The Advantages and Disadvantages of the Three Airline Alliances, or the Wall Street Journal Covers United Starnet Blocking

Scott McCartney‘s “Middle Seat” column in the Wall Street Journal today focuses on the benefits of alliances.

The action, as Scott rightly notes, is all in upgrades, lounge access, and mileage accrual and redemption.

He points out that oneworld top tier elites have access to first class lounges, not just business lounges, but that oneworld doesn’t currently offer an alliance upgrade product.

And he offers my take on award redemption:

“There’s little question that Star Alliance is the best for award redemption,” said Gary Leff, the member-elected president of “They’re the biggest alliance and in general their award availability is the best.”

This then keyed off a discussion of United’s insidious practice of ‘starnet blocking’ — telling customers that award seats which its partners are offering are not available when they do not want to pay for those seats — into the column.

While most Star Alliance members make all open award seats available to customers, United is an exception. It blocks some availability from StarNet. When airlines let you use your miles on partners, they typically end up having to pay the partner for providing the transportation. So it can be cash out the door.

United responds, but offers an explanation that is simply not true:

A spokesman for United says Star Alliance members set the price United must pay for each award flight flown by a member of United’s Mileage Plus program.

“There are occasions when Mileage Plus may limit the number of award seats available on Star Alliance carriers,” the spokesman said. “These occasions primarily occur when United has direct or connecting service to the destination and United award seats are available.”

Though blocking has changed and morphed somewhat over time, United has famously blocked Lufthansa award seats to European cities that United does not serve, and is especially known for blocking Thai Airways premium seats between London and Bangkok. United does not serve the London-Bangkok market. And they’ve blocked it across the board for months at a time, not just when United had award seats on their Tokyo-Bangkok flight available. United has blocked Air New Zealand trans-tasman seats, when United no longer even serves the country of New Zealand.

Blocking goes in cycles throughout a fiscal quarter, as United has room in its budget with each carrier blocking may be light. If blocking is ‘too tight’ during a quarter such that they haven’t spent the money they budgeted, they may loosen their restrictions. So blocking was virtually non-existent at the beginning of May. Last night United refused to book otherwise-available Seattle-Frankfurt seats on Lufthansa.

And the key point here is that miles in any other Star Alliance program could book the seats that United’s system say are unavailable. So Continental, US Airways, and Air Canada Aeroplan miles are much more useful than United’s as a result.

Meanwhile, oneworld offers an interesting contest and they sort of throw down the gauntlet on this issue, something really good to see — award space is award space in oneworld, there’s not ‘better’ access to Cathay seats with American miles than British airways miles for instance.

Oneworld says its members have agreed to make reward seats equally available—if one carrier offers the seats, all must offer them. The alliance hopes that can be a “competitive advantage,” said spokesman Michael Blunt.

Hopefully the more attention that United’s practice of Starnet blocking gets, the less sustainable it will become. If oneworld sees a competitive advantage is calling out the practice, and other mileage schemes are more valuable as a result, perhaps the folks at Continental will put an end to it when they take control of the carrier. Here’s hoping, anyway, it’s my biggest fear and uncertainty about the merger (along of course with international first class and economy plus…).

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. Is the Oneworld “equal access to award seats” promise REALLY true? I’ve oftem wanted to fly a LAN segment or two on an AA award (like, say, to Mendoza) only to find that JAN gave only about 5% of its available LANPass award seats to AA to book. So if this promise is really true, it could be extremely useful to AA members wanting “add-on” South America flights to their AA awards. But until I hear otherwise, I’ll remain skeptical. Indeed, I’ve previously complained in writing to AA about the absurdity of LAN’s award availability, and they basically told me “tough luck.”

  2. @iahphx I can’t speak with TOO much familiarity booking LAN awards, only a little, but my experience using both American and British Airways miles for Cathay, Iberia, LAN, and redemption of AA miles on BA and BA miles on AA is that whatever space is offered to partners can be booked by any partner — but that there are often IT issues in the way, synching issues, and agent issues. So it can take perseverance or time.

  3. I recently booked a AUS-IQT premium ticket using 60K AA miles. I would have preferred to burn some BA miles instead, but BA could not provide the same LIM-IQT legs that AA did with Lan Peru.

    I had why AA could provide thiose legs,
    but BA could not.

    The BA agent just said THAT IS THE WAY IT IS…!!

  4. @MrHalliday BA IT is notoriously bad for searching awards. I’ve had long hold times and supervisors before magically being able to find partner seats I knew were available… I’ve laso had seats not available no matter how many folks I spoke to, wait a day and it’s all of a sudden bookable. I have also had agents tell me that seats I could see online weren’t available! I don’t believe that with BA it’s generally an inventory issue.

  5. I spoke last night with a BA supervisor about booking a JFK-SFO flight that connected in LAX. The flights were available and American has that as a valid route but BA says that that LAX is not a valid connection for that route and it would be two awards. So maybe the flights are available but if BA puts ridiculous artificial restrictions on routing then that is just as bad as United’s starblocking.

  6. I tried to use some US Airways miles on a domestic award I found using Continental’s onepass search which combined some legs on continental and united. US Airways could not book it and claimed they did not allow combining the legs on different carriers so I had to transfer a few amex rewards to get enough miles in continental. So US Airways reps are not great and/or there are other rules differences in star besides starnet blocking.

  7. Gary, keep fighting the good fight! I’ve decided to follow your advice (and others) and now have 300k+ miles saved for “aspirational” travel. But since these are United miles, my aspirations are somewhat restricted!

  8. Is it me or does this blog constantly change font sizes, etc.

    Maybe it’s my screen but every post seems to have several different fonts and font sizes. It just looks odd….

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