My Wishes for the Major U.S. Airline Mileage Programs in the New Year

Two years ago I offered frequent flyer wishes for the New Year, and some of them came true while two remain on my wish list going forward.

Here’s what I’d love to see from major U.S. airline frequent flyer programs, little things that would make a great difference in terms of value derived by members, from the perspective of someone who is inspired by the aspirational nature of the programs and value leveraging miles for premium cabin award experiences.

American Airlines. I love their domestic award availability, and I love several of their partners. I’ve had such great luck with Cathay Pacific first class award space that I’ve gotten lazy and fly too much Cathay First, not doing the hard work to get more interesting and varied products. But I wish the website were more functional — more partner award availability (they’ve just rolled out Alaska Airlines as their first) and the ability to process confirmed (mileage, electronic systemwide) upgrades online. And I’d love it if they loosened up what are some of the most byzantine award routing rules in the industry. United just imposes a rule that you can’t fly more than 15% beyond the published “maximum permitted mileage” between any two cities. American on the other hand requires that the overwater carrier have a published routing between your starting and ending cities. IF they don’t, you can’t fly the carrier on your route. And they don’t allow you to connect in a region other than your starting and ending regions, with specific exceptions e.g. from North America you can travel to India or Africa via Europe and to “Asia 2” (eg Hong Kong and South) via “Asia 1” (eg Tokyo) but not the other way around. So you cannot connect in the Middle East on the way to Africa, even though such a connection is totally logical, you cannot connect in Hong Kong to India even though from the West Coast the travel time may be shorter. Only Delta has routing rules which can be as Draconian, though with Delta it’s likely programming errors.

United Airlines. Really, no changes. The partners are great, the award availability is great, the award routing rules are great, and they’re even expected to adopt the Continental Airlines website which is pretty darned functional for booking awards. I don’t expect them to bring back Starnet blocking (intentionally preventing members from booking otherwise-available award seats on partners when they don’t want to pay for those seats), though the fact that they’ve done it in the past always means that the specter looms in the background and represents the greatest threat to the value of miles, bigger even than an award chart devaluation. I don’t like the new upgrade priority where ‘paid for upgrades” trump status, a non-status member spending miles is ahead of a 100,000 mile flyer waiting for their complimentary domestic upgrade. But that’s the Continental method and in almost all things with this integration, the Continental method rules.

Delta. Website, website, website. The thing just doesn’t work. Reservations return errors, and half the time available award seats don’t come up but starting a search over will bring up those seats. This is especially frustrating because Delta will only allow award holds on the website and the website really doesn’t work. There’s also only a very limited number of partners available online, which means you frequently have to call – which forestalls the ability to place an award on hold. And the agents on the phone are frequently so darned bad. They don’t know who Delta’s partners are (“Air France is the only member of Skyteam” or “We don’t partner with Vietnam Airlines anymore.”) and with so many partners using different award booking classes, Delta’s agents frequently don’t know how to search for award space and incorrectly say that seats aren’t available. As bad as Skyteam availability can be compared to Star or oneworld (and especially Delta availability in particular) the biggest challenge booking awards is the tools available for doing so. As a stopgap measure it would help a great deal if telephone agents were allowed to hold award seats.

US Airways. I’d love one-way awards but mostly I just wish their IT systems wouldn’t have such a hard time with some partner awards, in particular Lufthansa transatlantic first class space and All Nippon intra-Asia flights (especially those operated by Air Japan). If those problems would get fixed then US Airways miles would truly be among some of the very best out there, especially coupled with US Airways’ generous routing rules and outstanding domestic first class award availability, useful for getting to and from international gateway cities.

Alaska Airlines. I wish they would finally introduce the ability to combine partners on a single award. They have some great partners but the biggest challenge in finding award space is that since they don’t offer one-way awards with partners you need to find space on the same partner in both directions. I also with they would bring back award holds, which they took away in early 2010 without announcement or comment.

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. […] I used to be a total Star Alliance guy when it comes to awards. And I still am in my recommendations to folks who want business class award seats, there are just many more options available to construct trips to most destinations. And goodness knows that American’s award routing rules can be simultaneously super generous and incredibly vexing. […]


  1. AA has many routing pricing errors, like you fly PVG-HKG-CNS on CX will be 2 awards, PVG-HKG-SYD-CNS will be one, and many more

  2. Hi a bit off topic but can i fly an awardlike this with co jfk-zrh-tlv -ist-hkg-jfk as an award routing on a co ticket

  3. @mo depends on where the stops are, but if there’s a stopover in tel aviv and destination of hong kong it should work via Continental.

  4. I would like AA to reinstate award code CX135A from the year of 2000. North America via HKG to Japan and back to HKG to North America again, all in CX F. AA making the simple HKG-NRT route difficult from the US is not benign.

  5. I’d wish that one could redeem miles for one-way tickets (naturally, at 1/2 of the miles needed for round-trips) more easily. I know that some airlines have this option, but far from all. I often travel from A to B to C to D… then maybe back to A, but maybe not, and typically end up buying several one-way tix. (Or round-trip ones, and then throwing out the return have).

  6. I agree generally with what you wrote above, but feel UA could increase their award availability a bit. I agree it’s second only to AA (and light years ahead of Delta) but especially in the summer, award space is very hard to come by.

  7. I’ve found that if you press DL hard enough, they will hold the space over the phone–even if you do have sufficient miles in your account to complete the booking. Unlike AA or UA, a reservation held by a DL phone agent can be booked online, avoiding the telephone booking fee.

    Some functionality on would certainly be appreciated though.

  8. @Matthew indeed I’ve mentioned at the Chicago Seminar the past couple of years that you can put a reservation on hold online, have an agent add segments etc, and then ticket it online while you’re still on the phone with them 🙂

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