Yesterday MileValue wrote about United’s award routing rules — for instance, the rules that determine what flights you can take when booking an award, how many miles you are allowed to travel between cities, and which partners you can combine on a ticket.
What he discovers, in essence, is that ever since United and Continental integrated their computer systems on March 3, the Continental rules and procedures applied. And that the Continental rules and procedures make no sense, something which has been the case at least since Continental joined Star Alliance.
United’s rules had been quite clear. Before they began cozying up with Continental, you were permitted a stopover (visiting a city on the way to or back from your destination) or an open jaw (flying into one city and back from a different city, the distance between those two cities had to be shorter than your outbound or your return distances). And you were permitted to fly the ‘maximum permitted mileage’ between your origin and destination.
Every city pair has a certain number of miles published as the ‘MPM’. In some cases those mileage amounts are generous, in some cases they aren’t, and whether a given routing is permitted was determined whether the total mileage flown fell within that distance. I once had to get supervisor approval to exceed the maximum permitted mileage on an award when trying to put together a trip from Johannesburg to Denver, Johannesburg – Nairobi – Zurich – Frankfurt – Dallas – Denver. The allowable mileage for Johannesburg – Denver is 11,521 but that routing is 11,533.
Back in February 2011, United loosened up its rules — you could exceed Maximum Permitted Mileage by 15% which was extremely generous. Aeroplan used to be considered generous in allowing 5% overage. And you could do both a stopover and an open jaw, not just one or the other.
Some folks assumed that United continued to implement its published rules, or at least some of them, after March 3rd. But the thing to understand is that they simply moved over to Continental’s platform. They didn’t reprogram the award rules on that platform.
Continental (err… United)’s rules don’t always make sense.
And they’re also not always consistent in how they apply what rules exist.
The key things to understand about award routing rules with United are:
- The computer determines what is permitted, the computer is always right, and very few agents are empowered to override — or even question — the computer.
- The computer is broken.
The published rules for awards don’t entirely make sense.
For instance, the rules say
Circle trips are not permitted. For example, you cannot fly from San Francisco to Hong Kong, to Auckland and back to San Francisco.
They don’t tell you what a circle trip is. It’s one of those ‘you know it when you see it’ concepts. It’s a triangle trip with a stopover.
For illustrative purposes using United’s domestic hubs, a strip from San Francisco to Houston (stop) to Washington Dulles (stop) and back to San Francisco on a non-stop would be a circle trip.
(Let’s leave aside for a moment that stopovers aren’t permitted on United’s domestic award tickets, this is simply to show you what a circle trip looks like.)
Now let’s look at United’s example of what you cannot do: San Francisco to Hong Kong to Auckland and back to San Francisco.
This is important because New Zealand is one of the toughest frequent flyer awards that there is. Frequently it’s necessary to fly via Asia to get there on points, especially during the high season of the Northern winter.
And I’ve gotten United’s website to give me precisely the award that the rules use as an example of what isn’t permitted. Because remember that United doesn’t actually use the ‘maximum permitted mileage’ concept anymore. You can connect via Asia enroute to Australia and to New Zealand. And Hong Kong becomes simply an allowable enroute stopover.
Except that it only works sometimes.
The way to understand this is that much of the award programming is done as hacks and workarounds.
When Continental joined Star Alliance, they started dealing with international first class for the first time. And United even flew 3-cabin planes domestically. This was a challenge for SHARES and the way this was all scripted. Turns out the workarounds weren’t done properly. Any time I would book an international business class award with a domestic segment in coach on a 3-cabin aircraft, the ticket would price as a 3-cabin first class award. Apparently I was the first to report this to anyone who could do anything about it. The agents would insist it’s what the computer says and that determines the price. But I reached out to someone in authority who managed to get the computer programming fixed within a day or two.
The system is a mishmash of hacks and fixes, not the careful, systematic application of rules.
It validates some things, not others, and doesn’t always do it properly. The agents aren’t relied upon to work through a checklist, “Is the routing within the maximum permitted mileage? Does is follow other rules we’ve laid out?”
This can be frustrating for someone who books awards as a profession, because you can’t ever know exactly what you’ll be able to book successfully until you try to do it. Your plain vanilla stuff will most of the time work although sometimes I come across glitches like the 3-cabin domestic flight pricing problem, or an inability to price an award that included European Star Alliance member Blue1 in combination with certain other carriers.
When you run up against something that you’re ‘pretty sure’ (which is all you can ever be here) should work, you cannot just explain to the agent why you are right, or refer them to the location of a set of rules they can consult. Frontline agents are at the mercy of their computers, and can’t simply override them. Getting to someone who can is an enormous challenge at the Continental era of United (as it was with Continental before that).
While it may be frustrating for MileValue, and for me, I actually like it and wouldn’t change a thing Because what this ultimately means is that you can ‘get away with’ a lot more routing-wise using United than you can with pretty much any other airline’s awards. So I’m not looking for them to ‘fix’ this and no doubt it’s pretty low on their priority of things to accomplish anyway.
Sometimes things price more expensively than they should, things won’t price at all, but you can also get awards and routings that no one else will allow.
And the routing rules that are official are generous. One-way awards at half the price of roundtrip. A stopover and an open jaw on a roundtrip award. Relatively circuitous routings because of no validation of maximum permitted mileage. No requirement to travel on routings which match published fares. An ability to change awards even after departure.
So sometimes craziness, well, it’s just not something to complain about.