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The Phantom Award Space Menace: United Ghost Availability And How To Fix It

by on March 28, 2013 · 47 comments

in TPG Contributors, United

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Today, TPG contributor Jason Steele tells us a ghost story that has haunted many of us in the past – the story of phantom United award space availability and how to overcome this spooky glitch to book the travel that you want.

As I have written before, it is extremely difficult to find more than two award seats together for family travel, especially in business and first class. So you can imagine my excitement when I searched United’s web site and found three premium cabin seats on US Airways from Denver to Tel Aviv right around winter holidays. But after transferring considerable sums of Ultimate Rewards points earned from my Ink Bold, Ink Plus, and Sapphire Preferred cards, to my United MileagePlus account, the web site errored out when I try to complete the booking.

This problem has become known as United’s phantom award space, and through some research as well as trial and error, I have uncovered details about this phenomenon, as well as an effective workaround.

Have you ever gotten this message when trying to book a United award?

Have you ever gotten this message when trying to book a United award?

What is United Phantom Award space?

For the purposes of this discussion, phantom award space is any “saver” award seat that appears available on United.com, but cannot be booked. And while it is well documented that any Lufthansa First Class flight that appears more than 15 days in advance is always phantom space, this problem extends far beyond Lufthansa.

I have seen or read about this issue with nearly all partners, and I have experienced it on multiple occasions with flights operated by United. It is my belief that the source of this problem originates in the code developed for Continental, long before the merger was even proposed, as I used to find phantom award space on domestic Continental award flights several years ago. Furthermore, I have even had the same phantom space issues trying to book award seats on United-operated flights using Air Canada Aeroplan miles, and Air Canada (correctly) blamed United.

So clearly, there is some mismatch between the award space United.com shows and what its booking engine and its frontline telephone agents can actually ticket. I have also been able to hold some Lufthansa business class seats, only to have their system fail when I try to ticket. The agents I spoke to were unable to give me any real reason why I couldn’t book the ticket that was on “hold,” but admitted that it happens often, and blamed Lufthansa (erroneously, I believe).

What the Phantom Award Space Problem is Not

Because this issue originates in pre-merger Continental systems, and because it can affects flights on United metal, it cannot be attributed to United’s old StarNet blocking scheme to filter partner awards. And when confronted with the problem, United’s customer service representatives seemed to be trained to tell customers that award availability is constantly changing and that someone else must have booked your award seats moments before you did. That is a worthless excuse for a number of reasons; I have seen phantom award space appearing for days before and after trying to book it, and on flights ~330 days in the future with not a single seat assigned. In contrast, when I book a non-phantom award seat, it immediately disappears from the inventory displayed at United.com. Besides, it is just not plausible that another award traveler is constantly stalking my searches and snatching up my seats the moment I start the booking process, let alone after I placed them on “hold.” Yet apparently, inexperienced travelers seem to accept this excuse.

How to Get the Saver Award Seats You Want

Simply calling United and asking them book the award manually is not the solution, as you will only hear the same story about how someone must have beat you to it, and there is nothing they can do.

I still got flights to Tel Aviv - it just wasn't how I expected.

I still got flights to Tel Aviv – it just wasn’t how I expected.

Here is strategy that I have used multiple times:

1. Contact United and inform them of the problem. Ask the first line representatives to duplicate the problem by booking the flight manually. Although they will fail, this step is important as it defines the issue as a problem with United’s systems, not a customer originating issue.

2. Do not accept their excuses. Inform United that you have accumulated or transferred all your miles to their program for this award, and it is not acceptable that they offered these seats on their web site and are unable to ticket them.

3. Ask to be connected with a supervisor. On each occasion, the supervisors I spoke to were informed that the first level representative has already duplicated the phantom space issue on United.com. Here is where you hold your ground, repeat that it is unacceptable that you earned or transferred all these miles based on United’s false promise of an award seat. If the phantom space is with a partner, the supervisor will contend that United has no control over the partner’s award space. This is true, but then it is still United’s fault for showing space that doesn’t exist. The first time this happened, I explained that I had already transferred 180,000 Ultimate Rewards points to United MileagePlus based on the award spaced displayed, and that I could not undo the transaction.

4. Ask the supervisor to open up Saver Award availability on United flights. This is the key to the castle, which I have repeatedly received. Apparently, supervisors have the ability to grant unlimited saver awards for any unsold seat on any United flight in any class of service. When the supervisors agree to this request, and I read out the dates and flight numbers I needed, specified how many seats I required, and which class of service I had to have. I made these requests knowing that there were no saver award seats available at those peak times, but that there were still available revenue seats. On one call, I even chose different dates than what I had tried to book originally. Each time, my request was granted after the supervisor seemed to search for unsold rather than saver award inventory. For what it’s worth, I have no status with United.

And this time it was confirmed!

And this time it was confirmed!

5. Accept the fees. One time, I hesitantly suggest that United waive the telephone award booking fee ($25 per ticket, but automatically waived for GS, Premier 1k, and Premier Platinum), but I had no luck. Truthfully, I would gladly pay these fees every time to receive unlimited saver award availability on United metal.

Limitations

Before you call, you need to be ready to provide the supervisor with an acceptable alternate routing on United metal and non-phantom partner award availability. Thankfully, United has excellent service on its own metal for my trip between Denver and Tel Aviv, but you might be out of luck if your itinerary requires a leg with only phantom award space. Nevertheless, it is usually the North American originating intercontinental flights that are the most difficult to secure awards for, and United has a pretty extensive network connecting American travelers to the other Star Alliance hubs for partner awards beyond.

As with all issues like this, you will be at the mercy of the agents you speak with. If your agent is unable or unwilling to open up partner award space, politely hang up and try again.

United has some longstanding issues with its award booking engine, but the news is not all bad. By holding United responsible for this problem, and offering a solution that exhibits a knowledge of the airline’s operations, you should be able to redeem your miles for the ideal flights to your destination.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • SeaBee3

    I used to think that about the 15 days out with Lufthansa first class, but I recently booked 4 first class tickets on United with Lufthansa (award) and it was 2 months out. I was really surprised and thought they were really waitlisted, but they were confirmed first class. It was the YYZ-FRA if anyone is curious about routes.

  • http://twitter.com/WanderngAramean Wandering Aramean

    Or just reserve the award – making sure the inventory is actually there – and then transfer the points in. Bullying the agent may work from time to time but it is most certainly not guaranteed. I’m also surprised to hear of phantom inventory on US metal. Not many reports of that in other places. Or was that just a convenient hypothetical example.

    And, of course, excellent job adding extra referral links which don’t actually improve the information for readers or the value of the story.

  • Trevor

    I recently encountered a similar issue trying to book Delta Awards to Europe with connecting intra-European KLM flights at low-level business class (100K roundtrip). The phone agent also couldn’t help, and the “phantom” seats appeared on numerous dates. None of them were bookable, and there were no other low-level available flights (the direct flights from DTW to CDG, for example, were going for 325K miles). I finally found success by shifting dates just slightly and finding Air France codeshares on the same KLM metal. For whatever reason, KLM would not ticket the itineraries that were displaying — but Air France would!

  • NinaK

    I thought I was the only who constantly had this problem! I have encountered this situation many times while trying to book United reward flights (not partner airlines). Most recently I tried to book EWR-LHR and when i called, I had the representative duplicate the problem. She said it must have been a technical problem with the website and said she was going to transfer me to technical support. I am not sure what department I got next, but that new representative just made the booking for me and I did not have to pay a telephone booking fee. Exact same situation when trying to book EWR-SJU on United metal, went through the same steps on the phone and was able to make the booking successfully.

  • http://twitter.com/vrbaba vrbaba

    I have not seen phantom availability on United. However, saw this on Partner – especially Egyptair. Another option to be sure the availability is to check ANA website for the same flight as it will tell you whether the space is really available or not.

    It’s good to know that supervisors can create saver on United, however, it seems very YMMV. Especially since phantom availability is primarily applicable to partners.

  • PhatMiles

    Super glad that you posted this. Good to know that United agents can book unsold seats at Saver Award redemption rate. Should come super handy in the future.

  • badaboom

    This author, and the folks who follow his same methodology for “procuring” these seats are the same people who forced United’s hand in removing the fare class link (now it’s only for logged-in MP members) when booking reservations.

    They’d see R space, assume that they were the master of the universe and that they deserved an upgrade, call-in and bully their way into the front cabin.

  • Patrick

    Sorry.. I’m a bit confused. Looking for UA awards and it it show US Air? Are they partners?
    Thanks

  • Paul W

    Bullying? The agent has all the power and the customer has none. Characterizing a customer’s request to book an award flight based on what is shown on United’s own website as “bullying” seems a bit of an overreach, even accepting that “bullying” is nearly impossible to define these days..

  • Joe

    What does asking them to book it manually mean exactly (step 1)? Do you just ask them to try to book the same flights on the website that you are?

  • Flyerdad

    I get your point, although I don’t think it’s an accurate characterization of the MV post. But would it really be that difficult to be respectful or civil?

  • Jason Steele

    You are correct. They simply try to book what you are booking so that they can recognize that it is their system that has failed, and not the customer.

  • Jason Steele

    I am not bullying United, the largest airline in the world. I am politely asking them to find a way to sell me what they offered for sale.

  • Jason Steele

    Yes, both airlines are part of the Star Alliance, although it is rare to see US award seats actually offered at United.com, as I did.

  • Jason Steele

    Thank you!

  • Jason Steele

    Glad to see that it worked for you, and you didn’t accept any excuses.

  • Jason Steele

    Delta has a whole set of issues with their award booking that are different, but perhaps even more pervasive.

  • Jason Steele

    A rare find indeed.

  • Jason Steele

    I’ve heard of problems with Egypt air, but it most definitely does occur with United metal as others have noticed.

  • Dean

    Phantom availability on US is real. Had an issue just the other day when I was trying to book a flight for the Olympics. UA web site showed some US Airways flights as available but when I went to book it was not available. United agent even duplicated the problem.

  • Jason Steele

    I am not familiar with the upgrade issue, as I have no status and never get upgraded. But it can hardly be said that I forced anyone to do anything. United could have, (and has in the past) denied my request for saver award space, and I would have no recourse. I found a way to reason with them and get them to actually sell what they have offered for sale on their web site, and I wanted to share that so others could benefit.

  • Jason Steele

    And yes, US award space actually appeared on United’s site for the flights I needed, as others here have actually found as well.

  • Brad G

    A separate question all together, but if anyone has some advice it would be greatly appreciated! I booked two one way award tickets (PDX->IST and ZAG->PDX) without knowing that I could add a stopover if I had booked a roundtrip ticket. Now of course, United wants me to pay the $150 change fee, cancel my award, and have me rebook it hoping that the award availability is still there if I want to add a stopover. The reason I did not book a roundtrip ticket in the first place was that the saver awards would not show up when I searched rountrip, they would only show up when I searched for one way flights. Has anyone ever gotten around this or have any advice? Thanks in advance!

  • Duncan

    No need to reply to this pompous diatribe. Let’s keep this blog professional.

  • Kilton

    I like the links just because they annoy folks like you.

  • Elaine

    I am new to this and at this point just accumulating miles, but I am also steeling myself (no pun intended!) for the difficulties that may occur when trying to use the points. Are these workarounds things that award booking services routinely do? What is your take on using award booking services and are you able/willing to recommend any specific ones? I have bookmarked the post for future reference. Thanks!

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  • HikerT

    Ha, good catch on the gratuitous referral links.

  • BobChi

    I tried to do something similar, but was told there was no way without the change fee. I think it’s probably a lesson learned for next time.

  • Jason Steele

    I have not used an award booking service, but these can make sense. Most of my international award bookings are the result of hours of research and searching various airline websites and paid services such as Expertflyer and KVS. Those who just don’t have the time and patience should look into these services. My hunch is that the best services are aware of tricks like this, but I can’t say for sure.

  • Justin

    The problem I have with this method is that it requires you to possibly lose the UR hostage to your UA account should they not agree to do it.

    Basically, the crux of the argument is that you transferred points you would not have otherwise had their website not, essentially, lied to you. Valid point. But if the UA miles were already in your account, you have no beef.

    So if you see that space is phantom space by crosschecking with ANA or Aeroplan, and this is your grand plan to get saver seats on your preferred date of travel, you have to transfer the UR into your UA account on a hope and a prayer that they’ll accommodate you when you call in.

    Have you ever tried holding it, transferring miles and then attempting to ticket it? I would think that if they claimed to be “holding” the seats for you, that your argument would be much stronger if they all of a sudden can’t book it…

  • Jay

    I think you could weasel your way out, if United changed the itinerary on your reservation. If a flight time is moved by even 15 minutes, technically, you are eligible to get the award cancelled with no fee.

    In your case, It’s tough because you’d have to wait for this to happen on 2 award tickets. How much time do you have?

    Did you try talking to a supervisor…? Sometimes requesting in nicely can work wonders…You may have to call a couple of times though.

  • jay

    Strange thing about #4, getting the supervisor to open up availability, is why wasn’t it done in my case? Let me elaborate.

    I was flying to India from London, in december on Christmas day and it was a PITA trying to find saver award availability. I finally put something together, but it was London-Franfurt-6 hour halt-Bombay..Then a few weeks later, United magically cancelled my itinerary. This was part of a larger itinerary (EWR-LHR-BOM-EWR), and now I was left with (EWR-LHR, BOM-EWR).
    The agents and the supervisor has NO idea what went wrong and where my ticket vanished. And since this was a month before the trip, there was NO saver seats at all. Just revenue seats.
    Long story short, 4-5 hour-long calls later, they got me a ticket on Jet Airways.

    So my question is, why all the drama? Why make the problem even more problematic,(because it wasn’t easy procuring that Jet Airways seat)…when, as you say, they could have just opened up a saver seat??

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  • Jason Steele

    They could have done so easily, but only on United metal. Opening up award space on a partner is a challenge for them, as you saw.

  • Jason Steele

    I hear what you are saying, but in the event that you earned miles in United’s program, you have a case that you were a loyal customer and such. Either way, it is a UA glitch that they should accept responsibility for. As for saving an award ticket, that is what happened to me with LH tickets. I was told they were “saved” but then they would not ticket them. So apparently, the Phantom issue affects UA’s systems, but only rears its head at the very last step of ticketing, i.e. UA appears to be able to “hold” a phantom award seat in some cases.

  • http://twitter.com/southjerseybeth Beth Christian

    One thing I discovered tonight is that the United Website apparently shows greater award seat availability to those that have a United credit card. I have their card and logged on to the United website using my frequent flyer number. There were 2 seats available for the flight that we wanted. We each had only the miles that were needed for 1 ticket. When I logged on to my husband’s mileage plus account, no seats showed up. We do not have status on united. When I called mileage plus, I was advised that the reason that 2 seats showed up for me was that I had a Mileage plus credit card and my husband did not. I politely but firmly told them that it was ridiculous to offer 2 seats to me and none to him. I also suggested that a superviser be consulted so that we could get our 2 award seats. After 20 minutes on hold, the representative came back on the line and manually ticketed us. We actually ended up getting a better connecting flight, too.

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  • Minsi

    I tried doing this trick several times but it wouldn’t work. Also, every time I get connected to the Philippines or India, the connection is also very bad. As a matter of fact, some agent just hung up on me when I asked to speak with a supervisor.

  • CHStraveler

    Just encountered this very issue today trying to Book an award on LH using UA miles. (BKK – SGN) Plain as day on their website, but agent claimed she couldn’t see it.
    Wished I had read this and at least tried it before getting disappointed and hanging up!

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  • Lesli

    This is still a problem. I did a search for United award tickets after spending 2 hours today trying to find availability from any airport to hnl….no saver awards were available anywhere!

  • BBK

    This is a great post! Sadly I didn’t read this before.. Not only is real at the time you published, is real as per November and December 2013 when I experienced it, not only is real on UA metal inventory.. But in my case, 3 consecutive times I suffered the ghastly issue ALWAYS in revenue search, received the message you posted as a screen capture when I tried to reserve.. To that date I always thought the most current inventory was that of the webpage, when I called (the Mexico based call center in spanish) they told me that one segment of the route (all in UA metal I repeat) didn’t have availability. At least they told me that there should be an error on the webpage.

  • Jon

    I ran into this problem just last night. I have enough miles for a first class ticket, it showed a saver award available and it wouldn’t let me book it. When calling the representative, he said that the website just wasn’t updated, but the seat is no longer available. He said the website should update in 5-10 minutes. I asked if there was anything he could do, letting him know I already had my hotel booked and this was the only saver award available in the time frame I had available, and he said there was nothing and got quiet for a while waiting for my reaction. I ended the call peacefully, I went to bed and woke up this morning to see the same availability for a saver award on the website still. I will try your trick today and see what my results are by using a little stronger tone and talking to a supervisor.

  • Jon

    I attempted this, they said it was the web team’s fault and they are unable to do anything. Spoke to the supervisor and they said only the revenue team can open up saver awards, and I can’t speak to them. Said this is a common problem, they are trying to work with the web team on, but if it won’t let you book online you can’t do it….

  • Jan

    How far in advance should you try to get them to open up saver awards on United?

  • G

    So I called them and indicating that the option disappeared was not acceptable… But the supervisor said that she couldn’t do anything if the saver award option disappeared even if there were opening seats in the itinerary. So I ended up having to change to another day.

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