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Unlike many of the stories you’ll read on TPG, this one doesn’t end with a glass of champagne served in a posh first class cabin. Instead, this is the story of how I wasted five hours of my life chasing a phantom award seat that never existed in the first place.

There’s no happy ending here for me to hang my hat on, but if I had to go back, I’d do it all again. TPG Senior Editor Nick Ewen previously wrote about what you should do if your award space disappears while you’re waiting for your points transfer to post, and even though this situation was a little different, I followed many of the same steps. In the process of this failed quest, I learned a lot about how airlines in the same alliance display award space differently and was reminded how tools like ExpertFlyer, Google Flights and various award search engines can all work together to make our lives easier.

A Unicorn Spotting

I’m flying to Australia next week with my girlfriend for a much-needed beach getaway and to see one of our favorite bands in concert. Because of her work schedule we booked cash tickets for $750 each round-trip from Shanghai (PVG) to Sydney (SYD). While I was able to get us a window/aisle pair in the 2-4-2 layout of the carrier’s A330, I’ve been checking frantically to see if any flat bed award options might open up for our return flight.

That’s how I stumbled upon one of the most elusive first class award tickets: seats on Qantas’ A380. Qantas only has 12 of these super jumbos, and they fly primarily from Sydney and Melbourne (MEL) to the US and London-Heathrow (LHR). Qantas also operates an A380 on one of its daily frequencies to Hong Kong (HKG) during certain parts of the year, and this nearly ten-hour flight can be booked for only 50,000 AAdvantage miles in first class (worth $700 based on TPG’s most recent valuations).

I’m not sure what I was expecting to find, but I almost did a back flip when a search on AA.com showed wide open first class availability from Sydney to Hong Kong for 2 passengers during peak December travel times.

Now that should have been a red flag right there. When something looks too good to be true, it often is, but the thought of a flat bed and incredible lounge experience led me to ignore the alarm bells ringing in the back of my head.

AA allows you to place award tickets on hold for up to five days, and I rushed to do exactly that before this glut of award space disappeared.

Only when I clicked on the continue button, the following error message popped up and the flights disappeared.

I tried again. And again. And again, with a different browser. With a VPN. Without a VPN. With a different proxy server. Finally I tried the American app. Each time, I received some sort of error message.

Something’s Not Right Here

The other reason I had been so surprised to see this award space is that I’d started my search on the British Airways website, looking primarily for Cathay Pacific business class space on the Sydney-Hong Kong route. While it’s not perfect, I find the BA search engine to be relatively reliable at showing Oneworld availability, and it was telling me there was nothing available on the day we needed to fly.

So I turned to ExpertFlyer, which also showed a goose egg for Qantas award space.

At this point I was pretty sure I knew what was going on: I had stumbled upon the dreaded phenomenon of phantom (read: unbookable) award space.

I probably should have given up at this point, but in the name of intellectual curiosity insanity, I had one more search to make. What could be a more reliable way to check Qantas award space than on the Qantas website itself? Lo and behold, Qantas was showing two award seats on QF 127 to Hong Kong. And. I. Couldn’t. Give. Up.

Having exhausted all my technological options (AA, BA, Qantas and ExpertFlyer), I turned to the dreaded call center. My first call to AA went absolutely nowhere. After 45 minutes on hold on the Gold Elite line, the phone agent said she couldn’t see the space, and if she couldn’t see it she couldn’t book it. I asked to speak to a supervisor, and was given the exact same response.

Remembering Nick’s advice about disappearing award space, I asked a pretty bold question: Would it be possible to request the award space directly from Qantas? Or to go through a Oneworld liaison to request the space (since both AA and Qantas were showing it)? I was told in no uncertain terms that no, that would not be possible.

I had one last trick up my sleeve (and just enough patience for one more phone call), so I tried dialing the Australian AA call center. Foreign call centers can be a great option when you’re having tech problems. In the past, the Australian center has been able to see more Etihad first class award space than the main AA call center, and the Malaysian SPG team was able to help me book an award at the St. Regis Maldives a full 24 hours before the US reps had access. Unfortunately the Australian team couldn’t see the space either and also refused to ask Qantas for it directly. It’s possible they would have made an exception if I was a higher tier (read: higher spending) elite, but I knew this request was a long shot from the beginning. While I would have liked them to honor their mistake, I was essentially asking them to give away $7,000+ of award seats they hadn’t intended to offer.

Bottom Line

I genuinely believe that I learn more about redeeming points from the trips I don’t take than from the ones I do. Almost all of the world’s best first class products require a little bit of work (and a lot of luck) to book successfully. While I’ll be flying ten hours each way in economy on my trip to Sydney, I’ll be better equipped to deal with this situation if I ever have to deal with a Oneworld IT glitch in the future (but what are the odds of that happening, right?).

While things didn’t ultimately go my way this time, the moral of the story is simple: don’t give up if things don’t work on the first click. Use all the tools at your disposal, especially ExpertFlyer, to check and cross-check the information you see. Phantom award space isn’t common, but it does happen. And even if you’re reasonably certain you are looking at phantom space, try calling in anyways. Your odds of success might be low, but what’s a 45-minute phone call if it gets you a ten-hour first class flight? You shouldn’t go in demanding that the award space be made available, but if you know the key phrases to use (like “alliance liaison”) you might be able to unlock some doors.

Know before you go.

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