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One of my worst travel nightmares is an unanticipated and unresolvable problem cropping up with my airline reservation, as TPG and many frequent travelers have experienced. Despite my best efforts, one of my family’s flight reservations got canceled before our recent trip to Hawaii. In today’s post, I want to offer a cautionary tale that shows how an airline could fail to ticket your award trip and fail to provide helpful solutions after the fact.
Positioning from Maui to Honolulu
After a week’s vacation in Maui, we needed a positioning flight to Honolulu before returning home in first class on our Delta flight booked with Korean Air SkyPass miles. I used American Airlines AAdvantage miles to book four economy-class awards on Hawaiian Airlines, which offers more than 20 flights a day on that short route.
But about a week before our vacation, I realized that I had made the reservations for the wrong day. Thankfully, American Airlines allows date changes on awards at no cost, so long as the origin and destination are the same. After finding four award seats online for a 8:16am flight on the correct day, I called American to change our reservation, since changes to partner awards cannot be made online.
The agent I spoke with saw the same award availability that I did, and confirmed the change as requested. Using the confirmation numbers I was given, I went to the Hawaiian Airlines website to verify the reservation and select seats. Finally, I called Hawaiian Airlines to notify them that we would be carrying our infant son as a lap child (per the instructions on Hawaiian’s website). At no time was there any indication that there was any problem with our reservations.
The “Urgent” Email
The next day, I received an email titled “URGENT PLEASE CALL AMERICAN AIRLINES REGARDING [confirmation number]” with the instructions to “Please call American Airlines at 1 800 882 8880 regarding your upcoming reservation.” When I called, I was initially told that the reservation was canceled by Hawaiian. I was later told that the seats were never actually available, and that agent I spoke with made a mistake.
I pointed out that these explanations made no sense, as the award seats were available online and the American agent said that he ticketed them. I also explained that I saw the reservation on Hawaiian’s website using a Hawaiian Airlines confirmation number, and I even spoke to a Hawaiian representative who added a note to our reservation regarding our lap child. Yet all that the American agents would do was to offer us a new reservation for the only other flight that day that currently had award seats, the flight that left at 6am. This would mean waking up the family at 3am in order to drive to the airport from the other side of the island, return the rental car, check bags and go through security — a pretty horrible way to end a family vacation.
My wife and I spoke with multiple agents and supervisors who each freely admitted that American Airlines was at fault, but refused to offer any remedies other than allowing us to choose a new flight from the available award space. I suggested that American reach out to Hawaiian to try to resolve this issue, but they refused. I also suggested that American credit my account with sufficient miles to redeem first-class awards, which were available, but they refused.
After spending a couple hours on the phone (trying fix a flight that lasts just 30 minutes), representatives’ answers essentially came down to, “We made a mistake, but now it’s your problem.” Ultimately, we decided to fly out the night before, forfeiting a day we prepaid for our rental car in Maui, while costing us another day of car rental and a one-night hotel stay in Honolulu.
American’s Official Word
After the trip, I reached out to both American and Hawaiian’s public relations to get a response to how this can happen, and what travelers can do. I never heard back from Hawaiian, but American said this:
“It appears to have been an error during the booking process on our end, and seats were not available for award booking on the flight you wanted. I reviewed the history, and it appears our team did provide you other options that were available. While this is very rare, we work to book a passenger on an alternative flight. Our partners usually do not allow us to request flights due to errors on our part. If we flew a flight on that route, we would work to open our availability due to the error. This is an isolated incident, and I do apologize. But our team works with the passengers to try to find alternative flights that have availability.”
It’s extremely disappointing that AA is officially unwilling to lift a finger to contact its partners to try to fix its own errors. Your award seats can disappear due to errors made by the carrier, and if so, it becomes your problem.
However, if this problem affects your flight on a route that American serves, it can open up award space for you, much like United did for me when its website showed space that didn’t exist. But since American doesn’t fly between Maui and Honolulu, we were out of luck.
My Theory on What Actually Happened
With award seats showing availability online, and my seats confirmed by both Hawaiian website and its telephone representatives, I don’t buy the explanation that an individual telephone representative at American Airlines made a mistake. It’s more plausible to me that American’s system can take as long as a day to ticket its “reservations,” which may not actually be reserved until ticketed. During that time, the award seats were ticketed by another carrier, perhaps even by Hawaiian. Unbeknownst to me, what I had was merely a reservation, not a confirmed ticket. And while this represents a clear failure of the carrier’s IT systems, American compounded this problem by not empowering its agents or even its supervisors to work with its partners to resolve the problem. Hawaiian was still selling seats on the flight that we had originally reserved, as well a dozen other later flights that day that would have worked for us. If the two airlines worked together, I’m sure that they could have found some solution.
I’m also skeptical that this is an isolated incident, as American’s statement suggests. While it might be relatively rare, I’ve found multiple threads on FlyerTalk, like this one and this one, showing how American’s partner awards can disappear.
What You Can Do
First, you need to be aware that partner awards can fail to ticket on American and other airlines. While I wouldn’t say that it’s common, it does happen often enough that it’s likely to happen to you one day if you book award tickets a few times a year. After making an award “reservation,” you need to continually check it to confirm that it eventually reaches “Ticketed” status, rather than “On Request,” “Pending” or “Purchased.” Only when it reaches “Ticketed” status should you have enough confidence to book other non-refundable arrangements.
When American canceled my ticket, I spoke with multiple representatives and escalated the problem to multiple supervisors, which is pretty much all you can do. I could have tried going around American by calling Hawaiian, but that would have been a long shot. Appealing to an executive at American is another option that I chose not to pursue this time. Finally, reaching out to an airline on Twitter often gets you better service and quicker response times, but it’s unlikely that would have made much of a difference here.
Certainly, had American operated flights that would have worked for us, I believe the carrier would have opened up award space. In fact, having a partner award fail to ticket can even be an opportunity to select a better flight for your needs. For example, if an American award flight to London on British Airways failed to ticket, I would insist on receiving award space on a flight operated by American, saving costly fuel surcharges.
Airline partnerships are great when they work, but can be painfully frustrating when they produce these kind of ticketing failures. By understanding how this process can go wrong, you can take every possible step to ensure your flight is truly ticketed before committing to other travel plans.
Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Have you ever dealt with an airline not ticketing a partner award?
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