Should passengers on award tickets have lower expecations?

Jared at Online Travel Review asks an interesting question — “as passengers on award tickets, do we have any right to complain about any aspect of our trip, other than getting to our destination safely and on-time?” He basically wonders whether passengers on award tickets, especially in premium cabins, should be complaining about the service, food, etc.

To me the answer is simple: yes! If you’re on an award ticket, you’re entitled to all the same services as someone on a revenue ticket. I’ll take it one step further — it doesn’t matter how you got into a cabin, once you’re there, you should be treated equally well. Now, I have no problem with giving meal priority to an invitation only top tier flyer or thanking them for their loyalty, though on the whole everyone — from a full fare customer to a non-revenue employee — should expect the stated benefits and good service that the airlines promise to deliver.

Not only is this true in theory, but also in practice. I’ve flown dozens of airlines in premium cabins on award tickets. Not once have I felt like I’ve been treated as a “second class” citizen. I’ve always gotten my meal choice and been thanked for my business, so I think the airlines definitely side with me on this. Heck, United even lists award passengers as “full fare” passengers on the manifest, in my experience.

I guess the bigger question here is really why single out award passengers? What about those that upgraded from business class to first class? What about those that booked a cheap $2,000 one-way first class ticket nested out of an Asian city with especially low fares? What about those on cheap round the world first class tickets? And what about differentiating between those that paid out of pocket vs. those that have a company footing their bill? I mean, ultimately I think someone that works for a company with a huge, heavily discounted corporate contract (where they have no control over the airline they fly) has less of a right to complain than a leisure passenger spending money out of pocket to fly a given product. That being said, I think both parties have a right to complain, and equally so.

Lastly, Jared brings up my recent post about Singapore’s arrogance about premium cabin awards on Singapore Airlines:

Do we have a right to complain if an airline doesn’t make “enough” seats available for reward travel (at least at the base redemption level)? Not to call out Lucky (who, I can’t say enough, is pretty brilliant about this whole thing), but he did say a couple of weeks ago that he found Singapore Airlines to be “arrogant” for blocking award redemption on SkySuites on their A380s. Is that arrogance?

It’s actually not necessarily the SkySuites that I have a problem with, but more business class. Singapore Airlines has had a policy of not offering award redemptions on aircraft featuring the new product. I can live with airlines being very stingy, offering maybe one seat per flight, but my issue with Singapore is that they don’t release any award seats to Star Alliance partners on those aircraft, which now comprise a majority of their longhaul fleet. At what point is a “new” product not new anymore? Singapore voluntarily joined the Star Alliance, allowing members to earn and redeem miles on more airlines. They’re definitely not being very friendly on the redemption side. I do happen to think it’s very arrogant of an airline to never release award seats, especially when there are plenty of business class products out there that are just as good. It says to me “we’re too good to allow award passengers in our cabin” and “we don’t belong to no stinkin’ alliance.” Neither should be the case.

That being said, I’ll be enjoying my Singapore Airlines A380 business class flight from Los Angeles to Singapore via Tokyo come May.

Filed Under: Advice, Media
  1. especially when airlines are actively seeking to sell their miles, but I think there lies the problem, If you bought miles from US air in one of their ridiculous promos, then that’s fine, but what about people who get awards seats solely based on credit card points or other sources, are they still a “customer” of the airline.

  2. Re SQ not releasing business seats for award travel, i quite agree. Its pretty annoying – one has to wonder if SQ are ever planning to change their current policy.

  3. @Sam – The airline mileage programs sell the miles to the banks, so the airlines are generating revenue from your credit card issuers, who in-turn are making money off of your transaction fees. In addition, when one redeems an award ticket with an alliance partner, the alliance partner is selling the seat to your mileage program, so they are making money also. Everyone makes money in the transaction, so no need to be shy about expecting good service on an award ticket.

  4. I could be wrong, but it was my understanding that the full F, C & Y standard awards would only show “full fare” on the manifest, not the XF, XC, XY/NY saver awards. In any case, my opinion is NO, we shouldn’t be treated any differently when traveling on an award. Yes, there are many who earn oodles of mileage and not even fly (myself included), but if we redeemed mileage in our account, we “paid” for the seat in the cabin. Case closed. I certainly have no guilt in the matter, as it is often so difficult even getting award space in the premium cabins anyhow.

  5. I’ve said it too many times before, but I really think that blocking for cross-alliance awards is going to continue, and most likely in premium classes.

    Even if SQ were to release some awards in J class on new aircraft, I can bet there would be a ton of complaints that “there aren’t enough” or what not. Maybe they are doing this and they just disappear too quickly. Beats me.

    It doesn’t help with all these weird promos and what not of racking up stacks of points which end up purchasing some premium awards for 25% of the cash price. During SMD1, LH alluded to this and was very concerned that there were other members of the alliance (or even LH flyers in other alliance programs) who would be able to claim award seats faster than some SEN or HON members, who are most entitled to them. (You must concede that it is only fair that the members of a carrier’s FFP should have the best selection of award seats before other members of the alliance). In my opinion, it is especially unfair when not-so-loyal members (e.g. those that just signed up for US Dividend Miles to purchase lots of miles) are able to wrest seats off loyal members (who may not indulge in such purchasing tactics). You can argue that it’s “first come first served” and “it doesn’t / shouldn’t matter how you got / get the seat”, but a plethora of complaints from loyal FFP members are written like this.

    In the end, it’s more revenue management (stingy as it may be) and not “we’re not good enough to allow award pax” but rather “we’re not good enough to allow *other* alliance award pax on *premium* inventory”. Try redeeming for a SQ Y award. No problem? Of course not. As far as the “terms” of the alliance goes, one is allowed to redeem for seats on another alliance carrier and that’s all it says in print. No one said anything about how much premium inventory you could gain access to (whether it be nil or plenty). At least, that’s how I see SQ loopholing themselves out of this one (and now LH w.r.t. only allowing A380 F inventory to be booked by SENs and HONs).

  6. Flying on award ticket definitely entitles you to the same expectations – if you have an award, you must have some sort of loyalty to the airline or have earned them some money otherwise anyway (ie. credit cards). A few years ago, when I was flying JAL, I almost missed my flight – but at the check-in counter the agent told me not to worry. He upgraded me so I could cut through the security line (I did not have status there), and also told me that had I missed my flight, they would’ve put me in a hotel and found me a seat on the next flight. He reasoned that if I was traveling on an award, that must mean that I had already flown JAL more frequently than several other passengers in the plane (JAL’s mileage used to expire every 3 years regardless of travel), and therefore deserved equal or better treatment, it seems.

  7. anat0l
    you wrote “that and now LH w.r.t. only allowing A380 F inventory to be booked by SENs and HONs.”

    Star Alliance rules specifically state that alliance airlines must make their entire available award inventory available for all alliance ff customers. LH, for example, can’t restrict their F cabin awards only to LH freq flier awards. That does not prevent or preclude Star Blocking, the practice that lucky writes harshly about, though.

  8. @John

    Then how does SQ get away with not releasing any J inventory on their A380s, i guess they can make the argument that Suite’s Class is a whole new class of service and not F, but how do they get away with business class blocking if such a practice is prohibited by the star alliance?

  9. NIce response…It’s interesting, though, that you “have no problem with giving meal priority to an invitation only top tier flyer.” Isn’t that differentiating? I don’t think airlines should treat award travelers worse. But then again, is that really a crazy idea? They differentiate passengers by what they paid in lots of other ways. Would it be nutty for them to differentiate by whether you’re on an award ticket? (I also know that in some cases they could make more from an award redemption than from a revenue ticket – those $200 r/t flights you buy TPA-SFO with 5 stops are less valuable than someone who received 25k miles via a credit card partner – who bought those miles – and redeemed a ticket).

    But why is it arrogant for them not to make the seats available? Isn’t that a business decision? If it’s so bad, why doesn’t Star kick them out? (yeah right) 🙂

  10. Ironically enough, on UA if you are on a saver intl business award (XC) you get access to the arrivals lounge, while upgraders (please keep in mind on UA Y-C upgrades require a higher fare class plus a SWU or miles plus a hefty co-pay if ina lower fare bucket) do not, fwiw

  11. Lucky wrote: “I mean, ultimately I think someone that works for a company with a huge, heavily discounted corporate contract (where they have no control over the airline they fly) has less of a right to complain than a leisure passenger spending money out of pocket to fly a given product. That being said, I think both parties have a right to complain, and equally so.”

    FYI, you contradict yourself here. First you say the company guy has less of a right to complain, and then you say both have an equal right to complain.

  12. I agree. No matter how you got there you should be treated to all that that class has to offer.

    On SQ..had the opportunity to fly them on 6 legs his fall. The experience was so poor I don’t need to fly the again…in any class. 🙂

    Happy Holidays!

  13. @ Jared — Fair enough, it is differentiating to give meal priorities to a top tier elite. My point was that everyone should expect great service and the advertised offerings. In other words, everyone has a right to complain if their food sucks. However, beyond the promised, advertised, and expected benefits of flying in a premium cabin, I have no problem with flight attendants doing a little something extra for a top tier flyer.

    As far as your claim that they differentiate passengers based on what they pay — do they really? Many airlines don’t even note it on the manifest, and of those that do, it’s typically simply a function of whether someone is a revenue, award, or upgraded passenger. I mean, they don’t differentiate between those that flew “full fare” and those that flew “full fare” with a 40% corporate discount. Similarly, in coach you can have two people sitting next to each other, with one person having paid ten times what the person next to them did. Do they get any extra benefits? Nope.

    On the “arrogance” front, arrogance is defined as “having or showing an exaggerated opinion of one’s own importance, merit, ability.” There’s no doubt that not releasing award seats is a business decision, though I don’t think anyone can definitively say whether it’s a good one or bad one. I’m simply pointing out that Singapore has *FAR* from a 100% load factor in business class on the A380, yet they think so highly of themselves to the point that they don’t want any award passnegers in their business class product. Compare that to Lufthansa, which is incredibly generous with first class award tickets. I assume they release so many first class award seats because it’s a good decision, and not because they’re nice.

    But I do assume that airlines are compensated for award seats above the marginal cost of carrying a passenger (which is very, very low). If so, it seems like a no brainer to me to release some award seats, at least last minute. I’m not suggesting they fill premium cabins with award passengers, but a seat here or there based on historical load factor trends wouldn’t kill anyone. And I think that releasing award seats makes customers more loyal, and not less.

    @ mangoMan — Fair enough, didn’t express that properly. My point was simply that I think everyone has an equal right to expect the advertised service. The other statement was just to try to counter a misconception. People think the business traveler has the ultimate right to judge, while the award traveler has no right, where one could reason that it’s actually flipped — the passenger on an award flight often has much more control over their airline selection than a business traveler that benefits from a corporate contract.

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