I was emailing yesterday with Ben and after discussing something on a completely different topic, and mentioned I needed to write about the addition of a new footnote in the US Airways award chart. He replied, “was *just* writing it as you emailed. Hah!”

Of course Ben is a professional blogger and got his thoughts up right away.

I, on the other hand, had my first day in a new office. I have been overseeing the construction and permitting (egads, it involved getting a County re-zoning), which all completed last week — just in time for move-in. So things were a little bit chaotic. And I’m about 16 hours behind.

US Airways Updates Their Award Chart to Say Lufthansa First Class is Not Offered

The US Airways partner award chart (.pdf) has been updated to add a new ‘note’ at the bottom.

Here are the ‘exceptions’ to the charts in the notes, with the first (bolded) one being brand new.

1.) Beginning January 1, 2013, award redemption in Lufthansa first class cabin is unavailable
2.) Award redemption on the Singapore Airlines Suites, First Class and Business Class cabin products on the A380, B777-300ER and A340-500 aircraft is currently unavailable
3.) Award redemption on Hawaiian Airlines is available on inter-island and South Pacific flights only
4.) Award redemption on Qatar Airways and Royal Jordanian is temporarily unavailable
5.) Award redemption on Virgin Atlantic is only available in economy class
6.) Excludes Hawaii
7.) North Asia includes China, Hong Kong, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Macau, Mongolia, South Korea, Taiwan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan
8.) South & Central Asia includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, Chagos, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam

What the Other Restrictions Mean

Before we talk about the new note on Lufthansa first class, let’s look at the others briefly.

Singapore Airlines premium cabin awards on their A380, 77W, and A340-500 aircraft ‘is currently unavailable’ really says little about the US Airways program and just describes that Singapore Airlines really doesn’t offer these awards in a meaningful way to their partners.

I haven’t tried recently (since the note was added) to find a flight where a business class seat on the Boeing 777-300ER opens up at the last minute to partners to see whether US Airways could grab the seat.

But most US Airways redemptions aren’t done last minute, and since no changes can be made to a US Airways award after first flight departs, you pretty much wouldn’t be able to grab a Singapore Airlines return unless your award was booked as an immediate turnaround in any case. No big deal.

Hawaiian awards were only ever offered for intra-island flights, and that’s an important clarification. I don’t know why US Airways never offered redemption for Virgin Upper Class, but it simply wasn’t a feature of the program. They’re just describing what they offer in a footnote.

The notes about the definition of North Asia and of South and Central Asia are important, because there’s often confusion about these regions — not least of which among US Airways agents.

Frequently agents will price an award based on the first city you stop in, so if you do a stopover in Hong Kong on the way to Thailand you can get them to price the award as North Asia rather than South Asia. Or if you go to Thailand first you might be able to say “I’m going to make a stopover on the way to Seoul” and they’ll price it as a Seoul award (North Asia) because you’ve said that is your destination.

The definitions of these zones has changed a few times on their award chart as well, with Thailand occasionally popping up in North Asia in the notes in the past. It does seem odd to me that they define North and South Asia but not other regions in the chart.

And “[a]ward redemption on Qatar Airways and Royal Jordanian” has been “temporarily unavailable” for years. So I guess this all depends on the definition of ‘temporary’. But I actually think this may help shed a little bit of light on the new note about Lufthansa first class.

Lufthansa First Class Has Been Mostly Unavailable for Two Years

US Airways has had ‘issues’ with redeeming miles for Lufthansa first class for more than two years.

At first this was limited to Lufthansa’s transatlantic first class space. The seats would be offered by Lufthansa to its partners, but US Airways agents wouldn’t ‘see’ that space.

I had the opportunity to ask two top Dividend Miles executives (who are no longer with the company) about it at the time. The speculation was the US Airways had implemented a ‘blocking’ regime similar to what United used to do, hide award inventory when they didn’t want to pay for the seats. This made sense since United had done it, the space was widely available and likely expensive, and US Airways was making a business out of selling miles cheaply.

Another theory was that Lufthansa was actually blocking US Airways from booking their first class seats, precisely because US Airways was selling their miles so cheaply and taking up so many of the seats (eponymous coward coined the phrase that US Airways was the ‘official consolidator’ of Star Alliance premium cabin inventory).

These US Airways executives at the time were quite definitive, telling me that they had not implemented intentional blocking but that they also didn’t exactly know what the problem was which was keeping them from booking the inventory.

Commenter Sean M. at the time speculated that it was an ‘AVS sync’ issue, which seemed plausible, TAM had something similar when they joined Star Alliance. Their process of correcting this ‘live’ brought down the whole system. Doing it off-line would have meant that for a time they would be showing inventory that may or may not actually be there. It’s a cumbersome and complicated problem to fix.

I was pretty sure Lufthansa wasn’t doing the blocking, since when US Airways agents would ‘long’ or ‘manual’ sell the award seats (basically entering the flight details and requesting confirmation of space), those seats would come back from Lufthansa as confirmed. So US Airways could book the seats, they just didn’t appear available and bookable when the agents searched.

US Airways Had Little Incentive to Fix the Problem

While I was pretty convinced that US Airways wasn’t doing intentional blocking (the comment at the time was revealing, the execs made clear that they weren’t in a position to undertake the sort of IT project necessary to do something like that), it also seemed like they didn’t mind one bit that Lufthansa first seats were unavailable. Because those seats were expensive.

And to make sure that members couldn’t get around this technical glitch, a memo went out to agents forbidding them from manual selling award space. That made is much, much harder to find an agent willing to do the manual sell. And it meant that for most people Lufthansa first class was effectively no longer an option with US Airways miles.

Lufthansa Hardly Offers These Seats Anymore Anyway

Fast forward and Lufthansa pretty much removed first class award inventory from their partners anyway. They also dropped the number of seats in first class on their 747 aircraft from 16 to 8. And they rolled out a new first class product across the fleet (though not yet fully completed). They hold back those seats much more aggressively, whereas in the past the seats had been regularly available. Partners only get access to the inventory now within a couple of weeks of departure.

Since US Airways doesn’t allow changes to awards after departure of the first flight, that means that even people booking at the last minute — should they manage to find an agent willing to do a manual sell to overcome Dividend Miles’ system limitations — would usually be unable to book Lufthansa first class for their return.

Two years after mostly eliminating first class redemptions on Lufthansa, and nearly a year after Lufthansa pretty much did the same to all of their partners, US Airways has updated the chart to footnote that Lufthansa first class isn’t an option. That’s one way not to fix a technical problem, when fixing it would cost you significantly (on top of the IT costs).

Just like with the airlines that they ‘partner with’ but do not ‘currently’ offer redemptions on.

US Airways Has Technical Problems Booking Other Partner Flights Too

The real problem with US Airways isn’t the blocking of space which hardly exists anyway. It’s that their systems are just bad. The phone calls take a long time. There are upsides to how manually everything is done, agents let you get away with things they probably shouldn’t routings-wise, and they misprice awards. But there are also many flights they cannot book.

With Swiss the general rule of thumb was that US Airways would be able to book one fewer first class seat than was being offered by Swiss. But Swiss pretty much doesn’t offer first class award seats anymore anyway, so that’s mostly a non-issue now.

But problems have spread to ANA flights as well. For years they’ve had issues booking ANA flights operated by subsidiary Air Japan, even though those flights were offered to Star Alliance partners. Recently I’ve seen problems booking even US-Japan flights, such as Chicago-Tokyo. But at least their award chart doesn’t say that ANA awards are currently unavailable…

Don’t Expect This to Change

I don’t expect IT fixes to come any time soon, both because thy would be costly to fix and because fixing them would generate additional redemption expenses. And I don’t expect IT fixes to come any time soon because the airline seems pretty focused on a future merger with American, that would move them into the oneworld alliance with all new partners and a different booking system anyway.

I suppose it’s progress that US Airways has at least acknowledged that they don’t offer Lufthansa first class awards. But now that the award space is so rare anyway, it would have been nice to make it possible to book the seats as such redemptions can’t be all that costly, compared to other flights where space is much more prevalent and thus costs them far more.

  1. Kevin B said,

    I’ve been a Chairman’s Preferred member of US Airways for several years, and as your article states, it is increasingly more difficult to book awards on Star Alliance members using Dividend Miles. Prelude to a switch to oneworld???? I wonder if an announcement will be coming soon as part of US Airways plan to acquire American.

  2. Mark said,

    This is simply what happens when you sell miles so inexpensively. People shouldn’t be surprised.

  3. Nun said,

    Maybe others will disagree but I really admire them for their transparency in these details. I remember UA swearing Starnet blocking did not exist.

  4. Mike Reed said,

    US Airways can plan all they want, but the plan was NEVER to acquire American. Merge, perhaps, but given the relative strength of the companies (and the awareness of AA pilots of the conditions at LCC), that’s not really likely anytime soon, either.

  5. SST said,

    Thank you, Gary, for widely publicizing this. All of us who’ve tried to use US miles (or UA for that matter) knew all along how they had gamed the premium seat redemption issue. I have always worked around their system, knowing First availability is scant or nonexistent, but this is the dawn of a new transparency. Knowing the rules ALWAYS leads to more satisifaction.

  6. Peterson said,

    USAirways was selling miles at like 0.9cpm or something close to that using the TLV loophole and allowing to redeem on brand new ANA flat bed J using only 90K roundtrip … of course the Star partners would be pissed

  7. A. S. said,

    @Gary — what’s the current situation with LX redemptions (using US miles)?

  8. Gary said,

    @AS – no first class awards for sure with any partner miles really (occasionally day of departure). Or did you mean something else?

  9. A. S. said,

    @Gary — nope, that’s pretty much it. Though I really wish you had better news! ;)

  10. Bryce said,

    So what then, is a good use of US Airways miles, if Singapore AND Lufthansa are not an option?

  11. Gary said,

    @Bryce well Singapore isn’t an really option for United, either… ANA First…(when not blocked)… Asiana first… Air China’s new first… And there’s still plenty of business class out there!

  12. A footnote changed my plans | Mile Bucket said,

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  15. Lufthansa’s Shrinking First Class Cabins and What it Means for Award Space - View from the Wing said,

    [...] which US Airways seemed in no rush to fix. More recently the problem expanded system wide, and then US Airways forbade the booking of Lufthansa first class — although when such seats were almost never available anyway making it odd given the theory [...]

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