StarNet: United’s Weapon of Mass Award Destruction

Back in July, I wrote up a primer on securing Star Alliance awards. In it, I alluded to Starnet, the system that United uses for booking these awards for Mileage Plus members.

Its search capabilities are primitive (you often can find better availability searching segment-by-segment that you can telling the agent your origina and destination, simply because it doesn’t search many possible connections).

But most vexxing for frequent flyers is that the system filters availability. That is, a partner airline may be offering a seat for award redemption — but United’s system will still tell you it’s unavailable. The agent will usually blame the partner (“they aren’t offering any seats”) when that isn’t true at all. Instead, United doesn’t want to pay for the seat.

United is known to ‘filter out’ availability especially of Luftansa flights within Europe and Thai Airways premium class flights between Europe and Bangkok. But I never grasped just how extensive the filtering was on these routes until I started playing with an award from North American to Asia via the Atlantic (strange as it may seem, the distance is seven miles less for my destination and preferred routings than crossing the Atlantic.. availability supposedly better.. and offering a potentially better premium class experience).


This morning I searched 53 dates in May and June using ANA’s award booking tool and found 51 flights on which Thai Airways was offering not just one but two award seats in First Class from London-Heathrow to Bangkok.

When I called United, I was told that there were no flights available with two first class awards during this period of time.

Then I asked United to check Franfurt-Bangkok. This is a tougher route, with only 9 flights showing two first class award seats available during this time. So unsurprisingly, United won’t book a single one.

Let’s be perfectly clear about what is going on here. United’s partners are offering award seats. United just won’t book them.

When pressed, United might say ‘different award inventory is made available to different partners’ but even that is a slight of hand — they’re really saying ‘different partners (ie, us – United) make different award inventory available to our members than other airlines make available to theirs.’

Lufthansa or Thai may well have inventory open in the “O” bucket (award first class). StarNet pretends it’s not there.

Shame on United — for refusing the offer seats your partners make available, and for claiming it’s your partners’ faults.

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 »

More articles by Gary Leff »


  1. I have have had very similar experiences trying to book award flights from Narita to Honolulu. I think that this post should be submitted as a letter to the editor for a newspaper or two that caters to the International community. United’s dirty little secret should be made known to the masses.

  2. Yes this sucks and it is disappointing. But it is also not entirely surprising that United is being stingy on foreign tickets with the way the dollar has been plummeting.

  3. This happens to me all the time — especially when I try to get LH seats.

    UA boasts they are part of the Star Alliance – but then they with hold seats — which makes membership in the UA program worth less. Its tempting to switch to another carrier’s program if you focus on using *Alliance more than UA – – at least you would have a better chance of getting a seat.

    Its too bad that UA has to slight their partners and make them look bad when it is really them causing the problem!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.