When award tickets get too complicated even for me…

Through my award booking service (and my personal travel) I’ve booked hundreds of millions of miles worth of award tickets. Despite that I learn something new all the time and frequently deal with challenges I’ve never dealt before that leave me shaking my head. After all, we are dealing with the airlines, and without a good bit of [email protected]#$%ery, would they really be the companies we love oh-so-much?

But I’m facing an issue on an award ticket right now that I’ve never faced before. And the funny thing is that the entire situation got to where it is because an airline was actually being proactive, which I supposed they should be commended for… kind of. Let me explain.

I have a couple booked to Europe over the summer in business class, and their return is from Nice to Vienna to Chicago to Savannah. The catch is that one passenger booked through United and one through Aeroplan (Air Canada’s spun off loyalty program). I do this frequently for people that have diversified miles, since sometimes they won’t have enough miles in a single program for two awards, but fortunately many programs have similar partners.

This was booked months ago and everything was fine. Fast forward to last week where I get a “what the heck, dude?” type email, because the wife (booked through United) still showed the same itinerary, while the husband (booked through Aeroplan) showed a return routed Nice to Munich to Charlotte to Savannah.

My first reaction, naturally, was “hmm, how drunk was I the night I booked that ticket?” Okay, not really. But I’ve never just miraculously seen the routing and airlines change, especially when partner airlines are involved. I called up Aeroplan, they opened up a case, and I got a call back the next day.

As it turns out the Chicago to Savannah flight had a schedule change, and now leaves about four hours earlier than originally scheduled. It was supposed to be about a five hour layover, but instead turned into a 42 minute layover, which clearly isn’t legal for an international to domestic connection. So Aeroplan proactively booked him on a completely different routing and he wasn’t actually informed of this. The catch is that meanwhile the wife is still booked on the original routing with a 42 minute connection, and United hasn’t contacted here.

Now I’ve written before about alliance liaisons, and basically how they’re able to help when situations involving multiple airlines in an alliance get “sticky.” But this situation just got stickier than the bathroom of a Bangkok nightclub, and the options are fairly limited.

On one hand I’m impressed by Aeroplan. Amazingly enough they found award space on Lufthansa (I’m shocked it was available in the peak of summer), but at the same time I don’t think they should have assumed the passenger would be willing to switch to Lufthansa, given that Austrian and Lufthansa have completely different business class products. And the problem is that once they “released” the Austrian seats to instead pick up the Lufthansa ones, the Austrian seats disappeared.

Meanwhile Chicago to Savannah would have been available the next morning, so in the end we would have just kept the itinerary the same and only changed Chicago to Savannah to the next morning. But now we have a situation where there’s no more award space on either routing, so the husband and wife are separated.

So in this case what could a Star Alliance liaison do? Here are a few general thoughts about how this works:

  • Usually the airline through which you booked would be able to open up award space on their own flights (for example, if you book an award through United and a schedule change puts you in a situation where there are no alternatives, United will almost always open up award space on their own flights… but only if you booked through them). The catch is that since Aeroplan is a spun off loyalty program they don’t really have the ability to open up Air Canada award space, and for that matter since one ticket is booked through United, that still wouldn’t help get both passengers on the same itinerary.
  • There’s no way to get from Nice to Savannah on a single Star Alliance airline. So even if a liaison were able to open up award space (which requires putting in a request with a single airline at a time), this would still be booked on more than one carrier, so it would be more difficult than a request with a single carier. And not only would this require travel on two airlines, but we’re ticketing through two airlines as well.
  • We could try to find a different routing altogether that has award space for two passengers. This would be the ideal scenario given that we’re ticketing through two carriers, and getting a change fee waiver would of course be easy.

Anyway, in the hundreds of millions of miles of award tickets I’ve booked, this is the most complicated schedule change I’ve had to deal with. So while I think Aeroplan had the right intentions with rebooking the passenger on an alternative routing around the same time, I think it was a bit presumptuous, and for that matter I’ve never seen an airline do that before.

So how am I hoping to solve this? I think there are only two routes we can go:

  • Have Aeroplan contact their alliance liaison and have them open up the Austrian award space from Nice to Vienna to Chicago again, and then we can add on a Chicago to Savannah segment the next day. Meanwhile on the United ticket (which currently has an illegal connection) we’d just have to switch the Chicago to Savannah segment to the next day.
  • As stated above, find an alternative routing with award space available for two and book them both on it.

So this is certainly an adventure to untangle…

Filed Under: Advice, Awards
  1. Go with First Option
    Proactive is sometimes good; but the courtesy of informing is better

  2. What a surprise that you haven’t heard anything from United about the change and the newly illegal connection time.

  3. After reading this please elaborate on my situation. I had an award booking through United from ORD-VIE-DXB on Austrain Airlines. It turns out that VIE-DXB segment on Saturday is cancelled so I am automatically booked on the next day’s flight on Sunday giving me a stop for more than 24 hours in VIE while I already have a stop in IST on my return. That has messed up my stay in DXB for one day. Any suggestions from the great great gurus on this forum please?

  4. @ caveman — Sounds like you got a good outcome. If you don’t wane the one night stop have you checked if there’s award availability via another city to Dubai same day?

  5. YOU go find another Award Booking Consultant, pay his fee and let HIM sort it out . This would be a good one to walk away from, but that is just not an option.
    TIP: Save this post, run it again and include the last chapter, AFTER your client’s complete their trip. It will make great reading.

  6. I ran into this identical situation recently with a client, one booked via US Airways, the other via Aeroplan. albeit on a different routing.

    Aeroplan was able to get UA/NZ to open a seat after first changing the flight to AC (w/o collecting the fuel surcharge) after a UA schedule change led to a misconnect in SFO. US, of course, never notified the client about the schedule change.

  7. That’s nice – you offer service “after the sale.” I didn’t get such treatment with a (more minor) change that occurred with a recent award with a certain booker at upgrd.com. For those shopping for booking services – keep that in mind!!

  8. I had a very similar case, although when booking, I had told UA that I was flying with someone on the same itinerary booked through Aeroplan, and they somehow ‘linked’ the reservations. So, when the schedule change happened creating an illegal connection (same issue), I just called UA and they moved both of us. Then, called Aeroplan to ticket the change. Aeroplan grumbled a little, but it worked out.

  9. I’m really not clear on the problem here.

    The Aeroplan ticket sounds like it’s good to go but the United ticket still has an illegal connection. At some point, UA will have to fix that. Since intra-Europe award seats are relatively easy to come by, it shouldn’t be difficult getting the wife to a European gateway. UA then opens up seats on their TATL to that gateway and on the domestic flight to Savannah. Done.

    What am I missing?

  10. @ Arcanum — You’re missing that they’ll be on separate return flights. They’re married and planned to fly together so obviously want to be on the same itinerary.

  11. aeroplan is a nightmare for changes. I am amazed your client actually got an update in advance! Truly amazing! Aeroplan has told me it is my responsibility to monitor award tickets for changes. Give us an update when you are finally able to sort the mess out.

  12. I had a one-way award ticket with United and a layover in YYZ for 23 hrs and 45 mins, then one of the flight changed becoming 24 hrs and 5 mins. Now United let me change to have even longer layover. It’s become a 30’s hours stopover in YYZ.

  13. Interesting story, although the couple may not see it that way. It’s indeed a sticky situation, although it sounds like you and Aeroplan have days or weeks to work on it.

    Recently, for our Star alliance award travel from US to Europe, the first domestic leg was significantly delayed. The UA agent at the gate had to try to rebook it on the spot. Since it’s award travel, in business class, and it involves alliance, the agent spent literally 3 hrs to find alternative tickets. The new itinerary is for next day. One of the legs is with British Airways, which I thought is with Oneworld alliance?

    The lesson I learned here is that for award tickets involving alliance airlines, they may be a lot less flexible than revenue tickets when things go wrong and you have to rebook.

  14. As I’ve said many times in the past once the ticket is issued the airline cannot require that there be award space if a schedule change requires rebooking. They may try, but they are wrong and once you get high enough up, they deal with it.

    Repeat. They cannot require to find a reroute that has award space.

    As for the unilateral change, it depends on the airline. Some bind themselves to informing you of a problem within a specified period of time (United, though they routinely violate their own rules) while others do not. Either way you may that the CoCs will contain language that would entitle the rerouted passenger to reclaim their original TATL booking if that is what you want.

    I’m constantly amazed that even supposed experts do not understand this issue regarding rerouting and the like. Read the contract. Once your ticket is issued there is no difference between the rights of a passenger holding a ticket paid for with miles vs one paid for with miles.

  15. The difference in business class products between OS and LH wouldn’t have any impact on a ticketing carrier’s rebooking decision. Seems Aeroplan did the right thing initially here…but now made complicated by the UA ticket. This is the risk inherent in any booking situation split across different reservations.

  16. I was in similar situation today. ANA cancelled a 787 flight and United got the notification in Feb but they only got around to my ticket this week. But still they called and accommodated on their flight. I have additional tickets on the same flights using US airways miles and until I called them and told them about what united did they were not aware of the flight cancellation. They called ANA to confirm the cancellation and a US airways supervisor had to call united to get us re-booked on that segment. Still UA only gave seats in coach and supposedly put us on wait list for business class while the original ticket was in business class.

    @Lucky I still got couple months to go for the travel, what are my chanced united will clear out J tickets?

  17. @Hobo13 Nice deduction. For a second I thought that could be the case as well seeing Howie’s comment. But I would think Rick is capable of booking that on his own? šŸ™‚

  18. @ ikonos — That’s a toughie. Obviously if you booked through US Airways and ANA canceled their flight, it’s not United’s fault, so it’s up to US Airways to figure that out (though they don’t fly to Asia, so that’s not very useful). They said you’re waitlisted? I haven’t heard of that happening for partner awards. Does it show as such on United’s website?

  19. @lucky Both UA website and US website show that the ticket is in economy. Nothing about wait list except for what I was told by the US Supervisor. Also if NH does reinstate their flights, will I be able to change it back to get it in business?

  20. If you are on split reservations, this is a risk you take. Honorable to try and fix but make sure clients know this upfront as airlines will give little sympathy to keeping people together especially split between programs.

  21. @ ikonos — I’d guess you were being fed a line regarding being waitlisted, though I could be wrong. If the flight is reinstated then I’d suggest you ask them to follow up with a liaison so they can reinstate the award. That shouldn’t be a problem.

  22. The flights were changed without approval. Aoroplan basically gave away the seats that were paid for (Miles or cash, in both cases a currency has changed hands).

    The issue here is that, while they are required to offer you a similar alternative itinerary, they are not required to match that to the other passengers itin. Two bookings, so there are always chances that the parties are split up.

    So while option 1 might be the best one, they are not required to do so. They are required to offer an alternative routing, and they did. Option 2 would be possible, however I would first find out which options United will offer. And then match that up to what Aeroplan can do. Aeroplan might be a bit more flexible, as they have “messed up” changing the itinerary without asking for preferred flights.

  23. With my limited knowledge of this kind of situation, it sounds like Aeroplan did exactly the right thing UNLESS there was some way for them to know that the pax in question was travelling with a companion. That’s something they’d have no way of knowing unless the record were somehow notated — and even then, if the change was processed automatically it wouldn’t have been known.

  24. I just realized I had a problem with upcoming itinerary booked on partners with United miles. My reservation ticketed, but my boyfriend’s didn’t. What are my options? We are traveling over on different days because I have to be there early for work, but we were booked to travel back on the same flight. Only he never got ticketedā€”no email or anything after the confirmation, we’re ticketing your request email. Any suggestions for rectifying this?

  25. @ Anne — How long ago did you ticket and are all the segments in the non-ticket itinerary still there? If so, I’d just try to push it through again.

  26. Unfortunately it was a couple of weeks ago, so the non-ticket itinerary is gone. I just spent a while on the phone with united (had to call a couple of times for a helpful agent) who booked my partner on a different flight, but put us on a “priority waiting list” for a return flight together. The agent said there was plenty of availability on that flight, and as soon as award availability opened up we’d be booked in it. (this flight is a nonstop operated by United; we had been on a partner flight with a stop). I’d never heard of that happening, but does that sound reasonable? Anything else I should do to ensure it goes through? Thanks!

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