Continental’s Award Pricing Computer Problems, and What it Means for the Continental-United Merger

Continental agents do what their computer tells them to do. They aren’t especially empowered. And in a dispute between common sense and the computer, the computer is always right.

Continental doesn’t permit ‘holding’ an award except when there aren’t enough miles in the account, and you plan to transfer points in (e.g. from American Express). My understanding has been that Continental will only put an award on hold for 24 hours, which is plenty to make a transfer since Amex points transfer more or less instantly, sometimes the points won’t be available for 15 minutes or so but it’s more or less immediate.

Although each time I put an award on hold with Continental, the agents tell me they’re putting the awards on a three-day hold. The reservation on the Continental website will say just one-day, though this will usually change and indeed the three-day hold is what happens.

United on the other hand will do a three day hold (sometimes 72 hours exactly, sometimes midnight three days later) but only when miles are in the account at least with a partner award, and they’ll deduct the miles at the time they’re putting hte award on hold. What’s especially frustating if you’re a few miles short is that you can’t hold an award until all the miles are there, and even buying miles takes about 48 hours whereas with several other programs it’s instantaneous. One could easily wind up buying miles only to find that an award is no longer available once those miles post to your account.

Hard to guess which policy will survive the merger, in most things I’m guessing that the United architecture will be used (Mileage Plus is the bigger program, they’ll retain the name) but that Continental policies will eventually be put into place or they’ll transition towards those policies in advance of the actual merging of the programs. But that requires reprogramming IT systems, something United isn’t known for exceptional competence in. And American still allows 5-day holds (even if Delta only permits awards holds on their website, not over the phone, and even then for 24 hours only.. quite unfriendly especially when their website is so broken). I’m hopeful that the American policy won’t change, and that will encourage the combined United-Continental to offer some form of flexible holds. Long gone are the days when United allowed 30-day award holds and even those were easily extendable…

Another major difference is cultural between the two carriers. Continental agents are in the US, don’t operate on a 24-hour schedule, and aren’t as empowered as United agents. On the other hand, Continental doesn’t enforce the same routing rules on awards that United does. United agents will sometimes make up their own rules (I once had one tell me that I had to follow the overwater carrier’s routing rules on a partner award, that Asiana didn’t permit stopovers in Beijing on the way to Bangkok, and thus I’d have to leave the award as an open jaw and swim — when in reality the routing rules of the overwater carrier is a way to get around maximum permitted mileage restrictions on an award, if there’s a published routing you can use that to exceed mileage allowances).

But United agents are much more empowered, while Continental agents do what their computers tell them. United agents at a certain ‘level’ of permissions can override most things that are automatic in the Mileage Plus system, long before United introduced one-way awards level four (from memory) agents had the ability to offer one-way awards as an ‘exception’ (and agents were encouraged to collect a change fee for doing so, fee collection wasn’t automatic).

Yesterday I ran into the “computer is always right” roadblock with Continental. I held a business class roundtrip from Australia to the US. The award chart says this should be 135,000 miles, but Continentals computers priced it at 147,500 — business class outbound, first class return, even though there wasn’t a single first class segment (even domestic first class, which shouldn’t matter) on the itinerary. I went through multiple agents and supervisors, all of whom insisted I was wrong, the computer was right, but none who could explain why other than to speculate that Air New Zealand (the carrier on the return) might be more expensive because it’s better than United (true.. but hah!).

Now, I have a note out to someone at Continental who hopefully can intervene, but the Continental computers are king and supervisors don’t employ common sense to override them.

One other item this points to is that Continental does do one-way award pricing even though they require roundtrip awards. I also put together a US-South Africa award with the outbound in South African business and the return via Europe in First Class. The award priced at 142,500 — a hybrid of the ourbound business price and return first price. I had forgotten they do this and was pleasantly surprised, it’s something United doesn’t do. They let you combine saver awards with double miles awards on the same ticket as well.

Of course, United has one-way awards on United metal and effectively that means as long as you’re flying United you can price things the same way. But United doesn’t offer one-way awards with partner yet and doesn’t offer one-way awards over the phone, either. A function again of United IT challenges.

Ultimately the combined airline will certainly have one-way awards, the merged entity won’t take away this benefit, and I’d have to think they’ll offer it with partners online and by phone and then we’ll have the best of both worlds for award pricing. But I’d have to think that empowered agents go away, it seems as though it’s long been a Continental benchmark and their managers believe in rules and computers over discretion.

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. Boy, you’re getting a lot of “mileage” (pardon the pun) on your CO computer/CO agent experience….between this blog post and your Flyertalk thread. Bravo. I hope Scott can help.

  2. @mark Scott’s great and yes he helped, I wrote this post because I thought it might be interesting to folks, it was interesting to me which is what motivates me to write, if your mileage varies so be it..

  3. Just one small correction. UA now allows one-way awards on UA metal when you call Reservations.

  4. United allows holds w/o miles in the account.. I put a flight on hold last week and had zero miles, waiting for my miles to transfer in. They held it for 3 days and I didnt even mention I was waiting for a mileage transfer, they just did it.

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