Failing to Make Awards Available During Low Demand Periods May Be Illegal

In December 1994 the Department of Transportation sent a letter to US airlines (.pdf). It said that failure to make award seats available to customers could be a prohibited deceptive practice.

The Department’s deceptive practices prohibitions preclude airlines from imposing unreasonable capacity restrictions and/or unannounced blackout dates for the use of frequent flyer awards.To the extent airlines offer their frequent flyers awards for service to destinations, that traditionally are subject to high consumer demand, they must include in their promotional materials adequate disclosure that seats are limited—at times severely—and may not be available on every flight, if in fact that is the case.

The Department understood that frequent flyer awards might not be available on high demand routes at peak demand times, and if that’s the case programs needed to provide adequate disclosure of that fact.

They never even thought to address airlines which failed to make award seats available on a route ever.

Of course the DOT’s Inspector General found that the department improperly ignores consumer complaints regarding frequent flyer programs.

So while the Supreme Court said that consumers can’t raise state court claims against frequent flyer programs that’s ok because consumers have the DOT, the DOT says consumers don’t actually have the DOT.

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, 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. So, what, in your position, have you attempted to do to change/fix this other than whine about it?

  2. When the large airlines are ready to provide FF seats on these types of routes, they will let DOT know, and presto, it will happen. One other xfactor is in play here… The big banks. Since the quickest way to a lit of miles is a credit card sign up bonus, the banks may have some input here. Of course, airlines love to give empty seats to new credit card customers. That equals a sold seat with about $5 marginal cost for about $50 to $100 annual fee.
    Finally, the newer low cost carriers lose those sales because they don’t have good credit card bonuses.
    I could elaborate about legal scenarios, and future court rulings forcing DOT to back down, while the airlines and banks keep those CC customers for years after they win a legal victory.
    Individuals have no effective voice even though we paid, through taxes and airfares, for the airport that some can barely afford to use. Kind of like sports arrenas with lots of $100 million dollar employees and $1billion owners.

  3. Why don’t they open those seats though. Do they secretly just want those miles to sit in your account and devalue? Is it because they don’t want you to connect to your long haul intl flight on a partner airline, so it’s not their problem when you misconnect? Would they rather give the seats to the their legions of nonrevs?

  4. >So, what, in your position, have you attempted to do to change/fix this other than whine about it?

    Ron, what action have YOU taken? You need to show your own action creds before whining about what others have or haven’t done.

  5. What should be illegal is phantom availability. I decide to collect points and plan trips based on what airlines advertise as save seats, only to find that when I select that flight that shows as available an error message appears that the flight is no longer available. I go back and search again and it still shows as available. I have seen a lot of phantom availability with Alaska partner awards and British Airways awarda, but often on AA and others.

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