Reader Christian asked the following question on the “Ask Lucky” page of the blog:
Have you done a post on which airlines are most generous with releasing of last-minute award space, versus the ones that there’s no hope for? If not, might I ask for you to consider it?
I figured it would be fun to start by talking about some airlines that are great about releasing last minute first class award space, and some airlines that suck at releasing last minute first class award space.
Lufthansa first class, which is readily available last minute
Why airlines release last minute award space
First lets briefly talk about the theory behind last minute award space. Ultimately inventory management is a delicate balancing act for the airlines. When it comes to award space, they want to release enough award space for members to stay engaged (though perhaps the desire to do that lies more with the loyalty program as such as opposed to inventory management), but at the same time don’t want to cannibalize ticket sales whenever possible.
In other words, generally they’ll try to release award space when they think they otherwise couldn’t sell those seats. Ideally they’re also trying to avoid having business travelers redeem miles rather than pay for premium cabins, but that’s a tougher balancing act.
Anyway, from the perspective of the airlines, the best time to release award space should be last minute. That’s because last minute they can predict with near certainty whether seats would otherwise be sold or not.
In other words, would you rather release an award seat a year out when you can’t predict with high certainty how full a 6-14 seat premium cabin will be, or just a day or two before departure, when you can pretty accurately predict a load?
With that in mind, I figured I’d share some airlines that are great about releasing last minute award space, and some airlines that aren’t. Keep in mind that this is somewhat different than a discussion of overall volume of award space over the course of a year. Some of the airlines that are great about releasing last minute award space suck at releasing it in advance, and (oddly) some airlines that are great about releasing award space in advance suck at releasing it close to departure.
With that in mind:
Last minute first class award space: the good
Lufthansa is the poster child for releasing last minute first class award space. Nowadays they only release first class award space to partner airlines at most 15 days in advance, so while that sucks, at least they do so fairly reliably within that timeframe.
One of the primary “skills” I have listed on my resume is being able to predict Lufthansa first class award space with 99% accuracy. No wonder I can’t find a job. 😉
Lufthansa first class trip reports:
- Lufthansa First Class A330 Munich to Washington Dulles
- Lufthansa First Class 747 Vancouver to Frankfurt
- Lufthansa First Class A330 Seattle to Frankfurt
- Lufthansa First Class 747-8 Frankfurt to Miami
- Lufthansa First Class A380 Houston to Frankfurt
Cathay Pacific is still good about releasing last minute first class award space, though it may not be as apparent as in the past. That’s because:
- A vast majority of their longhaul fleet consists of 777s, which have just six first class seats, so there’s not much award space to release (previously they had a couple of dozen 747s, which at least had nine first class seats)
- As the economy has recovered, Cathay Pacific is actually selling more of those first class seats
- Cathay Pacific is waiting until much closer to departure to actually release the space — previously they’d release unsold seats maybe 1-2 weeks out, while now they may only release it a few days out
Still, if you look at award space really close to departure, you’ll see tons of space. For example, tomorrow from San Francisco to Hong Kong I see a total of five first class award seats. They’re releasing all but one first class seat per flight into award availability, as the earlier flight has two seats for sale and later flight has five seats for sale.
Cathay Pacific first class trip reports:
- Cathay Pacific First Class 777-300ER New York to Vancouver
- Cathay Pacific First Class 747 Hong Kong to San Francisco
- Cathay Pacific First Class 777 Chicago to Hong Kong
- Cathay Pacific First Class 777 Hong Kong to San Francisco
- Cathay Pacific First Class 777 San Francisco to Hong Kong
Korean Air deserves an award for their general awesomeness when it comes to releasing award space. It doesn’t matter when it is — far in advance, a few months out, or a few days out — they have a ton of first class award space.
For example, later this week they have three first class award seats per flight between Seoul Incheon and Los Angeles, and that’s not unusual.
That’s one of the reasons I love the Korean Air SkyPass program so much, since not only do they have reasonable award redemption rates, but they’re one of the few programs that has access to this goldmine of award availability.
Korean Air first class trip reports:
- Korean Air First Class A380 Seoul Incheon to Los Angeles
- Korean Air First Class 777 Tokyo Narita to Seoul Incheon
- Korean Air First Class 777-300ER Los Angeles to Sao Paulo
This surprises some people, since it can be really tough to find Japan Airlines first class award space. So it’s probably worth clarifying what I mean here — Japan Airlines is great about releasing first class award space within a few days of departure if there are still seats remaining. I don’t think there’s another airline that consistently has their first class cabins sold weeks in advance like Japan Airlines (with the exception of their Tokyo Narita to Jakarta route).
So assuming there are actually seats left for sale, they’re good about releasing first class award space.
Last minute first class award space: the bad
What’s odd about Singapore Airlines is that they’ve gotten really good at releasing Suites Class award space in advance. They’re now even releasing two Suites Class award seats on some flights from the US, which they didn’t previously do.
Oddly, though, they’re not nearly as generous close to departure. For example, take the below flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo Narita this Friday, which shows “R4,” which is the highest inventory they’ll show for Suites Class. They’re not even releasing award space on that flight at the “full” level, which is 522,000 miles one-way!
Singapore Airlines first class trip reports:
- Singapore Airlines First Class 777 Singapore to Seoul Incheon
- Singapore Airlines First Class 777 Seoul Incheon to San Francisco
- Singapore Airlines Suites Class A380 San Francisco to Hong Kong
- Singapore Airlines Suites Class A380 Hong Kong to Singapore
- Singapore Airlines First Class 777 Singapore to Frankfurt
In advance Air China releases a ton of first class award space, especially between Beijing and Los Angeles.
However, when you look at award space close to departure, you’ll see almost nothing.
So are the flights sold out? Nope, nowhere close to it. Over the coming week I see several flights with all eight first class seats still for sale, yet Air China isn’t releasing award space. Puzzling.
Qantas first class is generally impossible to snag to begin with, so requires a bit of trickery in many instances. People actually pay cold hard cash for first class on Qantas, so it’s not unusual for the cabins to sell out that way.
But even when they don’t, Qantas won’t release any award space. For example, over the coming week I see some dates that are “F9” (the highest inventory it will display, meaning there are at least nine first class award seats still for sale), and there’s no award space.
What makes Qantas first class award space unique is that when you cancel an award, the award space always goes back into inventory. So if you see Qantas award space closer to departure, chances are that it’s there because someone just canceled an award ticket. That’s the only reason it even makes sense to check Qantas award space between the US and Australia, since otherwise you’ll almost never see the space.
Qantas first class trip reports:
- Qantas First Class A380 Singapore to Sydney
- Qantas First Class A380 Melbourne to Singapore
- Qantas First Class A380 Singapore to London
As I wrote about earlier, Malaysia Airlines hardly releases any last minute award space, unfortunately. They now release one first class award seat way in advance, so it’s puzzling that they don’t release anything close to departure, even when the cabin is wide open.
Malaysia Airlines A380 first class
Malaysia Airlines first class trip reports:
- Malaysia Airlines First Class London to Kuala Lumpur
- Malaysia Airlines First Class Kuala Lumpur to London
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Over the years I’ve made plenty of non-refundable hotel reservations without even having flights booked, and that’s because I was relying on first class award space to open up. Some airlines do it so consistently that I’m comfortable doing that, while other airlines don’t. Knowing which airlines release space last minute can be the trick to planning a trip to an awesome destination during peak season.