I’ve redeemed well north of a billion miles for myself and for clients but I still hold my breath every time I go to pull the trigger on an award – especially if it involves transferring points, or making a phone call to an agent. I’m worried that the actual booking will fall apart, because the inventory will disappear in the seconds between making the transfer and grabbing the space, or that the award availability will be phantom (showing available, but not really there).
That’s why I always prefer to put an award on hold before making a transfer, and where that’s not possible I:
- Call the airline, set up the award – telling the agent that the points aren’t in the account yet, but as soon as we set up the reservation I’ll transfer the points
- Then make the transfer with the agent on the phone.
That way, at least, they’ve been able to grab the space before I make the transfer. That’s not a guarantee it’ll ticket, but it’s as close to perfect as you get.
Reader GrumpyToTheLeft, an American Express Executive Platinum and British Airways Gold Guest List member, shares his story in a guest post about phantom award availability and Alaska Airlines and it’s a great reminder as you go about booking your own awards.
The Phantom of Japan – Japan Airlines Award Inventory that Isn’t
Phantom inventory is a plague almost as old as the miles and points game itself. An airline website shows available flights but at some point during the reservation process it turns out that the space is not actually bookable.
This is especially frustrating when miles were transferred to or purchased for a rewards program to make that particular booking. When airline phone representatives confirm inventory only to later realize it does not exist, things become even more annoying.
The Oneworld alliance was notably affected by myriad phantom award space in 2020 when Japan Airlines recoded their first class awards from the commonly used Z fare class to A, which in many instances is used for paid first class inventory. In fact, while other Oneworld airlines adopted more quickly, Alaska Airlines Milage Plan members were unable to make redemptions for JAL first class for much of 2020 and into 2021, due to this fare code change and the time it took Alaska to update their IT. Covid related travel restrictions may have lessened the blow.
It appears the return of tourism to Japan also marks a return of phantom award space. As the below screenshots show, Alaska Airways shows plenty of Japan Airlines first class inventory for travel between the US and Japan in December and January.
American Airlines is impacted by this issue as well, although not nearly as heavily as Alaska. British Airways meanwhile seems immune to phantoms.
A recent experience with Alaska Airlines could have turned into a costly mistake. Needing an additional 80,000 miles, the Grumpies were hoping to make use of Alaska’s current offer to buy miles with a bonus of up to 50%. If interested, act fast, this promotion is only available until December 23.
Importantly, the only way to guarantee instant availability of purchased miles, at least in case of Alaska Airlines, is to make the purchase with an Alaska Milage Plan agent over the phone. The terms and conditions for online miles purchases state that it can take up to 72 hours for miles to become available and points.com customer service indicates that it can take 48 hours. In a recent trial, miles posted instantaneously on one occasion and took almost 48 hours on another.
After two phone agents confirmed availability with one even questioning Mr. Grumpy’s desire to assess inventory beyond front end website content, the Grumpies were ready to pull the trigger, even though neither American Airlines nor British Airways showed this award inventory. Since only Milage Plan agents can process mile purchases, that department’s closure should turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
The following morning plenty of inventory was showing on alaskair.com. Since neither aa.com nor ba.com displayed this award space, confirmation was first sought from Alaska reservations agents over the phone. Again, two different agents confirmed space was definitively available and the second agent transferred the call to a Milage Plan agent to make the purchase. Long hold times, such as the 1-2 hours in this case, paired with Alaska’s stated inability to hold partner award reservations, can complicate the situation further.
When confronted with this conundrum, the Alaska Milage Plan agent indicated that reservations agents can stay on hold with the customer waiting to purchase miles. This seemed helpful and so the call went back to reservations yet again.
There, a third, very experienced agent was aware of the problem and confirmed the fear that the ample award space displayed on alaskair.com was indeed just phantom space. At her suggestion a senior agent handling international partner awards confirmed the lack of availability. Nor Grumpy’s request to escalate the issue to the alliance representative nor a request to long sell changed anything.
There is however a silver lining: The Grumpies were fortunate enough to secure business class award space with Japan Airlines for 60,000 Alaska Airlines miles plus a 19$ copay per person, at least for their upcoming outbound trip.
At 450,000 miles American Airlines’ dynamic award pricing pales in comparison; even without considering the differences in the hard- and soft products of these carriers. While both airlines will get you there, Japan Airlines is widely lauded for offering one of the best business class products in the world.
Learnings/ Take Aways
- Use instant transfer or purchase options for miles or book with Airlines who allow for reservations to be put on hold while miles are procured.
- Crosscheck inventory with award databases of other airlines in the same alliance.
- Search segment by segment.
- Confirm and reconfirm inventory over the phone making sure agents actually “grab” the requisite seats.
Not all currencies transfer instantly, and that creates an even bigger problem when booking awards from accounts where you don’t yet have the points for an award. A classic example is ANA Mileage Club, which is an Amex transfer partner. They have some of the best award values, such as 88,000 miles roundtrip for Star Alliance business class to Europe (with fuel surcharges on many but not all partners). Unfortunately transfers from Amex usually take a couple of days. Real, non-phantom, space can be legitimately gone by then.
But in the case of instant transfers, where award space has been phantom, I’ve had good luck getting points transferred back to a credit card. It’s not supposed to be possible, but it frequently is when it’s legitimately the fault of the partner you moved the points to. Aeroplan has had a specific form an agent fills out, which used to be far more necessary than it is now (there’s not nearly as much Aeroplan phantom availability with partners as there used to be). When you’ve been enticed by phantom availability to make a transfer, for which the program gets paid, that’s a fraudulent inducement and there needs to be a way to solve it.
Fortunately GrumpyToTheLeft got the award he needed despite the challenges of phantom availability.