United’s Blocking of Partner Award Availability Won’t End Next Year Even As Award Mileage Prices Increase

The Washington Times carries another piece on United’s blocking its Mileage Plus members from redeeming for award seats offered by its Star Alliance partner carriers.

Despite significant increases in the mileage cost of many awards beginning in the New Year, United will not be ending the practice. According to the article, they’re the only Star Alliance carrier which blocks award seats offered by other Star airlines, and they plan to continue to do this. United just wants its customers to understand why — they have to pay for award seats and they’re expensive, darnit!

Of course, as I’ve written about in the past, United’s frequent flyer program is already the most (and at times only) profitable part of the company. That was true even before they began engaging in blocking of awards.

That’s not to say Mileage Plus isn’t doing it for financial reasons — of course they are. If they can take in money and not have expenditures, of course their net goes up. So if they can get away with it, if their customers continue to accumulate United miles and the loyalty program doesn’t have to spend money for partner award tickets, the program’s bottom-line is better off.

Until now, the airline has been silent about the practice. Their reservations agents usually tell customers that the awards are ‘not available’ … that the partner carrier hasn’t releases seats to United.. or in some cases that flights in question don’t exist (one tell-tale sign of blocking is that the reservations agents don’t even see the flights). A dishonest practice, since in fact the flights exist, frequently the partners have released award seats, and United knows it.

One used to be able to get agents to do a ‘manual sell’ where they input the flight directly and request award space, since hte space was available it would come back confirmed. United didn’t like that, since they were trying to block the redemptions, so they’ve let agents know that manual sells are a firing offense. (One wouldn’t usually request a manual sell outright, there’s a bit of a dance I wrote about in the past here, but now it’s virtually impossible to achieve because agents are truly put on notice that their jobs are in jeopardy if they help a customer out in this way.)

Ultimately, United Mileage Plus — with its award price increases and limitations on award availability — is becoming a much less attractive frequent flyer program to accumulate miles in. Sure, if you’re an elite looking for upgrades you need to credit flight miles to the program. But look elsewhere for partner miles, such as from credit cards or rental cars or shopping.

Air Canada and US Airways offer much more attractive award charts and don’t block availability. This could change, of course, but for now both programs are better at award redemption and at a lower cost than United’s. In fact, even ‘expensive’ programs like Lufthansa are beginning to compare favorably. United will be charging as much as their German partner for many awards, but Lufthansa doesn’t block partner seats. And Senators and HON Circle elites get 50% off redemptions of a second award, so members taking a friend, spouse, or signfiicant ohter on a trip are paying a whole lot fewer miles for better award availabilty than United offers.

United’s is an insidious practice, which hopefully a bit of sunshine can combat. The Washington Times pieces are a useful antidote. I write about the practice in the current Inside Flyer issue as well (subscription required):

Some agents will go to the ends of the earth and back for you, and with some airlines that’s necessary–such as United, which is alone among Star Alliance carriers in denying their members access to award seats being offered by their partners. I once checked 51 days where Thai Airways had 53 separate flights showing two first class award seats available, and United wouldn’t book a single one of them. So United’s availability won’t always match what is shown on the All Nippon Airways Web site.

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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  1. Out of curiosity, why is this reporter doing these stories? While very interesting for people reading this blog, it’s not really a topic of general interest. If I had to guess, it probably affects less than 1/2 of 1 percent of active mileageplus members. In other words, it seems like an appropriate topic for Flyertalk, not the Washington Times.

  2. This report is dead-on – and it’s highly newsworthy to the general public. United is engaged in fraud. It is promoting products it refuses to deliver, and someone ought to sue the airline.

    Personally – I stopped flying United – and I have stopped using their Chase Mileage Plus Credit Cards. I am using Alaska and Lufthansa, two of the best programs (left) in the world.

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