We May Have Just Entered the Dark Age of Award Travel

Since getting back from our around the world trip, I have been down on the miles and points game. You can still get some amazing redemptions, but I feel that overall, this game is dying. Airlines are getting stingier about releasing award space, award prices are constantly increasing, and banks are making it harder to apply for multiple credit cards. Something big happened this past week in the miles and points world and I fear the outcome may leave this hobby almost completely dead.

Background

SWISS does not normally release First Class award space to their partners. They don’t even release it to most of their own members. They only release it to their own top-tier elite members. In the past, SWISS has released First Class award space to partners by “mistake” and when that has happened, people who booked that award space had their reservations honored. I thought this would hold true in the future. SWISS First Class is something I’ve always wanted to try and I’d told myself if SWISS ever released First Class award space again, I would jump on the opportunity.

How It Went Down

November 30th

I received notification that SWISS had released a ton of award space to partner airlines. It was bookable with Aeroplan (Air Canada), United, ANA, and Miles & More (Swiss, Lufthansa, Austrian) miles. Since it was available to book through multiple sources, I knew the award space was real and not “phantom” space. I knew this opportunity wouldn’t last long and booked quickly.
I decided to use Aeroplan, the loyalty program of Air Canada, to book these tickets. Aeroplan only charges 70,000 miles for a one-way First Class ticket to western Europe. I transferred 140,000 Amex Membership Rewards points to my Aeroplan account to book 2 First Class tickets. A few minutes after booking, my reservation was ticketed and I had my SWISS record locator. I headed over to SWISS’s website and selected the seats for our flight.

December 1st

I heard that SWISS had started deleting people’s award reservations that were made on November 30th. My reservation looked completely fine when I logged into my Aeroplan account and when I used the record locator on Air Canada’s website to look up my booking.
However, when I used my SWISS record locator on SWISS’s website, I received a nice message, “Your reservation has been deleted.”
At this point, it seemed like if you made your reservation over the phone or booked an award that had multiple airlines, then your ticket did not get cancelled. It was only the tickets booked exclusively online and for travel on SWISS that were cancelled.

December 5th

The rest of the award tickets that were booked in SWISS First Class were cancelled/deleted. Some people now have reservations that are missing major segments because just the parts of their reservation that were booked on SWISS were cancelled.
It looks like SWISS is saying that they released this award space by “mistake” and because of that, they deleted these bookings from their system. The most insane part about this is that they did this without letting me, Aeroplan, or Air Canada know. It also looks like SWISS has no plans to help any party involved resolve this situation. If SWISS is not held accountable for deleting these reservations just because they released the award space by “mistake,” it would set a dangerous precedent.

How Award Travel Works

Airline loyalty programs give passengers miles when they fly on their airline. They try to entice passengers to fly on their airline by either awarding more miles than other loyalty programs, or by having a “cheaper” award chart when compared to the award charts of other airlines. However, this is only important if there is award space available to use those earned miles.
Airlines release award space to their own members and to other partner airlines to help fill seats on planes they don’t feel will sell cash tickets. A loyalty program will charge a member a price in their own miles for an award ticket; then that loyalty program will pay the airline (that the award ticket was booked on) a certain amount of money. That amount of money is much less than that airline would get if someone paid a cash price for that ticket. If they feel they won’t be able to fill that seat, however, a little money is better than no money.

Dangerous Precedent

SWISS released award space to their partners (including Aeroplan). Aeroplan members booked that award space using their Aeroplan miles. Aeroplan paid SWISS their agreed-upon cash rate when their member’s book SWISS award space. SWISS then decided they released this award space by “mistake” and deleted those reservations from their system without telling anyone. They did this because they feel they can get more money selling those seats as cash tickets.
If SWISS gets away with this, this could set a bad precent. Airlines could release award space and then later, if they feel they might be able to sell that seat instead, cancel those booked award tickets and claim the award space was released by “mistake.” I agree with that statement. It is a mistake to release award space if you could sell that seat for cash instead. Airlines would be able to cancel award tickets whenever they like with no consequences. If that’s true going forward, then this game may be over. How are you supposed to plan trips if airlines can cancel your award flights just because they feel like it?

Conclusion

I am still holding tight to see what will happen with this one, but it does not look good. The good news is I heard Aeroplan is offering to transfer points back to AMEX if your SWISS booking was cancelled. Other than that, this is all bad news. We may have just entered the dark age of award travel.

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