Frequent-flyer seats sparse

This item appears on page 25 of the December 2008 issue.
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We redeemed 120,000 Chase Flexible Rewards points for 100,000 frequent-flyer miles on United Airlines recently. Since 100,000 miles per year was the limit for any one frequent-flyer number, we put 50,000 on my wife’s number and 50,000 on mine.

I was a bit concerned about executing this conversion process online, but it went very smoothly and the miles showed up on our frequent-flyer accounts less than 48 hours later. I was much less concerned about using the 50,000 miles each for round-trip flights between Chicago and Munich, since we would be making our reservations nearly a year in advance, in fact only a few days after United’s earliest allowable date.

All went well on Aug. 16, 2008, with my online reservation for June 19, 2009. However, the same flight to Munich did not even show up on the screen when I tried to make my wife’s reservation.

Calling United’s Mileage Plus customer service seemed to be the only option at that point. After listening to all the auto-voice options and deciding that none applied to my situation, I reached an agent after punching “0” three successive times. (In truth, two punches might have worked, but one punch brought only an “I do not understand” auto-response.)

The agent cheerfully pointed out that there were no more frequent-flyer seats on that flight. That came as quite a surprise, since the rear cabin was nearly vacant when I selected my seat.

Since we were coordinating our flights with our kids and grandkids in Minneapolis, changing dates was not an option. Fortunately, there was a solution that involved leaving Chicago two hours earlier, with a corresponding extra wait at Washington-Dulles. (The nonstop overseas flight was not an option for frequent-flyer travelers.)

The agent was kind enough to change my flight without charge so that I was then able to make my wife’s reservation online. Although somewhat inconvenienced, we now are scheduled to be on the same plane, sitting next to each other for the entire trip.

If I had put all 100,000 miles on one frequent-flyer number, only the flights that allowed two travelers would have shown up in the first place. However, I did not want to close out my options for additional Rewards point conversions to United frequent-flyer miles.

Although this story basically has a happy ending (not counting the auto-response frustrations), travelers need to be aware that if they try to schedule frequent-flyer flights in tandem, the second flight will not necessarily be available. The fact that it was not available for an overseas flight with United nearly a year off is an indication of how sparse the frequent-flyer seating may be for other flights and other airlines as well.

Perhaps a free cash-back charge card coupled with a separate savings account for airline travel is indeed the way to go.

DANIEL M. MITCHELL
Cedar Rapids, IA

ITN sent a copy of the above letter to United Airlines and received the following reply.

I have reviewed the concern of Mr. Mitchell and understand that he is disappointed with the award travel availabilities. We recognize how important it is for our Mileage Plus members to be able to redeem their miles for award travel, as it is a reward for their loyalty towards United.

Please know that our inventory Management Team speculates and releases seats for award travel close to any particular date. Numbers of seats are released based on several factors, like date and time of travel, customers’ demand, pricing of our competitors, etc.

While we designate a fair percentage of our seats for award use, there are times when requests for award seats are unusually high, especially to popular destinations or during prime travel times.

Since award seats are subject to availability, during these times passengers may want to consider alternative flights, dates, connecting flights versus nonstop flights, or traveling with a partner airline to obtain a Saver award reservation… or to consider the Standard award option for additional miles, which confirms a revenue seat and the itinerary they want.

To help search for possible Saver award alternatives, our voice-recognition system operates seven days a week. Call 888/467-0507 and select “option one” for “award travel finder.”

After passengers have ticketed their alternate award, they may want to waitlist their preferred Saver itinerary. If other guests cancel their Mileage Plus reservations or if we are able to allocate additional seats for Saver award use, we confirm those on the waitlist.

Further, we apologize for the inconvenience that Mr. Mitchell experienced while calling our Reservations Agents. We respect that our guests have varied travel needs yet all want hassle-free and easy travel experiences. I’ve shared his feedback with our team that handles the voice-recognition service to help them identify ways to make this product work better for our passengers in the future.

AMITABH KUMAR, Customer Relations, United, Box 66100, Chicago, IL 60666

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

We redeemed 120,000 Chase Flexible Rewards points for 100,000 frequent-flyer miles on United Airlines recently. Since 100,000 miles per year was the limit for any one frequent-flyer number, we put 50,000 on my wife’s number and 50,000 on mine.

I was a bit concerned about executing this conversion process online, but it went very smoothly and the miles showed up on our frequent-flyer accounts less than 48 hours later. I was much less concerned about using the 50,000 miles each for round-trip flights between Chicago and Munich, since we would be making our reservations nearly a year in advance, in fact only a few days after United’s earliest allowable date.

All went well on Aug. 16, 2008, with my online reservation for June 19, 2009. However, the same flight to Munich did not even show up on the screen when I tried to make my wife’s reservation.

Calling United’s Mileage Plus customer service seemed to be the only option at that point. After listening to all the auto-voice options and deciding that none applied to my situation, I reached an agent after punching “0” three successive times. (In truth, two punches might have worked, but one punch brought only an “I do not understand” auto-response.)

The agent cheerfully pointed out that there were no more frequent-flyer seats on that flight. That came as quite a surprise, since the rear cabin was nearly vacant when I selected my seat.

Since we were coordinating our flights with our kids and grandkids in Minneapolis, changing dates was not an option. Fortunately, there was a solution that involved leaving Chicago two hours earlier, with a corresponding extra wait at Washington-Dulles. (The nonstop overseas flight was not an option for frequent-flyer travelers.)

The agent was kind enough to change my flight without charge so that I was then able to make my wife’s reservation online. Although somewhat inconvenienced, we now are scheduled to be on the same plane, sitting next to each other for the entire trip.

If I had put all 100,000 miles on one frequent-flyer number, only the flights that allowed two travelers would have shown up in the first place. However, I did not want to close out my options for additional Rewards point conversions to United frequent-flyer miles.

Although this story basically has a happy ending (not counting the auto-response frustrations), travelers need to be aware that if they try to schedule frequent-flyer flights in tandem, the second flight will not necessarily be available. The fact that it was not available for an overseas flight with United nearly a year off is an indication of how sparse the frequent-flyer seating may be for other flights and other airlines as well.

Perhaps a free cash-back charge card coupled with a separate savings account for airline travel is indeed the way to go.

DANIEL M. MITCHELL
Cedar Rapids, IA

ITN sent a copy of the above letter to United Airlines and received the following reply.

I have reviewed the concern of Mr. Mitchell and understand that he is disappointed with the award travel availabilities. We recognize how important it is for our Mileage Plus members to be able to redeem their miles for award travel, as it is a reward for their loyalty towards United.

Please know that our inventory Management Team speculates and releases seats for award travel close to any particular date. Numbers of seats are released based on several factors, like date and time of travel, customers’ demand, pricing of our competitors, etc.

While we designate a fair percentage of our seats for award use, there are times when requests for award seats are unusually high, especially to popular destinations or during prime travel times.

Since award seats are subject to availability, during these times passengers may want to consider alternative flights, dates, connecting flights versus nonstop flights, or traveling with a partner airline to obtain a Saver award reservation… or to consider the Standard award option for additional miles, which confirms a revenue seat and the itinerary they want.

To help search for possible Saver award alternatives, our voice-recognition system operates seven days a week. Call 888/467-0507 and select “option one” for “award travel finder.”

After passengers have ticketed their alternate award, they may want to waitlist their preferred Saver itinerary. If other guests cancel their Mileage Plus reservations or if we are able to allocate additional seats for Saver award use, we confirm those on the waitlist.

Further, we apologize for the inconvenience that Mr. Mitchell experienced while calling our Reservations Agents. We respect that our guests have varied travel needs yet all want hassle-free and easy travel experiences. I’ve shared his feedback with our team that handles the voice-recognition service to help them identify ways to make this product work better for our passengers in the future.

AMITABH KUMAR, Customer Relations, United, Box 66100, Chicago, IL 60666