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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.

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