United Decides Not to Let Members See Singapore Airlines Award Space Online, Misleads Members About It

In recent times airlines have worked to improve the ability to find partner award seats on their website. That saves on call center time, and helps members fulfill their searches with less frustration.

United’s website has gotten pretty good at this. They don’t have all of their airline partners like Brussels Airlines online (and it isn’t always obvious to members that typing in where you want to go doesn’t show all of the options to get there) but they have most. American and Delta have a few partners online. Alaska has the bulk of theirs. Among major US programs, only US Airways Dividend Miles fails to show any partner airline availability at all.

Against this trend, last week United removed the ability to search and book awards on Singapore Airlines from its website.

United claimed this was an agreement between United and Singapore to do this — with no explanation of why in the world they would make an agreement to make life harder for their members.

The simplest speculation at the time was that United wanted members to book fewer seats on Singapore because those seats were costing the MileagePlus program more than they wanted to spend.

Although it’s not as if Singapore releases many (or pretty much any) premium cabin award seats between the US and Europe or Asia, and you’d expect that United’s massive price increases for partner awards would more than handle any budget concerns.

Meanwhile, there’s been speculation that Singapore has gotten tighter in releasing award space, such as on Singapore-Australia routes, and didn’t want to make this transparent (although it’s not clear why they would care what United members thought of this).

Meanwhile, Singapore Airlines award space continued to be bookable on the websites of Aeroplan, All Nippon, and Avianca LifeMiles.

Australian Business Traveller contacted both United and Singapore for their explanations.

United offered non-explanatory statements:

“Our ability to display award inventory on united.com and the United Mobile App is based on a mutual agreement with our partners” the spokesperson told Australian Business Traveller.

“At this time, Singapore Airlines and United have agreed to remove Singapore Airlines’ inventory from these channels.”

Of course everything about partner awards involves mutual agreements. Both partners have to ‘turn their key’ in order to offer award seats and show them online. If one partner doesn’t agree, then there is no mutual agreement!

Singapore Airlines, though, was a bit more forthcoming:

Singapore Airlines insists that it’s not removing award seats from the websites of Star Alliance partners, and suggests that United Airlines is solely responsible for last week’s removal of SQ award inventory…

“[E]ach Star Alliance member carrier may choose how to fulfill such redemptions differently, which we have no influence over.”

“For example, some Star carriers may choose to allow their respective frequent flier programme members access to redemption online or offline, depending on their respective platforms.

Singapore isn’t usually so candid or definitive.

While United sort of disputes this, “a spokesperson for United Airlines disputed SQ’s claim that it had “no influence over” United’s decision to force members of its Mileage Plus frequent flyer scheme to call the airline’s reservations line to check availability of Singapore Airlines award seats..”

Of course Singapore has influence! United would happily display those seats if the inventory didn’t cost the program anything to book.

I would not mind if United said, “we’ve found that making costly partner award seats so easy to book is a more expensive proposition than we expected, so instead of blocking your ability to book those seats or raising our award prices even further, we’ve decided not to be so proactive about offering those seats.”

But the disingenuousness here is disrespectful to members.

Good job to Australian Business Traveller for getting some straight answers out of Singapore Airlines on this!

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. Gary, I’m not much up to speed on the back-end workings of partner awards. Have you posted in the past on how the compensation between the partners works? That is, if someone books SQ using UA miles, does UA pay SQ in cash? In goodwill? Reciprocal seat availability? Just curious, because I don’t know if the cost to UA is an actual cost, an opportunity cost, or what, so I’m wondering because that would provide a lot of context.

  2. How much you wanna bet that United will magically begin showing SQ space again, as soon as the new partner award chart goes into effect?

  3. What? A frequent flyer program not being honest to it’s members? I’m shocked! Simply shocked!

    I’ll be interested to see what imprint, if any, Doug Parker’s team makes on the AAdvantage program. Parker prides himself on being honest with his employees. I’m not sure he’ll take that approach with his customers (Dividend Miles doesn’t really seem different from the other programs in that regard) but we’ll see. It would certainly be refreshing if a frequent flyer program tried some candor.

  4. Gary- this is a serious question. Why do you think United continues to lay on bad news and negative changes and only counteract it with a new marketing scheme calling themselves “friendly” without actually backing it up. At least with other chains’ recent changes, they offset their negative news with positive news (see: Hyatt, Delta). This has not been the case at UA.

    What is their end play? Do you think they want to turn in to more of a budget carrier, relying far less on the frequent traveler? Obviously something isn’t working when you look at their financials compared to the industry, yet they seem to be doing more of the same out of stubbornness. Delta and AA are both heavily investing in their high-end products and frequent flier programs and are making money while UA continues to make budget cuts and lose money.

    As an extremely loyal United flier, who travels weekly, this is the first time I’ve ever seriously considered moving to AA and I really don’t think I’m alone.

    I’m very curious to hear your opinions on this!

  5. @David, 7+ year 1K here as well, the messages just keep coming – “We don’t value your business” Gary any ideas if the new combined AA will offer any enticements or matches for new flyers, as perhaps combined they will now make sense now to a whole new crop of previously loyal now discontent UA flyers.

  6. Gary,

    I kept checking LH first class for my return FRA to NYC flight and united.com kept showing nothing available. I decided to use wandr.me web site notification to check with ANA and seat was there today! I called united to switch, agent confirmed that she sees the same….. Is united hiding LH first class award too???

  7. I gather we can still search SQ awards via the NH & AC sites. Will availability on those sites matches with UA’s systems? I hope this is not a precursor to United not offering the awards its Star partners provide their members. United is making incredible moves to damage the alliance concept. Star is the biggest and best global alliance, but United now only desires its members to earn and redeem on their own metal.

  8. @david, interesting how they’re leveraging the trend in the younger generations to “believe what I say, not what I do” – I mean, not to get all political, but almost half the country still believes the President is honest and trustworthy – really? REALLY? So UA must see and know that the masses will believe their marketing, no critical thinking involved or empirical evidence accepted. Sad. But true. Third World here we come.

  9. Must be a slow news day. The only basis for your misleading, and disrespectful labels is the statement from SQ. Further you state that SQ”s statements are the “straight answer”

    So to sum up. You beleve SQ statement and label UA’s statement as disengenuous

  10. @Jeff – United’s statement does not in any way contradict Singapore’s statement. It appears very carefully worded so as to not technically be false, but not offer any insight.

  11. The foundation of traditional (non-revenue based) FF programs is winning revenue now in exchange for a promise of travel later — typically years later. This structure rewards dishonest decisions by the service provider, accelerating until all credibility is lost.

    People who cash in earlier do better than people who cash in later. The best available rate of return declines continually. The supplier pockets a lot of profits, but in the end millions of people who invested in the system will lose whatever they didn’t redeem.

    FF programs may not fit the precise definition of Ponzi schemes, but they bear a striking resemblance. Dishonest management of the programs is part of that resemblance.

    Why did United make this and its other recent changes? Because if there’s one thing a Ponzi scheme cannot abide, it’s any system allowing the marks to extract profit consistently. The house must always win.

    Gary, I predict you will have many more harsh words for the managers of these programs as the screws tighten on members. Matching the acts of program managers, your words will become harsher and harsher until finally even you decide that the only way to win this game is not to play.

  12. The dissembling by UA is deplorable. At least have the integrity to be honest and take responsibility for your actions.

  13. @Jeff

    btw, you are nominated for the worst CEO of 2013 on CNBC… i bet you’ll crush the other two competitors.

  14. @nsx at flyertalk

    “the only way to win this game is not to play”

    Wow, bitter much?

    Even with an actual Ponzi scheme, the folks who get in early really do profit handsomely. I got in several decades ago, and ended up with several dozen FC TATL award flights over the years, for pennies on the dollar compared to even economy class revenue prices. And that’s with no business travel at all.

    Recently we’ve also been staying a month each summer in very nice hotels in Western Europe entirely on awards, which despite cc fees, etc. still price out at cents on the dollar. And yes, that is compared to prices I would otherwise actually pay, ie not Park Hyatt.

    If every award program ended today, and all of my miles and points were forfeited, I still could not be bitter. It’s been a great run, and I’ve already gotten many, many times more value than I have put in. Much more so since I discovered VFW. 😉

    But the game isn’t over yet, it just keeps getting somewhat more difficult. As I noted, the early members in a Ponzi scheme do well. Just a couple of days ago I got approved for the Alaska 50K mile cc, despite not meeting several of the T/C, thanks to information and the link found on this blog.

    We are both already ticketed on FC Saver awards, US to LHR, AA 777-300 for next summer. Yes, I hate that AA seems to have stopped opening up 2 Saver awards on the same flight, and so only one of us is booked for the return flight on Saver, and the other will have to pay for Anytime. But I’m not bitter, because without the AA FF program our summer vacation would be somewhere within driving distance of home, instead of a month in London, Paris, Venice, Rome, and the Alps.

    Yes, I hate the HH devaluation. But once again this summer we will be staying in European Hilton properties for some 20 nights, including free breakfast, with the cost of acquiring those points being somewhere around $25 a night. Essentially, we are paying the price of breakfast at a casual café, and getting an upgraded Hilton room for free, in very expensive cities. The other 10 nights are on Marriott and Carlson awards.

    In the last year, I have gotten the PRG 50K offer, Southwest 50K, LH 50K, Alaska 50K, and both of us got the British 100K card, and 3 more Citi AA cards. Despite having next summer’s airfare and hotels already fully “paid for” with miles and points, we are still sitting on just under 1,500,000 miles and points.

    Will some of these miles and points be devalued before we can “earn them and burn them”? Of course they will. But will we still get far more value from them than the AFs and MS fees cost us? Absolutely !

    There may come a day when “the only way to win this game is not to play”, but it’s not now; not even close. Especially for those who read this blog, and/or FT.

    But if in fact you feel that way, why is your “name” nsx at flyertalk, instead of nsx formerly of flyertalk?

  15. UA’s relationship with SQ could use a marriage counselor! As many people on FT noted, it’s one thing when your system isn’t set-up to view partner award availability but if you have that ability, taking away ability to view it online is unprecedented. Has that ever happened before?

    Thankfully, I usually transfer into KF from MR and SPG to book premium SQ seats but, for a lot of people with a ton of UA miles, this isn’t great news as booking online is way, way more easier than going through a ton of options with an agent and, potentially, paying an extra fee if you don’t have high enough status.

  16. Thanks Gary. Best to call it like it is, United is Unfriendly to their most loyal travelers, the ones who want to aspirationally travel after earning hundreds of thousands of miles. Even though based in Denver, this 1K happily moved pastures to AA. I fly UAL only when its uber convenient for me or burning up miles.

  17. @Robert Hanson: I agree completely with everything you said. I’m in a similar situation. I redeemed almost all my UA miles for TATL F travel this year, including a wonderful First Class Terminal experience in Frankfurt. It will be years before this thing collapses, but the end appears inevitable. When the general public moves to Capital One and the like, leaving only complexity seekers like us, the programs will die.

    In the meantime, the value in the programs depends mostly on how many dollars Chase and other banks are willing to pay airlines per new credit card signup. That number should remain relatively constant even though redemption prices rise in mileage terms. We may eventually see a million mile credit card signup bonus coupled with 500k pricing for a domestic saver award.

  18. To those who asked if UA agents will see the availability of SQ awards on the ANA tool, the answer is yes. I tried to make such a reservation on 2 nights ago, but the agent could not price the award with an SQ flight. I was put on hold several times, for about 2 hours, while the agent and her supervisor tried to work something out. Eventually I settled for an LH flight. They wore me out.

  19. Just another one of so many reasons it was a huge mistake to let carriers merge.
    The reason for the continued negative changes?
    Because they can and will screw customers almost every chance they can.
    They are a huge ugly mean backstabbing behemoth
    Did I mention they are greedy?
    No matter how much misery United inflicts on its passengers/customers folks will gripe and still fly them. Only when their customers stop flying will they get it. I boycott them proudly
    I look forward to their next bankruptcy and will cheer a management change.
    United is basically another Delta in disguise
    These are the two programs and carriers I avoid at all costs and I am a former 1k at United. I got out many years ago. The smartest move I ever made.
    One World with all its warts and wrinkles rocks!
    Transparent and fair enough to do business with
    Even with fuel surcharges. Hello BA 🙂

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