Bet You Didn’t Know This Trick, and How It Could Cost You Your Miles

Via TravelingBetter I learned about an interesting consumer complaint to the Department of Transportation against American Airlines and an even more interesting response.

It strikes me that there’s a ton of disingenuousness on the part of lawyers for a major air carrier but also some interesting insight into how their systems work at the same time. So I thought it was worthwhile unpacking.

  • American accused the consumer of “creat[ing] fictitious block premium seats for the sole purpose of obtaining AAdvantage upgrades.”

  • American took 60,000 miles as a penalty.

It used to be quite common to hold premium seats to prevent others from buying those seats, then cancel just prior to the flight. It wouldn’t guarantee that you were at the top of the upgrade list, but it would ensure there were seats left for upgrades.

Understandably this is a very big deal to an airline and something they’ll come down hard on. They’ve put lots of procedures in place to make it very difficult to do in the modern era. Along the way some techniques employed have been approaches like refusing to process any upgrades at all within 72 hours of a flight. So overbooking a flight would mean an airline was less likely to process upgrades at all, rather than more likely to ensure the offending passenger received an upgrade.

Airlines track IP addresses of computers making reservations, and look for patterns. If one computer makes several reservations in a row, and they all go unticketed or they all get refunded, odds on there was something squirrelly about the bookings. And if they can be traced to a passenger on the flight then they’re going to go after the offender.

  • This passenger didn’t actually make fictitious bookings. Instead, they kept walking through the process to search a flight in order to obsessively check for remaining seats, in hopes they would get an upgrade.
  • They didn’t put any reservations on hold.
  • They did enter passenger names that were not their own — because American is pretty strict, compared to any other airline I’ve had dealings with, in guarding against duplicate bookings. (If I want to put a reservation on hold, and apply an existing reservation that would be for the same dates to pay for the new booking, I have to either cancel the old one first or change the old one — a new booking will quickly get zapped before I even get through on the phone.)
  • American apparently pulls seats out of inventory during the shopping process, before a customer actually holds the booking.
  • Nowhere that I can tell does American say this on their website.

By obsessively checking space on the flight, apparently unbeknownst to him he was pulling seats from inventory. And American viewed that as fraudulent.

He should have checked available seats on a seatmap for the flight without going through the booking process, but American doesn’t really make this functionality obvious.

Or he should have had an Expertflyer account. That’s a pay service that will show things like American Airlines inventory (which is blocked from most sources) along with other airlines’ space and even email you when specific space opens up or when preferred seats become available.

But it’s hard to expect a consumer to know to subscribe to someone else’s paid service you do not tell them about.

Indeed, I did not even know until the last few months about seats getting removed from inventory during the shopping process and I’m reasonably well-informed about such things. It seems disingenuous for American to expect consumers to know this, since they do not disclose it and most would not.

Though the complainant never pressed a button to hold, reserve, or purchase a ticket American’s reply refers to his actions as “fictitious bookings,” “business class bookings,” “fictitious reservatoins,” “systematically booked,” and “false reservations.” I do not see how they can make that claim with a straight face. That may be what happened but if so it’s a flaw in the design of American’s systems or in the instructions they provide to consumers.

In fairness to American, he did this a lot. He apparently caused 28 reservations to be made resulting in 45 seats being pulled from inventory over the course of 41 hours. I get that that’s a lot, but I also know how obsessive I can be about upgrades especially for an intenrational flight. And in this case for an excited customer about to experience international business class for the first time.

American claims this is a contract dispute and not the province of DOT action. That would mean the consumer could only sue American over the miles (in state court but without the benefit of state-level contract claims). Indeed, the Department of Transportation has declined to regulate frequent flyer programs although the penalty here relates to the frequent flyer program but the actions that lead to the penalty do not inherently so relate.

Presumably American recognizes they were unreasonable because they state that they offered to settle, and return the full 60,000 miles to the complainant’s account in exchange for a non-disclosure agreement. The member wants the Department of Transportation to rule, and I’d be surprised if the DOT sided with the consumer here.

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. […] http://viewfromthewing.boardingarea….ck-cost-miles/ This blog post (about AA) had a comment (#24) that said AA's systems apparently took a seat out of a fare bucket for 55 minutes when it was booked (and not purchased). Don't AA and AS use a similar back-end system? It may not be cookies, but rather the way the system is set up (which obviously wasn't set up in the internet era where everybody and their brother can search for tickets). […]


  1. Interesting situation, Gary. But are you sure you got this right: “He should have checked available seats on a seatmap for the flight without going through the booking process, but American doesn’t really make this functionality obvious.”

    As I understand it, a seat map does not necessarily indicate the number of seats actually available, as there could be passengers for whom seats haven’t yet been assigned. If that’s in fact the case, American’s case is even a bit weaker since it would have been that much tougher for this passenger to do this research without (inadvertently) booking.

  2. This sounds like it has a helluva lot of denial of service possibility. I mean, with just a little bit of automation and typical hacker obfuscation one could basically bring the entire airline to its knees. Doing something 45 times in 41 hours seems paltry compared to what a malicious attacker could do. This seems like American’s fault all the way. And wow, just wait until someone decides to exploit this. Are tickets only pulled for people with FF accounts? Or do guest reservations count? Wow. Endless possibilities for mayhem!

  3. I think the thing that makes me negative on the person doing this is that they must fly a lot if they are doing this that much. That makes me think they knew what they are doing. AA should have just refused service other than honoring any outstanding miles.

  4. @Steve no, but I believe he was pulling up the seat map through the reservation process. the seatmap isn’t dispositive as to load. I could be misreading, but as far as I am aware that’s all the information he was actually after. [And in any case, flight availability will top out at 7 in each fare bucket anyway so knowing htere are 7+ seats ins’t dispositive either]

  5. @colleen
    It is not to compare knowledge of bloggers, though I know Gary has some wide ranging views and may be the most prolific. I do read VFTW and as long as Gary lets me post my comments (moderated), I will. I am not interested in comments of third parties.
    I actually find Wandering Aramean the best, Lucky the funniest, Flying with Fish the most technical now and there was another blogger here on BA who was a college student and deleted the blog after he got a job as an analyst at an airline.
    I do not read BA for education (been there done that and research published) but for a wide range of views on travel and I was merely pointing out that much of the “new” info served up was old stuff. Give credit where it is due.
    I have discovered many new things late, due to assumptions and if she recently found out about business class access, that is fine for her to be open about that. I found out after years of flying in business class that even people flying in economy could access business lounges, when my brother who was a Senator got in to the same lounge (in fact to a more exclusive lounge).
    In 2010, I was on a flight with a colleague who flies monthly long haul on LH and did not know there was a FCL in FRA! He usually flew business and went to the Business lounge. Since he had been upgraded to F (and I was in F on TIB US miles), I took the chance to educate him on his options! For someone with a HON card not to know what it meant in terms of FCL? Live and learn

  6. @ffi – ‘give credit where credit is due’ . . . a bit overstated – Gary’s first sentence starts with a HT (you’ve obviously been there done that and research published, so you should know what HT means) to another blogger/website . . . I doubt others would have done the same . .

    Let’s face it – some like Gary’s blog, others don’t . . . frankly I wish others would follow his lead and research and discuss more the bidness of the airline/freq flyer game – I agree, the bloggers you mention are the better ones – do we really need more jackasses reposting ‘top 10’ lists from thrillist, more credit card pitches disguised as blog posts, or anyone apologizing for Delta?

    I like Gary’s blog, and found it to be regularly useful. Ok, so he posts stuff sometimes that isn’t his as-game, but they all do . . . at least it seems Gary thinks before he writes

  7. Seems idiotic for AA to publicly identify such a potentially major IT glitch. I have an IT glitch that costs my business a very small amount every month. I’m not going to fix it, nor am I willing to lose a single customer over it. I’m sure as hell not going to advertise it!

  8. Every time I see DOT letters I can only think of Jeff Kwok and his ruining of the LM program

  9. @mike@igobyplane – complimentary upgrades are rare, supported upgrades (miles, evip confirmed upgrade certs) for EXPs usually clear

  10. Gary – please do not give in to the temptation to use titles like this! It is so tiring. I am personally ready to boycott all sites peddling in “tricks” and “life hacks” etc. You don’t need to stoop!

  11. Ah! So this is why when I go to book an AA flight on their website and change one parameter then the prices go up from one search to the next. I am removing a seat from a lower fare bucket. I have learned over time to do all searches on ITA and then only go to a site when all parameters are fixed.

  12. Gary, thanks for bringing attention to this. It still makes me so mad that my friend was treated this way!!

    You have summed up the situation accurately. There was no malice intended by my friend, only excitement about a possible biz class international trip. At this point, for my friend it’s not about the miles–it’s about the insinuation that he is a bad guy, some sort of master hacker, manipulating the system for his own personal gain.

    If you feel he was treated unfairly, please go to the DOT site and leave a comment.!docketDetail;D=DOT-OST-2014-0077

  13. Definitely the most interesting part of this is AA’s IT. I read both the complaint and AA’s response. I find the guy pretty credible when he says he didn’t understand AA’s IT problem well enough to know he was potentially blocking seats. But (and I know this may go against the grain here), I also find AA’s position pretty reasonable. You don’t need expert flyer or anything complicated to do what he was trying to do on AA’s own website without going through the convoluted process that he went through. This is a fact that he admits in his complaint. His more convoluted method required entry of fictitious names and a multi-step and screen process. While his explanation is credible, and while it’s also credible that he did not understand this constitute a hold under AA’s bizarre IT, I certainly think AA’s response was reasonable. They took a measured approach, let him fly, imposed a sanction that would prevent an upgrade on the flight they thought he was trying to game, let him keep his upgrade on the return portion, and ultimately agreed to give him his miles back when he took it far enough that the sincerity of his explanation seemed reasonable. Should the AA security person taken a more proactive role in trying to understand his side of the story before he flew? I dunno. Maybe. I’m in favor of AA trying to protect me from those who might seek to deprive me of my fair shot at upgrades. That they overcook it once in a while is part of doing business — it’s hard to have too much anger for a company being skeptical of a guy who uses fictitious names. At this point, it’s hard to understand what he hopes to accomplish. Using DOT to “clear your name” when the company has offered relief to largely moot your request seems somewhat over the top.

  14. @Road Warriorette

    I do not understand why anyone should support his DOT complaint, especially now. My understanding is that AA has agreed to refund the miles. His actions, allow me to quote, “caused 28 reservations to be made resulting in 45 seats being pulled from inventory over the course of 41 hours.” That’s a serious damage to an airline caused by just one clueless and obsessive consumer. The word “excitement” doesn’t really cut it in this case, IMHO.

    As Larry stated above, in the end, AA has treated him fairly. He should learn how to quit while he’s ahead.

  15. thanks gary, that is what i thought. seems a bit wild to obsess over it this much. i suppose i generally consider miles/swu more reliable than the perhaps are (never tried one) but unless someone was going to cancel and rebook and pay for bus class than the obsessive checking seems a bit OCD to me. can understand his frustration in getting in trouble over something that didn’t on the surface seem to be holding space. as i work in IT myself i’m not surprised that searches affect pricing and inventory at any given point in time though.

  16. @Larry ” But (and I know this may go against the grain here), I also find AA’s position pretty reasonable. You don’t need expert flyer or anything complicated to do what he was trying to do on AA’s own website without going through the convoluted process that he went through.”

    You are right, it was a convoluted process. But you are very wrong if you think that isn’t “normal”. I’m a software developer, with a focus on user interface design. And it is entirely normal for people to find some convoluted way of doing what they want, and sticking to it, even though there’s a far easier way to do it they have not found.

    So I found his story entirely credible.

    As for AA:
    1: If their claims are correct, looking at a booking takes a seat out of circulation for 55 minutes. I don’t believe that, but if it is true, that’s a mark of AA’s incompetence, and not the user’s fault.

    2: “and ultimately agreed to give him his miles back when he took it far enough that the sincerity of his explanation seemed reasonable.”

    Um, no. If that were their motivation, they would have given the 60,000 miles to Make a Wish foundation when he suggested that. Instead the security analyst was a snotty jerk about it.

    No, they only agreed to give the miles back because he got the DoT involved, and they feared they might get slapped. Well, they deserve to get slapped.

    I don’t normally fly AA. And having read the emails of Valerie Durant, American Airlines Corporate Security, a truly nasty petty bureaucrat that American Airlines has chosen to empower to harass American Airlines customers, I hope I never do end up flying on American.

  17. @Andy

    Any harm that was done to American Airlines or its customers was caused by the incompetence of AA IT, not by Joel Hayes.

    Note, you have AA’s claim wrong. What they’re claiming is that over the course of 96 hours, he took 45 domestic first class and international business class seats out of inventory for 41 hours, which is to say that each seat was taken out for 55 minutes.

    Now, I could believe a 2 or 3 minute hold. But if 55 minutes / seat is true, it’s because AA IT is incompetent.

    And Joel did some experiments, that to my mind pretty conclusively show that the current AA holds are on the order of 30 seconds. So apparently AA agrees that their previous behavior was flawed, too.

    As for “Joel Hayes should quit while he’s ahead”: AA blew him off, rudely, until he filed the DoT complaint. They had multiple opportunities to treat the customer right, and refused to do so. Now it gets to the DoT, and they say “hey, we’ll take that offer you made three months ago, you know, the one where we told you to ‘get stuffed’?” Nope. Too late.

    AA should learn that when one of their petty bureaucrats abuses one of the customers, you support the customer, not the bureaucrat.

    They’ll probably win this. But the cost in lawyer fees is going to be a lot more than the cost of those 60,000 miles, and will hopefully be a lot more than the cost of an AA manager telling an “American Airlines Corporate Security” bureaucrat to stop being a jerk.

  18. Flew 2 US Airways flights this week. Both times, the attendants were forced to announce that USAirways employees are gone & they’re now AA employees. One flight had no turbulence, yet they cancelled the beverage/snack service because they “anticipated” some. Repeated announcements about how this was for “passenger safety”. And repeated lectures over the intercom to passengers who ignored the seatbelt light to use the bathroom. There wasn’t any turbulence! Cost savings… how many times does USA/AA cancel beverage service just to save money? Suspect.

    The second flight had delayed service, again due to anticipated turbulence which never materialized. 5 hr flight. The stewardesses came once to offer drinks, ignored many of the window seats. I had to stand up to get offered a beverage. Had to stand up later, twice, to get them to take my garbage. Was ignored during the second service in which they only offered water. Bad, bad service.

    In my line of work, I don’t get to choose the airline. But if I did, I wouldn’t choose US Airways nor AA again.

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