing you fools take just to say you flew [Cathay/Thai/Lufthansa/Malaysia first class] yet again sucks up inventory. How many times do you need to fly to [Hong Kong via Zurich/Frankfurt/Munich] for 2 days? Why not just spend more time the first time you guys go there? We don’t need any more [First Class Terminal] trip reports or photos from Porsche rides to the plane – with all the inane hat-tipping, blog content is hardly differentiated these days.

Well, then, abcx – tell us how you really feel!

Let’s work through this, for a moment though. It may be true that more people are involved in miles and points than two years ago, although I’m far from certainly that it’s materially the case. But let’s just accept the hypothesis. (And let’s further assume — arguendo — that this growth in participation and growth in mileage balances by members is because of blogs.)

It is still not the case that “British Airways is releasing X award seats, there is now a lot more competition for those seats because of blogs.”

If there was a certain number of seats — that had not changed — and now more people going after those seats there would be an argument abcx could make.

I wouldn’t find it particularly persuasive because it’s a tough sell that this reader had a moral claim on the seats and is more entitled to them than someone else that learned about miles and points and how to use them more recently.

But we never get there, because what has happened is that British Airways has changed the way it allocates seats, based on improvements in the economy and improvements in their sales forecasts. This has nothing to do with blogs or the number of people involved in the miles and points hobby.

During and immediately following the financial crisis, they had a ton of surplus seats. British Airways more than most carriers even has a huge bet on premium seating. And they have more premium seats on more routes than most airlines, too.

But those seats were empty, and made available as awards. British Airways built an internal expectation that those seats wouldn’t get sold, and made those seats available early for points.

BA’s internal expectations have shifted, and business has picked up as well.

Note here also that drying up of award seats didn’t happen on all routes at once (it really started a couple of years ago with Africa). And also that it hasn’t happened on all North American routes, as Ben correctly observes.

Surely blog readers aren’t concentrated all in BA’s premium markets! (Award seats have dried up out of Miami, are there inherently more blog readers living there than Philadelphia and Atlanta?)

Instead space has dried up the most where BA is most likely to sell seats — the West Coast cities (though Seattle isn’t that premium a market, Lufthansa space is pretty available from Seattle too) and partner hubs like Dallas, plus high yield markets like Miami.

New York space is still pretty available, it’s a relatively short flight and there’s SO many seats. Secondary cities like Philadelphia and Atlanta are good too.

But long haul space beyond London is a challenge, especially to Africa where BA first tightened the noose.

There are a lot of criticisms you can offer specific blogs (although I think the one you’re commenting on is definitely one of the better ones). But this isn’t one of those!

Nor of course are the odds particularly good that my recent award trips to Malaysia, the Maldives, or Bali took away the precise seats that he (or you) wanted!


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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 InsideFlyer.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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Comments

  1. Where’s the data? I only see speculation.
    How do you measure “space has dried up the most where BA is most likely to sell seats”?
    “British Airways has changed the way it allocates seats, based on improvements in the economy and improvements in their sales forecasts” Most airlines release how many award seats were book every year. BA does not? They may not display how many first class seats were release but at lease the total number of annual award seats for the last 5 years would support your claim. Let’s not turn a blind eye to science.

  2. I’ve noticed the same for Virgin Atlantic awards to the UK, at least in Upper Class and Premium Economy, compared with last year.

  3. ABC(X) is quite right that these crass, lumpen bloggers (especially that bow-tied johnny come lately) have contributed to award inventory shrinking and fare deals / loopholes disappearing.

    If ‘View from the Wing’ is to be believed, there are 30K+ potential punters from this blog alone who are waiting to jump on any scrap that is thrown their way!

    His logic (improving economy = more premium seat demand) is also spurious. Besides official propaganda, where is the economy improving? USA? No way, with the squeeze on Wall Street and the real employment situation. Europe? You’ve got to be joking. Asia? May be, but those folks have no time for silly blogs and CC issuers there don’t pay exaggerated commissions to bloggers there!

  4. I know when I first started looking at 2 FC companion SFO-LHR-LYS-NCE-LHR-SFO that I could have my choice on Oct 2012 and then when I changed to May-June 2013 I had to move from Thursday departure to a Saturday departure……still ended up paying FS of $1800 but the availability was much better than United or AA which I had miles for………
    Don’t believe that blogging has dramatically increased award travel……..I liken it to we were all jogging before and same essential number of joggers are out there but with the blogs we’re just jogging more efficiently……..
    What the blogs “may” have affected is airline strategy based on the blogs as I know they monitor the blogs and ideas on what change when holes are pointed out……….

  5. Hi Gary, well, I read your posts, got my avios via CP and have two first class short haul flights LHR- DUB, DUB-LHR-AMS for this summer. Thanks. Sorry, you’ve not got your award tickets, but I am happy with mine. Avios saved my pocketbook or it was sit economy and pay an arm and leg for luggage.

  6. @MaryE: I’m guessing that you’ve booked Club Europe for your trips between LHR and DUB/AMS. It’s perfectly adequate for those short hops, but please don’t expect “first class” or you’ll be sorely disappointed.

  7. @MaryE: I’m guessing that you’ve booked Club Europe for your trips between LHR and DUB/AMS. It’s perfectly adequate for those short hops, but please don’t expect “first class” or you’ll be sorely disappointed.

  8. Now I see, thanks for setting me straight – LH is selling 8-16 seats in F on every flight out of DTW and DFW. (Yes, I know we were talking about BA but you can pick similar examples for BA.)

    ABC already pointed out that all of your “rebuttals”, if they can be called that, are merely speculation, so it’s just like I said – “fingers in ears and yelling, it’s not us.” Do you work for BA? How do you know their internal expectations have shifted?

    Anyway, capacity or award space has reduced as you yourself admit. Are you seriously claiming that blogs have not resulted in any increased demand, i.e. more people going after the same seats (or in this case fewer seats)? If you could do simple supply and demand math, you’d realize that the blogs have reduced award space. Seriously, who made you a CFO?

  9. @MaryE: I’m guessing that you’ve booked Club Europe for your trips between LHR and DUB/AMS. It’s perfectly adequate for those short hops, but please don’t expect “first class” or you’ll be sorely disappointed.

  10. Now I see, thanks for setting me straight – LH is selling 8-16 seats in F on every flight out of DTW and DFW. (Yes, I know we were talking about BA but you can pick similar examples for BA.)

    ABC already pointed out that all of your “rebuttals”, if they can be called that, are merely speculation, so it’s just like I said – “fingers in ears and yelling, it’s not us.” Do you work for BA? How do you know their internal expectations have shifted?

    Anyway, capacity or award space has reduced as you yourself admit. Are you seriously claiming that blogs have not resulted in any increased demand, i.e. more people going after the same seats (or in this case fewer seats)? If you could do simple supply and demand math, you’d realize that the blogs have reduced award space. Seriously, who made you a CFO?

  11. @MaryE: I’m guessing that you’ve booked Club Europe for your trips between LHR and DUB/AMS. It’s perfectly adequate for those short hops, but please don’t expect “first class” or you’ll be sorely disappointed.

  12. Server indigestion seems to have resulted in multiple appearances of the most recent comments from me and abcx…

  13. Gary I would also like to point out two things. For us Canadians who have the RBC Avios card with the companion ticket, you have essentially no availability to use the RBC credit card companion ticket for First as tickets must leave a Canadian airport such as Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal to London and there is a total of 4 days combined that you could redeem a Canadian companion ticket. In fact I could use my Avios and clear out ALL OF CANADA – but I won’t. In the past there used to be probably in the neighbourhood of 400-500 days of First availability from Canadian airports to London for a couple and now there is 4.

    Secondly is Lufthansa dropping first from Vancouver? I was at first thinking that Vancouver-London was so poor was because of Lufthansa dropping first from Vancouver but this would not explain other Canadian airports.

  14. I am so glad that I took the opportunity to burn 135k UA miles two years ago to give my wife and daughter a transatlantic trip (nonstop to California!) in the very front row in First Class. Even if they never get another chance at that, they have the memory. One of these days I’d like to try it myself, although once you’re asleep a lie-flat business class seat is just as nice.

    As to where the award seats went, it’s the same place high-value capacity-controlled domestic award seats have gone: They have been removed by airlines who have decided that retaining a small chance of selling a high-priced seat beats giving that seat away. As long as they don’t assign any value to pleasing their FF program members, that decision makes perfect business sense.

  15. Folks:

    In September of 2012 I used expert flyer to snag 2 BA First seats for 125,000 each using American miles. The trick was that I flew from Seattle and (wanting to go to Italy) flew into Bologna. Rome? Venice? hell no is there going to be any availability!

    The secret of course–which is by no means secret–is to allow for maximum flexibility. People all claim to know this, but are surprisingly stubborn to execute on it. So what if we had to fly from PDX to SEA on Alaska for $170 each. And flying into Bologna turned out to cause us to spend a couple of days in what was one of our favorite destinations on our Italy trip. And 125,000 will not get you out of the country in a Delta Business Cabin.

    The issue is not the blogs. Even my friends who are miles savvy, use blogs for tips, have status and use multiple ways to earn miles can’t seem to do better than call the Alaska line and settle for what the CS agent will do for them.

    Oh, and by the way, on both of our flights from SFO – LHR, BA first class was not half full

  16. @ Alex – the problem is rarely the intra-Europe award, it’s the transatlantic seat. Does BA even serve PDX? No, of course you had to purchase a separate ticket elsewhere.

    And 100K will get you in AND out of the country in business with Delta miles used on any of their partners (including Alitalia). No fuel surcharges either.

  17. @ Alex – the problem is rarely the intra-Europe award, it’s the transatlantic seat. Does BA even serve PDX? No, of course you had to purchase a separate ticket elsewhere.

    And 100K will get you in AND out of the country in business with Delta miles used on any of their partners (including Alitalia). No fuel surcharges either.

  18. Gary, now that you mention it, I can find no availability of AA flights on NYC-LAX in business class anymore using Avios, even though it shows on the AA website and I can book using AA pts. Is that part of this lack of inventory?

  19. @abcx – the change in quantity demanded (that’s different from a change in demand which represent a shift in the demand curve) is immaterial relative to change in quantity of seats supplied.

    Lufthansa doesn’t sell out their first class cabins. On average they sell only 3-4 seats at first class fares per flight. But that is some flights 0, some flights 6 or 8. They’ve shrunk their first class cabins substantially so they don’t release award seats to partners early in case it turns out the relevant flight where they did was also one they were going to sell 8 seats on.

    Paid first class tickets are also frequently last minute purchases.

    Not sure why you want to cast personal aspersions at me, though. But I guess that just reflects on you.

    Appreciate your commenting!

  20. @sb – no, don’t ever trust the BA website — if you see SAVER award space (lowest mileage cost) on the AA.com website then trying ringing up BA.

  21. @Greg – I expect that Vancouver will lose Lufthansa first class. I’d have to bet Charlotte and Detroit too. Probably Atlanta would be a candidate for that as well. (I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one of those flights went away entirely.)

  22. @abc asks,

    “How do you measure “space has dried up the most where BA is most likely to sell seats”?”

    1) long haul premium markets (SFO, LAX)
    2) oneworld hubs where they have significant feed (LAX, DFW, MIA.. in the case of LAX and MIA also premium markets)

    There’s still good space out of New York but New York has tons and tons of frequency, tons of seats, and it’s a much shorter flight West Coast departures. So while it’s a hub and a premium market that’s overwhelmed by AA and BA effectively together operating a NYLON shuttle service through their joint venture.

    On the other hand, most of the cities with good award space lack the level of premium traffic that LAX, SFO, and New York have — and also don’t have significant partner feed. E.g. PHL, ATL, BOS.

  23. I’ve also noticed this on Virgin Atlantic. For the last ten years I’ve been able to book a week or even a day or two before. Now it’s a couple of available days in a month. I have noticed that AA still has a lot of availability on the same route.

  24. Well if you believe the blogs you shouldn’t be using BA miles for transatlantic business – too many surcharges. You’re supposed to save them for short hauls on American, Alaska, etc.

    I venture it’s the avail on AA’s website that has changed things more than anything.

    Though on a recent ORD-FCO Alitalia flight in biz, I’d hazard at least 4 of the 7 in that cabin were blog readers (young male in 20s). Hadnt seen that since the old Cyprus biz class deal in 2006.

  25. Given the AA-BA TATL JV, it was pretty much expected that availability of good value redemption opportunities on long-haul flights would decline — and they have if NYC-LHR is the primary example.

  26. @Gary, so the measurement are just you “checking for availability” now and then? Could it be that there is more “competition” for the available seats and you are not able to “see the space” before joesmoe takes it? I can buy that they have shrunk total #of 1st class seats.

  27. BA has significantly cut back on premium award seats. They are the only airline with bs fuel surcharges that can cause a first award to price at over $1000…for a free ticket!
    I avoid them at all costs…no pun intended.

  28. @Greg. Nailed FCO flight……..tighten up cc qualification…….send them to the back of the plane…………

  29. What is this jargon BS? “@abcx – the change in quantity demanded (that’s different from a change in demand which represent a shift in the demand curve) is immaterial relative to change in quantity of seats supplied.”

    Why are you being so thick? (Don’t answer. Rhetorical question.) It’s quite simple:

    1. You agree that F seats in total are going down because airlines are reducing seats (downsizing F, cutting it altogether, etc.).

    2. On top of that, you claim, and I won’t argue the point, that paid F travel is increasing because the economy has improved and so award space has been cut back. Who knows whether paid F demand has actually increased (fewer companies are paying for F these days and C is almost as good as F in terms of seats these days) but let’s say you are right…

    The net impact is a drastic reduction in F seats available for awards. So far there is no involvement of blogs.

    Where the blogs and your award consulting services come in is that there are now more people going after the same seats. If you deny that blogs have added even a single person to the FF universe you are blind and in complete denial – not that it would surprise me. So supply has reduced, and demand has increased thanks to the blogs. Do you realize that the combination of those two factors has made it significantly harder to get award seats? And the good values get blown out of proportion by the blogs and get shut down by the airlines (the examples are too numerous to list).

    And I wasn’t “casting aspersions” on you, I was just calling a spade a spade. I call out idiocy when I see it and this blog post is rife with it. I’d be happy to say it to your face if you prefer but I really have no interest in wasting my time meeting you…

  30. Your argument is essentially the same as mine. Fewer first class seats, more paid travel taking the seats that are left. That’s the driving force behind difficulty in getting premium awards generally compared to 2-3 years ago.

    Blogs and “my award booking service” doesn’t really move the needle.

    I never suggested there’s not a single person who got an award who wouldn’t have otherwise. That would be silly. In fact I’m proud of being able to help people understand the value of their miles and get the most out of them. I get you would prefer that nobody else have that information. We disagree there.

    But true causality — in terms of being both necessary and sufficient to account for the change in availability — comes from factors entirely apart from this blog, from blogs generally, or anything else that I am in involved in.

    And yes, of course, ou aren’t casting aspersions at all. 😉

  31. @Fred Eledge – they aren’t the only airline with significant fuel surcharges. Most non-US programs add them to awards. They are the only airline that American AAdvantage bills substantial fuel surcharges for currently.

  32. I dont blame the bloggers ( yes, Mr Lucky has been doing the same crappy Asia trips over and over. Not on BA though. But that is another story)

    I would never use BA for F flights for the surcharges are too much, that is true today and back in 2010. And personally I find F class a waste of miles from the East coast. The flight is way too short and F class has more seats than it should. Not to mention those old BA 747 that should have been retired a long time ago.

    Having said that, the US is the only country that benefited from the Chase 100k deal back in 2009/10. Canadians and Britons get meager offers and Asia is a new mileage market that does not count, yet. Personally I use my BA miles for AA flights and some CX flights (C) out of NYC which are quite good for the amount of miles/MR transfer bonuses. So please stop blaming bloggers for BAs policy. TATL availability has dried up recently. Just have to be open and ready. This aint 2011 anymore!

  33. @Gary: I originally posted on Lucky’s blog about this in the comment section of his post about malaysia air stop releasing award space.
    Again I don’t agree with your or lucky’s assessment. sure the award space has been going down little by little over that last month (even years) but I (and many other FF’er) have notice a drastic change very recently. I am talking about close to nothing until 4 month out vs many seats available anytime as long as you are flexible with your gateway city.
    Maybe I am wrong and this is just bad timing or a coincidence. But for the past 3-4 years I have always booked 2 BA F seats for August from US to EU around 30-60 days out without an issue.

  34. I meant to say BA First awards are easier to get through the AA site than the BA site.

  35. I don’t think it’s the blogs per se that are to blame, more a combination of the massive signup bonuses and mileage accrual rates offered to US customers compared to those from elsewhere in the world, combined with the much lower mileage requirements from AA than BA, especially in F when connecting in Europe to Asia. Sadly with this number of miles/Avios swilling about a lot of availability is used up.

  36. I don’t think the reduction in rewards is due to the volume of Avios in circulation. A lot has changed in BA’s transatlantic market over the past few years. The joint-venture with American Airlines has increased load factors on BA’s flights. IAG’s traffic statistics show load factors of 85% on transatlantic which, for BA, is very high. BA was also hit very hard during the financial crisis and has exercised capacity discipline subsequently, thus reducing unsold seats. BA has also increased the number of discounted “premium leisure” sales during holiday periods, so I think there is a strategy to encourage more paid for premium bookings from leisure travellers. Anecdotal evidence suggests reward availability is being released much closer to departure date.

  37. I am wondering if BA have changed their op-upgrade policy. They used to protect the First Class cabin, but, it appears, no longer.

    Last Tuesday my wife and I flew LHR-PHX in F. 24 hours before the flight the seating plan showed only three seats taken (ours + one other). However, the flight actually had 12 out of 14 F seats taken. (Nine last minute, full fare flyers? I think not!)

    From conversations I overheard it was clear that a large number had been upgraded at the last minute – and some had never flown BA before. Is this a case of BA preferring to bump oversold Business Class passengers by making award seats unavailable to loyal flyers? It certainly seems so.

  38. Yes, some airlines are shrinking the availability of award seats, especially American, compared with a year ago. And, free travel bloggers aren’t helping the matter. Because my wife and I have been doing the free travel game for many years and not just free flights but also free resort stays and even free food, I’ve been asked to write books, blogs, award booking services and such even before others started and I refused. I refused because I knew I would not make enough money doing that compared to the value I receive from my free trips worth $20,000 a piece. I also did not want to contribute to the growing problem I saw which would also hurt my free trips and that is award availability. I’m not a frequent flyer, I gain all points through credit card signup bonuses and usage. I now see in the near future the end of being able to spend to meet spending requirments without buying items. I see that end coming as others brag about how they used x way to gain 65,000 in spending without any regard to hindering the more modest and careful ‘spenders’ who are interested in keeping it going for the longterm. It’s just the few who will abuse a system that gets it shut down for everyone all because of their get points quick without regard mentality. If you read FT, and you like the flavor vanilla you know what I’m talking about.

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