Alaska Blocks Intra-Asia Awards on Cathay, JAL and Hainan Within 72 Hours of Departure
Update 2/15/18: Alaska has clarified its policy since it was first announced. It will not block last-minute partner awards on bookings from from North America — the restrictions will only apply to intra-Asia award tickets only.
Alaska Airlines has made a large and negative change to its MileagePlan award program. On February 8th, the airline updated three of its partner pages saying that award flights must be booked at least 72 hours before the departure time. The change is immediate and affects Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines and Hainan.
At first this might not seem like a huge deal: You simply can't book three Alaska partners with 72 hours of departure. But using Alaska miles on Cathay Pacific and JAL are some of the best redemptions in the points and miles game. You can use just 70,000 Alaska miles to fly Cathay First, which is an absolute steal for one of the nicest cabins in the sky.
However, it could be quite tough to book one of these awards since Cathay releases an extremely limited amount of first class award seats. The main trick was waiting until the last minute when Cathay opened up first class award space, usually within 72 hours of departure, and then snagging the seat. The new policy essentially ends that strategy, especially since Alaska actually sees less availability for Cathay than other loyalty programs.
Alaska claims the change has to due with combating fraud, so it's possible that the airline will be able to reverse the policy once it has figured out a better solution to combat the issue.
The next-best option is redeeming American miles or Asia Miles on Cathay, but you'll have to shell out tens of thousands more miles than through MileagePlan for a one-way flight.
JAL and Hainan Airlines are usually a little better with award availability, so they may be less affected by this, but the rule still stands that most carriers usually release business and first class seats right before departure. The theory being that airlines are more willing to allow miles to be redeemed if they don't think they are going to sell the seat anyway.
Fortunately Alaska didn't actually change its MileagePlan award charts, but it's just going to be much harder to find that coveted first and business class availability.