While booking a family of four to Australia through our popular Award Booking Service, I ran into a vexing problem with Star Alliance award space.
On a certain Air Canada route, Air Canada’s own Aeroplan members had access to more award seats than its Star Alliance partners. That’s not a surprising practice on the surface. Air New Zealand never releases transpacific space to Star Alliance partners. Swiss Airlines restricts first class cabin redemptions to its own members.
The anomaly here is that United also has access to Air Canada premium cabin award space that other Star Alliance partners don’t.
What is the route? How did I discover this? What does this discovery mean for award bookers?
I was eager to book the clients–a family of four from Kansas City–to Australia in a premium cabin. Like a lot of our clients, the parents were were expert mileage accumulators but novice award bookers. They had enough United miles and US Airways Dividend miles for the trip!
I urged them to redeem Dividend miles for their trip. US Airways charges 110k miles/person for a roundtrip business class award from the US to Australia, which is included in its “South Pacific” region on the partner award chart.
In contrast, United charges a whopping 135k/person to fly from the US to Australia and New Zealand in business class. The family of four would have to pay an additional 100k miles to book the same award!
The family wanted to fly into Sydney and out of Melbourne. That’s considered an open-jaw, which both US Airways and United allow on award itineraries. For more information, check out Scott’s post, What is an Open Jaw?
One member of the family had back issues and needed to fly in a seat that reclined to a fully lie-flat position. There are only a handful of Star Alliance options from the West Coast. As mentioned above, Air New Zealand never releases any premium cabin seats on their Los Angeles to Auckland flight.
United flies to Sydney from Los Angeles and San Francisco and is much better about opening up award seats. Their BusinessFirst (business class) and Global First (first class) cabins have fully-lie flat seats. Scott flew their Global First product in January. You can read his rave review here, Antipodean Summer: United Global First from Los Angeles to Syndey. I was able to find secure their flights home in BusinessFirst from Melbourne to Los Angeles using United.com.
For more information on the search process, check out Scott’s post, Free First Class Next Month 4.0: Using United.com to Search for Awards with United or US Airways Miles.
The family was eager to try out other carriers, so I checked to see if Air Canada had space on their Vancouver to Sydney route. Air Canada’s transpacific business class product receives very high marks, so it was worth a shot. As with the previous flight, I used United.com to search Air Canada award space.
To my surprise, I found four seats on the exact dates I was looking for!
Rarely is space available on the exact date you’re looking for to Australia. Since United sometimes displays phantom availability as I detailed in this post, I wanted to make sure this wasn’t a mirage.
As a test, I tried to reserve the four seats using my dummy account. If the award space didn’t exist, I would receive an error message regarding “rapidly changing partner award availability.” To my surprise, I could place the itinerary on hold (using this trick) or ticket with the requisite miles.
Though I searched United.com for award space, the family would be booking the trip with US Airways Dividend miles. I called US Airways at 800-428-4322 to piece together the itinerary and ticket. The agent was able to see the four United award seats from Melbourne to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, she couldn’t see four business class seats from Vancouver to Sydney. The agent insisted only two were available. I politely hung up and began to research more.
I checked Air Canada’s Aeroplan website which also displays Star Alliance award space, including its own seats. The site displayed four business seats on the date in question.
I then took my search to the All Nippon Airways (ANA) site. ANA is the absolute best site to confirm Star Alliance partner availability. I wrote a detailed post on how to verify space earlier this year. My search sadly confirmed my fears. Not all partners had access to the space. Star Alliance partners, other than United, only had access to two business class seats.
My four seat search yielded the dreaded grey “X” which meant there weren’t four award seats available to partners.
I ran the same search for just two award seats on the same flight and ANA confirmed the space just like the US Airways phone agent.
My fears were confirmed: US Airways agents did not have access to the same Air Canada award space as United and Air Canada members. Undeterred, I found them space from Los Angeles to Sydney on the same BusinessFirst product as their inbound flight and ticketed the award on their behalf. The story has a happy ending after all.
Where Can I Get the Miles to Construct an Award to Australia?
The best place to start for US Airways miles is the US Airways Premier World MasterCard® with 30,000 US Airways miles after first purchase.
If you already have that card, you can get the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card from American Express with 25,000 bonus Starpoints after spending $5k in six months. Starpoints transfer 1:1 to US Airways miles with a 5,000 mile bonus for every 20,000 Starpoints transferred.
US Airways charges 110k for a business class award to Australia. That’s an absolute steal in comparison to United, which charges 135k for a roundtrip business class itinerary to Australia.
On Air Canada’s Vancouver to Sydney flight, Air Canada will sometimes release four business class award seats on each flight. That’s an award booker’s dream, but that space isn’t accessible to all Star Alliance partners. Four seats can be booked using United miles or Aeroplan miles. Only two seats are available to other partners, including All Nippon Airways and US Airways members.
Phantom availability occurs when United.com displays Star Alliance award space that doesn’t actually exists. This is a different problem. Strangely, the space was only bookable to certain Star Alliance partners, but not all.
The Vancouver to Sydney flight is the only example I have encountered with this problem. Always verify award space using the All Nippon Airways tool before calling an airline, and realize that Star Alliance space isn’t equitably divided among partners.