American’s Approach to (Not) Releasing Award Seats

When US Airways management took over at American they brought with them a revenue management philosophy of making far less award space available.

However they’ve made efforts to make more economy award space available, bidding for space based on a fare value of miles.

  • It’s a revenue-based approach to redemption that looks at the cost of a one-way itinerary and instead of award availability being open on each segment (and it has to be available on both) they look at the whole trip.

  • That’s let them say yes more often to awards, but it also means that awards are available mostly when fares are cheap and it’s harder to put together and change awards since changes need availability for a one way instead of just on the segment or segments you want to change.

While American is releasing more economy awards, good luck finding business class award space on American Airlines flights. I used to caveat that statement ‘except on the most lightly booked routes’ (this past summer Philadelphia – Bologna was a good one for business awards) except right now it’s eye-opening how lightly booked American’s Dallas Fort Worth – Hong Kong flight appears to be and…

Hong Kong protests have disrupted the city and occasionally turned violent (mostly on the part of police). Unsurprisingly over the next week and a half business class is at least 60% empty each day. Yet there’s no business class award space at all, not on a single flight.

There’s not even a confirmed upgrade seat available.

If I’m trying really hard to tell a story that makes sense for American from a revenue-management perspective, rather than just ‘we don’t release business class saver award space to members,’ it might go something like this.

Releasing saver award space traditionally hasn’t just been about making seats available that would otherwise go unsold but also ensuring that redeeming miles doesn’t replace selling a paid ticket.

  • Right now there’s very little leisure travel to Hong Kong (although perhaps somewhat more connecting through it)
  • Anyone traveling to Hong Kong has to go to Hong Kong
  • Indeed ticket purchases are skewing towards changeable full fare

American won’t want customers to use miles to give them the flexibility they’d otherwise buy full fare tickets to obtain. Despite ongoing protests in Hong Kong there’s no current travel waiver, anyone wanting to adjust travel plans if the situation escalates needs to pay American for that privilege.

Along some margin saver award space might trade off with the purchase not just of business class seats, but expensive flexible business class tickets. That may be over-reading a coherent revenue management strategy to the airline’s refusal to release saver award space — and it doesn’t really explain the lack of confirmable upgrade space on close-in flights with thirty-plus available business seats.

Within 24 hours of departure, though, we’re seeing the bulk of the business cabin open up for confirmed upgrade (not saver award redemption).

Update: Even worse,

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. You would think their Credit Card partners as well as other partners would be up in arms! As an AAdvantage member, I am pissed!

  2. Tired of people shitting on SkyMiles, while AA and UA get away with blatantly blocking premium awards on their own metal.

    I guarantee you that a low-level premium award on Delta, while still higher than in the past, is still less than an Anytime award. Add in the lack of fuel surcharges on most partners and SkyMiles wins for everyday usage (I’m not including aspirational first class awards, because frankly these aren’t often that useful for regular travelers).

  3. @William “Add in the lack of fuel surcharges on most partners and SkyMiles wins for everyday usage ”

    United doesn’t add fuel surcharges to any partners.
    Delta adds fuel surcharges to more partners than American. And Delta adds fuel surcharges even to THEIR OWN FLIGHTS when originating in Europe. Think that only applies to Europeans? It matters for Americans who book two one ways, also.

  4. Gary, it’s been like this for months, often regardless of location. Out of NYC, for example, one-way flights to Europe on American metal are not showing any meaningful amount of saver availability. Prices range from 110K to 135K. Effectively, the new “saver” price for one-way travel to Europe on American metal is 110K points.

  5. The HKG example is maddening, but the scarcity of international premuim cabin awards is nothing new. I think the bigger story is this part, “a revenue-based approach to redemption that looks at the cost of a one-way itinerary and instead of award availability being open on each segment (and it has to be available on both) they look at the whole trip.”

    This is relatively recent, and goes beyond just married segments where AAA-BBB is unavailable but is available as part of AAA-BBB-CCC. More and more I see cases like this:
    Schedule has
    (1) AAA-BBB very early morning
    (2) AAA-BBB late morning
    (3) BBB-CCC early afternoon
    (4) BBB-CCC late evening
    For a saver award, AA will offer 1 & 3 or 2 & 4, forcing you to choose between a 5 am departure or a midnight arrival, and both with a very long layover. But 2 & 3, with reasonable times and a sensible connection time is not available – even though both those segments are options for the same flight as part of the same O/D and routing.

    And yes, it often does seem to be based on “fare value” (nice wordplay), since you might see 1&3 or 2&4 for $200 but 2&3 for $300…

  6. It is worse and disingenuous to show as released award space, married segments. There are few AA saver awards on nonstop flights out of any the AA hubs. If nonstop hub flights are searched as part of connections through the hubs, the space is available.

    Partners can only use the equivalent of AA saver award space, but often times show nonstop hub space, while, does not.

  7. Help me understand this. As an EXP I can make changes to my routing on an award ticket for no fee. So, let’s say I want to fly JFK-SFO in first, but that is not available. However, BOS-JFK-SFO is available. Why can’t I book BOS-JFK-SFO in first, have it ticketed and then call back and drop the BOS-JFK leg? In my experience, they don’t check to see if the award space is still available, they just make the change and either add or refund any taxes.

    Adding and dropping segments has always been easy and in my experience, it still is.

  8. And when they do release saver space its with the married segment caveat. Its a major FU to AAdvantage members. Instead of embracing their customers, they work as hard as possible to not allow redemptions for our loyalty.

  9. I’ve got to imagine the intersection of people that would buy a full-fare J (or equivalently flexible ticket), and people that would use miles to purchase such a ticket is pretty small. I’m certainly not going to use my miles to pay for a work trip.

  10. DFW-HKG isn’t a new issue on premium award seats. It’s been like that for months if not years. My wife and I booked actual first-class seats on this route a couple of years ago and business coming back (just to save miles since first was available) and now there are no seats available at all, it seems like ever, to end of schedule when I look. The premium seat awards dried up for TATL routes first and now it’s Asia and even South America on AA. It has made me abandon AA as my business preferred airline, give up my elite status and now I’m flying Delta and Air France mostly. The only reason I still know about AA award availability is my wife and I are burning off our AA miles that we won’t need in the future. Once those are gone and the Admirals Club requires same-day AA ticket to access the credit cards will also be gone. I’m not hub captive and it’s just not worth the effort anymore to fly AA.

  11. Gary: You are giving AA management additional excuses for not releasing award seats in J. This has nothing to do with events unfolding in HKG and the flexibility offered by award tickets but rather persistent stupidity and greed. I and my wife were on the afternoon LHR-DFW flights last week (we did fly separately on different days) and both days J was half full the most. On my flight the front cabin on B772 was half full while there was 1 passenger in the second J cabin. Still, AA would not release MilesAAver J awards. This is ridiculous. By the way, on both flights the service and food in J were exceptionally bad. I would take pre-merger AA domestic meal in F instead of what they serve now on almost 10 hr transatlantic flights.

  12. @LAXJeff. Excellent point. Most of AA’s international J passengers are on company paid travel, so there is no choice to be made between using miles or using cash.

  13. William – DL is also very opaque with pricing which is a big minus for me. The search engine is just not good enough to deal with their dynamic pricing.

  14. So many good points in the comments here. I’m both frustrated and baffled by the married segment logic on awards. Recent example, trying to book relatively near departure date for MIA-SEA.
    * Non-stop was perhaps 1/2 full in J, no Biz sAAver available. Not surprising.
    * 2 sAAver routings available through CLT in J with abysmal departure and connection times – oddly on flights with only 2-3 revenue seats for sale. But in fairness, yes Biz sAAver was avail.
    * MIA-LAX-SEA had Flagship F avail MIA-LAX but absolutely no availability in Biz or Econ for LAX-SEA all day. Good routing though, so hey I’ll just purchase a cheap LAX-SEA ticket and book the MIA-LAX in F sAAver. Oh guess what, that’s not available for booking. So by married segment logic, MIA-LAX is avail on an itinerary with 0 connecting options, but not avail as a nonstop. I mean…why??

    Also, the inability to change a connecting flight after booking without ALL segments being available is beyond ridiculous and is a flat out FU to customers. So if a better connection becomes available, tough luck if all segments aren’t available even though you’re not changing them. Even worse, if you’ve accepted a connection in a lower class of service and later the booked (and paid!) class of service becomes available, too bad if the entire routing doesn’t have availability. It is a seriously punitive policy.

  15. How long before the revenue from credit cards drops dramatically? I and many I know have stopped putting money on AA cobrand coards. Any recent stats on that?

  16. @beachfan that is my question as well. I’ve used the Citibank AAdvantage card for years. I have now moved all of my domestic travel to Southwest after having my fill, but kept the card for personal international travel. I’ve been trying to book a trip in J to Istanbul the last two weeks but the available options are incredibly asinine. DFW-LGA-JFK-LHR-IST with an overnight connection in London. AA seems to be the worst of the majors, but I think all devaluations are just a result of consolidation. This is what happens when there are only 3 network carriers left.

  17. I’m always looking for one way J award availability , East Coast to/from Europe, using Qantas points. Used to be easy on AA, good availability and max fee of $5.60. Now: never, ever seen , regardless of month, route ( always Y, NEVER J). Not even 11 months in advance.

  18. I have searched daily since October 2018 for a business or first class seat on the DFW-HGK route and we are on 09/11/2019 and I still havent found a single SAAver award!!!!!!!!!!

  19. Not only is it lack of award space that bothers me, it’s that when it is available, it’s rarely non-stop, forcing much longer-than-necessary itineraries that bite in all-too-short travel windows.

    I’m able to MS in volume and have large balances, so it’s not as painful as it is for most, but it sure makes front-of-bus travel using AA miles increasingly rare.

  20. @beachfan It probably won’t drop significantly. I think we “enthusiasts” believe most flyers learn the programs and rationally choose what is best for them, but I’m finding it’s not the case. Some of my friends, intelligent people otherwise, are perfectly happy just flying and collecting miles on AA, supplemented by mostly non-bonused spend on Citi Aadvantage Executive or Barclay red cards. Anything more is too high effort, too complicated, or they just don’t care.

  21. Isn’t this married segment thing by AA been going on for a while? Also if you add a segment, there is no warranty that the long leg of the trip would be in biz is there? And like another read said, can’t you call and drop the first segment after you book?

  22. Its simple everyone complains yet they still keep flying American if I was American I would rarely open up any seats as long as I could shoot at fish in a barrel and grab their wallet regardless and people just cane no matter what.
    American will only get it when people vote with their wallet
    I have done so successfully at other carriers and even fly Delta in a pinch
    Primarily Alaska Jet blue Southwest and Int carriers .
    I will spend a premium to avoid flying American as I refuse to be screwed for my loyalty and have no assistance when they strand me in airport
    due to mechanical difficulties and a host of other issues

  23. Wasn’t US Airways the one’s needing help & that’s why they merged with AA? Why are they “managing” the Airlines now? AA was so much more customer friendly before the merge.

  24. In addition to this the AA award calendar is INCREDIBLY frustrating – showing saver award first available bkk-Sfo – problem is bkk-tyo-lax is ECONOMY and lax-sfo if F so I should pay 110k for a 1 hour flight in F ????

  25. Has Cathay Pacific award availability to HKG changed in the last few months given 38% plunge in passengers travelling to HKG?

  26. Many say if you don’t like what AA is doing, you should walk away. We stay for many reasons, not because we like how we are treated. When the prospect of being treated better comes along, some will change.

  27. Why are you surprised that American isn’t selling seats to Hong Kong? Especially now, you know that if anything happens in HKG you’re SOL (2 hrs+ wait on the phone is just the start), while Cathay almost always takes care of customers.

  28. I have a hard time believing there are many people who would actually pay for an overseas business class ticket at $5k and up if a milesaver wasn’t available. Most people would just fly coach or go somewhere else or on another carrier where they CAN get a milesaver ticket. Only a few diehard business travelers would pay, and would that make much difference anyway because if they don’t spend the miles on this trip they’ll spend it on the next trip instead of paying cash. The numbers just don’t make sense. Seems like airlines have forgotten the reason they have milage programs in the first place..

  29. Today I tried to book at MIA-LIM in J for next November.

    MIA-LIM Nonstop is 65K.

    BUT, for 28K Web special Business:

    RSW-CLT (F)
    CLT-MIA (F)
    MIA-LIM (J) On the same flight that at a single segment prices at 65K above.

    There were also examples of RSW-DFW-MIA-LIM at 30K. In all cases I assumed at least one leg must be in Y. Nope. All legs F or J.

    I don’t even understand this. It’s not just sending us the long way; it’s sending us on redundant routing to take the one desired flight.

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