Q: Peter, my husband and I are planning to take a trip to Thailand in December 2009. We are Continental OnePass frequent fliers. We are aware that Continental is currently in the process of changing its partnership from Skyteam to the Star Alliance. Although both of us have the requisite miles required for booking a business-class upgrade (which is how we prefer to fly on such a long trip), the current Skyteam partners seemingly cannot find a single seat for any of the dates we want to fly. We have called all the different airlines repeatedly over the last month and tried various dates and routings, all to no avail. By the way, we are Platinum Elite OnePass members with over 500,000 miles in our account, which you’d think would count for something.
It appears that we are caught in the middle of Continental's transitional issues. Since gas prices are climbing and holiday travel is often tight, now is the time to move on the tickets. What advice can you provide in order for us to get the best deal and hopefully purchase an upgrade?
A: I contacted both Continental and SkyTeam on your behalf, and they assured me that customers are fully able to book upgrades with SkyTeam partners up until the date that the transition is complete in late 2009. So I don’t think that’s the issue. Furthermore, the Skyteam partner customer service agents didn’t tell you that you were unable to book seats; they said no upgrade seats were available. This leads me to believe that, rather than being caught up in the alliance transition, you are simply caught up in the airline industry’s revenue-squeezing tactics.
Airlines often limit the number of “award” seats available on any given flight to protect their cash flow, particularly when it comes to business- and first-class sections. By not allowing too many seats on a flight to go to those who essentially aren’t paying for them, they ensure that more full-fare passengers are on board each plane. And since business-class seats can go for upwards of $3,000, airlines are less inclined to give these away in the middle of a recession, when every penny counts.
It is a pity that loyalty programs are so named, because they seem to do anything but reward you for your loyalty. In fact, airlines have put up many roadblocks that make it more difficult to redeem miles, such as charging you to book an award ticket over the phone or upping the number of miles needed to get to a destination.
Since you seem to have already spent a fair amount of time wrangling with SkyTeam customer service agents trying different routes and dates, my advice would be first to ask a travel agent to help you out. If he or she can’t find you a single flight with some business-class upgrade seats, then simply use your miles to buy yourself a couple of coach seats. Better to use your miles rather than let them sit in your account indefinitely. With the economy the way it is these days, you never know when an airline might go out of business. And if that happens, all your miles will disappear forever.