We just got an interesting comment on Bill’s great recent post about Booking Etihad Business Class Using American Miles.

MojoMama is trying to go from Los Angeles (LAX) to the Maldives (MLE) in First Class.

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The United States to the Maldives should be 90k miles each way in First Class according to American Airlines’ chart. But she’s getting charged 115k miles:

Trying to book LAX-JFK(stopover)-AUH-MLE in first for August, but it’s pricing at 115,000 miles. Being told AUH-MLE is separate award because it’s not in the same region, which I know is false. Also, was told must route over Pacific via HKG to get to Maldives on one award ticket, which I also know is false. My question is, is LAX-JFK-AUH-MLE a valid routing? It comes up on ITA, but I don’t see it on the Etihad website.

There’s a lot to unpack in this comment because it gets at several of the Five Cardinal Rules of American Airlines Awards.

In the end, as is often the case, American Airlines is trying to charge her the correct amount of miles even though its phone agents are giving tons of misinformation about why the price is what it is.

What are the phone agents getting wrong? Why is Los Angeles to the Maldives 115k American Airlines miles in First Class? How can it be cheaper? What should MojoMama do?

Phone Agent Backfilling

In all the awards I’ve booked for clients of the MileValue Award Booking Service, the most frustrating problem I run into is agent backfilling.

Most agents know very little about their airline’s routing rules. When the computer spits out a price for an award, and you question it, the agent doesn’t know why the price is what it is. Not wanting to admit that, most phone agents will “backfill” a reason that’s made up on the spot.

MojoMama got hit with two backfills that are completely made up and untrue.

1. AUH-MLE is a separate award because Abu Dhabi and Male are in separate regions.

This one is silly. Both Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) and Male (Maldives) are in the Indian Sub-Continent / Middle East region of the American Airlines award chart.

Screen Shot 2014-03-16 at 8.47.05 AM2. She must route via the Pacific and Hong Kong to get the 90k miles each way price.

This is also completely wrong. Here’s the American Airlines award chart between North American and Indian Subcontinent / Middle East.

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Do you see the asterisk next to the prices? Here’s what that means:

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So the agent was 100% wrong with this backfill. Far from having to fly over the Pacific to get the chart’s quoted price, MojoMama has to fly over the Atlantic!

American Airlines has a lot of rules related to which regions you are allowed to transit on your way to other regions that are summarized here: Five Cardinal Rules of American Airlines Awards.

Generally to get to Europe, Middle East, Africa, and India, you can only cross the Atlantic. To get to the rest of Asia and Australia, you can only cross the Pacific.

If MojoMama flew Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Male as the agent recommended, the award would price as two awards: United States to Asia 2 (HKG) and Asia 2 to Middle East / Indian Subcontinent and would cost 97.5k miles one way. A little bit cheaper, but still not the 90k she wants to pay.

Stopover Problem?

Luckily no agents took issue with her stopover in New York. That stopover is fine, since New York is her North American International Gateway City. (Please remember only American Airlines has the North American International Gateway City rule. Other airlines have different stopover rules.)

So What’s the Real Problem?

The real problem with MojoMama’s award is that on American Airlines awards, the region-connecting carrier must publish a fare from your origin to your destination.

In this case, she is flying Etihad from New York to Abu Dhabi, so Etihad is the region connecting carrier. For her award to price as one award, Etihad must publish a fare from Los Angeles to Male.

Etihad does not have to fly from Los Angeles to Male. Publishing a fare is a term of art, and carriers often do it for surprising city pairs. As noted in Five Cardinal Rules of American Airlines Awards, the way to check whether an airline publishes a fare is by using Expert Flyer.

I checked it out, and Etihad does not publish a fare from Los Angeles to Male.

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Because the published-fare rule is violated, the single journey is breaking into two awards: Los Angeles to New York and New York to Male.

New York to Male is 90k miles in First Class. Los Angeles to New York is 25k miles in two-cabin first or 32.5k in three-cabin first.

MojoMama’s Options

MojoMama can fly west in Cathay Pacific First Class to Hong Kong and then connect to Cathay Pacific Business Class to Male. It’s less flying than going east and would only coast 97.5k miles (67.5k to HKG and 30k more to Male.) She could even book HKG-MLE for 25k Avios plus taxes and fuel surcharges instead of 30k American Airlines miles.

MojoMama can fly east and pay the 115k miles. Or she can just book the award from New York and only pay 90k miles in Etihad First Class. Then she could get to New York with an economy award (12,500 American, United, or British Airways miles), with cash, or with Arrival miles.

As a hybrid, she could actually fly to New York and start her westbound Cathay Pacific award from there on the same JFK-HKG flight I flew last month.

Recap

There are Five Cardinal Rules of American Airlines Awards. If your trip planning doesn’t pay close attention to all of them–or you don’t hire the MileValue Award Booking Service–you might be surprised by the final price quoted to you by an American Airlines phone agent for your award.

If you follow up with questions about why that’s the price, the phone agent is likely to give you unhelpful, untrue reasons that make it impossible to pinpoint the real problem. Ignore the backfilling and head back to the Five Cardinal Rules.

 

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