The Enigma of Atlantis Bahamas

One of the most touted benefits of Caesars Diamond status is that you can get a free stay at the Atlantis Bahamas. This is a destination I wouldn’t ever have normally considered, but there was a really good sale fare from Vancouver to Nassau so I grabbed tickets a couple of months ago. This is usually a rational strategy: if there is a good deal on flight tickets, just grab the flights immediately and figure out the rest later.

I had no idea what I was setting myself up for.

Looking at a picture is the closest you might come to staying at the Atlantis Bahamas

I called in December and was informed that the calendar wasn’t open yet for February. “Call back after the first of the year, and there should be good availability” said the friendly agent. OK, fine. I called in on January 2nd, and was informed that the calendar would be opening for February in mid-January, without any certainty as to exactly when. “I know this sounds crazy because it’s really soon, but call back after the 15th and we should be able to take care of you.”

OK, fine. I called back today, less than two weeks before my planned stay (starting on the 2nd of February). “Have you ever booked with us before?” Apparently there’s a process where the Atlantis has to confirm my benefit with Caesars, and that takes a couple of days, and they can’t make a reservation before then. But it doesn’t matter anyway, because the first 10 days of February are sold out. “Reservations have been open since Sunday,” the agent cooly stated. That’s funny, because the Web site says that reservations don’t open until February 1st.

Now, rooms aren’t actually sold out. You can buy all of the rooms you want. You just can’t use your Caesars benefit on those days. Atlantis manages its inventory like saver level frequent flier awards. They black out popular dates, and you’re more likely to be able to use the benefit for a midweek versus a weekend stay, and during hurricane season versus a nice time of the year to visit. While we all prefer different experiences when we travel, it’s personally difficult for me to justify using scarce vacation days on a destination like The Bahamas in order to stay in a casino resort.

So, I ended up spending 11,000 Choice points per night (transferred 1:2 from Citi) to stay in the Comfort Suites next door. They charge a $45 per night resort fee on top of it, so I spent the equivalent of $510 in points and cash for a 4 night stay. That stings, although it’s only 1/3 the cash rate for an equivalent room (Choice had availability for a garden view suite). There’s still a remote possibility that someone will cancel and I’ll be able to stay during my planned dates, but the possibility is remote.

Should you go for a Caesars Diamond status? Possibly, if it makes sense (I got my status matched from Wyndham, and I get my Wyndham status from a $95 annual fee credit card, which is less than I’d spend on parking each year at a conference I attend in Las Vegas). However, I wouldn’t gamble extra, or buy a Founder’s Card membership, with the intention of using this benefit. My experience actually trying to book and use the Atlantis Bahamas stay has shown that unless you’re willing to travel midweek in off peak months, this isn’t an easy benefit to use. Honestly, though, what should I have expected from a property named after a lost city? Maybe it doesn’t even exist.

The Phantom Of Singapore

One of the biggest problems when booking award travel is “phantom inventory.” This is inventory that shows up in an online search, but isn’t really there. When you go to book it, it won’t confirm. Certain airlines are notorious for displaying phantom inventory: TAP, Ethiopian and LOT to name a few. Typically, though, this problem only involves partner inventory (such as when using United Mileage Plus points to book a ticket on LOT). I have never–I mean, never–encountered this when booking flights on an airline through their own mileage program.

That is, until today. I was attempting to book a seat from Bangkok to New York. This is fairly straightforward. Singapore offers “Saver” and “Advantage” inventory, and the rule with them is that you have to find flights all the way through in the same inventory “bucket” in order for it to book as one fare. OK, that’s fine, no problem. Here’s a flight from Bangkok to Singapore:

And here’s another flight from Singapore to New York a few days later:

Easy, right? Singapore allows stopovers, so you can put the two together and it’ll book out at 143,500 points total. Make no mistake, this is an expensive award, but at least Singapore doesn’t have fuel surcharges when you’re booking flights that they operate.

Only one problem: I got all the way to the end, and was informed that I was added to the waitlist. Wait, what? Singapore does offer the option to waitlist flights in case they decide to open up award inventory, but in my experience, it’s pretty rare that these ever clear. And you generally won’t know until the last minute whether or not your request will clear. Waitlisting can be useful for speculative bookings if you have a lot of flexibility in your schedule, but this booking isn’t that. And I specifically picked flights which weren’t any sort of “waitlist” situation. They were clearly displayed as bookable.

The agent in this stock photo appears to be Thai, but this flight involves Thailand so artistic license is taken

OK, fine. I made a phone call to Singapore Airlines (this time, the call center was in The Philippines, an improvement vs. their horrible call center in India). Surprisingly, I got right through. Nope, the inventory wasn’t available. Nothing was available. Not a single business class seat was available on either a Sunday or Monday, nearly a year in the future, from Singapore to any location they serve in the United States. Typical. Given that I had screen shots and clearly the error was on Singapore’s end, I wasn’t really willing to take no for an answer. The agent had a way to collect my emailed screen shots and an escalation path of some sort, but for now, do not assume the Singapore Web site is reliable. If you’re booking anything with Singapore, do it over the phone. This is hard, because they won’t hold seats and points transfers are not immediate, although sometimes, Amex points transfers can show up quickly. It might be worth finding inventory with an agent, and seeing whether you can transfer points while you have them on the phone. Otherwise, you’re in for a nail-biting couple of days waiting for the points to post in your KrisFlyer account, and hoping the inventory you found is still there once they finally do.

Don’t Get Stranded By Delta’s Made-Up Travel Documentation Requirements

If you’re a frequent traveler between the United States and Canada, you’re probably familiar with the NEXUS program. This trusted traveler program is similar to Global Entry, but it works on both sides of the border. Getting a NEXUS card isn’t easy. You need to pass rigorous background checks by both US and Canadian authorities, and pass an in-person interview with both US Customs and Border Protection and the CBSA. There are also strict rules governing the program; it’s hard to get these privileges, and it’s very easy to lose them.

This sign can save you a lot of time on the US/Canadian border

At land crossings, there is a special NEXUS lane (by the way, never enter this lane if you are not a NEXUS card holder: you’ll automatically be sent to secondary inspection and will also likely be fined). When entering the US by air, you can use a Global Entry kiosk to clear immigration. When entering Canada, there is a NEXUS kiosk used to clear immigration. And for program members, there’s an additional bonus: NEXUS cards are a Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) compliant credential, meeting the equivalent requirements in Canada. This means that they are a perfectly valid and acceptable travel document for air travel between the United States and Canada–fully equivalent to carrying a passport.

When I’m flying from Vancouver (which I often do, because I live in between the Vancouver and Bellingham airports), I usually fly Canadian carriers who are aware of the procedures. However, yesterday I was flying Delta from Salt Lake City, who made up its own rules and denied me boarding unless I presented a passport. Fortunately, I was on a connecting flight from Mexico and I had my passport with me this time, but this isn’t always the case.

What Happened

At boarding, the Delta gate agent ran facial recognition on me (something I absolutely hate, and which feels super creepy and invasive–I never signed up for this or gave them my photo), and then the gate agent asked for my passport. I handed her my NEXUS card. “Nope!” she said. “You have to give me a passport.” I explained that NEXUS is a valid credential for travel to Canada, and that a passport wasn’t necessary. “I’ll look it up but you’re wrong,” she said, “international flights always require a passport.” She then proceeded to look through her system, failed to find anything involving NEXUS, and called a “Red Coat” who–apparently without looking anything up–denied me boarding without a passport.

By now, the agent (who it turns out was a Canadian citizen) was apparently curious. I knew I was right, remained polite, and suggested that she call Delta’s Canadian partner WestJet to confirm the requirements. After some digging, she confirmed in a Delta system (last updated 5 days ago) that I was, in fact, right. However, because a “Red Coat” had determined I was required to show my passport, she required me to do so anyway. This is very typical of Delta; they don’t seem to give their employees much flexibility or encourage independent thinking.

It’s fairly routine for NEXUS card holders traveling between Canada and the US to carry only their NEXUS cards. After all, this is all that is required to cross the border! However, if you’re considering a ski vacation to Utah this winter, think again before flying Delta. If you don’t bring your passport–which is completely unnecessary–you might end up stranded until you rebook with a Canadian carrier who understands the rules and follows proper documentation procedures.

Look, I get it. I don’t blame the gate agent. You may not be aware of this, but gate agents can be personally liable for fines if they allow travelers without valid documents on board an aircraft. If they’re as strict with ID requirements as a 7-11 clerk selling cigarettes to someone who looks 16, this is why. This is entirely the fault of poor training at Delta, combined with software that makes it too difficult to verify which ID is required. In the meantime, carry your passport because it seems that Delta just makes up its own documentation requirements.

Narrowly Avoiding An AAdvantage Nightmare

One of the best sweet spots on the American Airlines AAdvantage award chart is from Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent to Southeast Asia. It costs only 40,000 AAdvantage miles in business class for this trip. This is a lot of flying: 5,630 miles in Qatar Airways Qsuites. 12 hours of luxury in the world’s best business class. Fancy champagne, luxurious lounges, all of that stuff. I mean, this is definitely not the usual Seat 31B style, but it’s only 15,000 points more than going in economy class! For as good a bargain as this (on a flight that would cost a cool $4,000 in business class or $1,500 in economy) it’s well worth the points. And what an incredible graduation gift to a friend who lives in Kazakhstan this would be, right?

map of ALA-DOH-SGN

The trick is booking it. If you search the American Airlines Web site, these flights simply don’t exist–even though Qatar Airways award flights normally appear on Web search results. For this itinerary, I needed very specific dates. I searched with other Qatar Airways partners, saw availability for the outbound in economy class with business class on the return, and called American Airlines to see whether I could book it. This resulted in a 3 day adventure that finally ended with tickets issued, but could have been an absolute nightmare scenario.

When you search for these flights online, the error above is displayed. You have to call to book!

When I initially called to book the itinerary, the agent didn’t seem very experienced. She located availability, but then somehow released it back to Qatar Airways, who instantly removed it from inventory. This happens sometimes when you’re working with an agent over the phone; if they don’t know how to correctly work with inventory during the booking process, it might be released back to the partner airline (who may or may not put it back into inventory). Naturally, the flight I wanted was no longer available because of the agent’s error, so I ended up having to book an evening return (rather than the morning) and the whole thing was in economy class, rather than a return in business class. It wouldn’t be the end of the world, but wasn’t what I was hoping for.

OK, fine. Challenge accepted. I have dealt with this sort of problem before. If you wait overnight, sometimes the inventory pops back up again, so I checked again in the morning. Success! Not only was the flight I wanted available, but business class was available, too. All I’d need to do was get American to make the change, but no big deal, right? Changes are free. It’s a relatively simple exercise, just changing the time of day and class of service. Two flights swapped, nothing more. What could possibly go wrong?

After 90 minutes of calling American, getting routed by the dumb automated phone robot to the wrong department (domestic revenue tickets instead of international AAdvantage, even though I provided my confirmation code), and then finally being transferred to the right department, I had someone on the line who could make the change. She understood what I was after, updated my booking, got me the class of service I wanted, and told me that it’d be an even exchange for the tickets because the taxes were the same.

Perfect. Sounds good. No problem. I received an email confirming the changes, my card was charged the correct amount for the taxes, my AAdvantage account was charged the additional 15,000 miles for the upgraded segment (in a goofy roundabout way involving charging me 115,000 miles and then refunding 50,000 miles, but it added up to the right amount), so good to go. Right?

A “Trip Confirmation And Receipt” might not be what you think it is

Here’s the thing. When I logged on to aa.com, the ticketing status showed “On Request.” That’s fairly normal, because American issues award tickets manually. But I also got a pop-up at the top of the screen saying that I needed to call and contact an agent for ticketing. That is not normal. If you see that, it usually means the payment didn’t go through. And if your payment doesn’t clear, American will cancel your reservation 24 hours later. They do so without mercy or regret and when a Qsuites award is at stake, someone else will likely snap it up before you get the problem sorted out.

So, I made my third call to American. Another 90 minutes on hold. The agent I spoke to said “No, there’s no problem, you are in queue for a refund.” Wait, what?! Evidently the previous agent didn’t really know what they were doing. And my ticket was so messed up that the agent I was speaking with didn’t know how to fix it. It was going to require action from the “Resolution Desk” and the “Partner Desk,” according to her supervisor, and those were only open between 6am and 5:30pm Central time. “Will my reservation be cancelled in the interim?” I asked. “No, you should be safe as long as the resolution desk fixes this tomorrow, because this is in a ticketing queue.”

OK, fine. Another call to American the following day. Only an hour on hold this time. The first agent insisted on trying to help me when I explained it was an international AAdvantage ticket, and then after several minutes of typing and looking at my reservation, said “oh, this is an international AAdvantage ticket” and blind transferred me to the right department. I immediately asked for the “Resolution Desk,” which got me transferred to a supervisor. Apparently supervisors now perform this function, even though it used to be a dedicated desk.

This particular supervisor was friendly, and seemed to have some experience at the airline. That’s difficult to find these days; airlines laid off so many people during the pandemic that finding anyone with the institutional knowledge to solve problems can sometimes be difficult. However, she was stumped. “Oh my goodness, I’m not sure what to do here!” She put me on hold for a few minutes while she came up with a strategy.

cyber cyber cyber

Ultimately, the solution was to refund the existing itinerary, move all of the reservations into a separate PNR (with a new confirmation code), and then charge me again. Sure, no problem. This was a lot of manual data entry in airline computers, but the supervisor got it all done. The next two stops were the “Liaison Desk” and the “Ticketing Desk,” both of whose action was needed to actually get the ticket issued. 45 minutes or so later, and success! “OK, your ticket is issued and ready to go. Just go ahead and look at it in your AAdvantage profile.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “It won’t show up there, because the ticket isn’t in my name.”

Silence.

“Oh. Um, right. You see, I, uh… issued the ticket in your name, not your friend’s name. Oops!

Now, I wasn’t upset. Everybody makes mistakes. At least we caught it before I got off the call, so I didn’t need to call in again. No big deal, easy to fix, right? Just change the name? Nope. Airline computers aren’t set up that way. Instead, fixing the problem required refunding everything again, charging everything again, building out another PNR with the correct name, moving the reservation into it, calling the Liaison Desk again, calling the Ticketing Desk again, and finally a ticket was issued in the correct name.

Finally. Five long phone calls and several hours later. With no warning at all that anything was even remotely wrong except for an obscure pop-up on the Web site, which almost anyone would have overlooked. After all, American Airlines issued me a “Trip Confirmation and Receipt,” charged my card, deducted mileage, issued a confirmation code, and I could even pick out seats and meals!

However, no AAdvantage redemption certificate was issued. It wasn’t attached to the ticket because there was no ticket. In fact, nothing was attached to the reservation. If I hadn’t sorted this out, it would have been a mad scramble at the airport on the day of travel. As far as Qatar would be concerned, they’d never have been paid, and there was a reservation with no ticket, so they wouldn’t owe any transportation. And it’d require calling American Airlines to fix the problem, because they issued the ticket. Good luck getting that sorted out, over crappy airport WiFi, 3 hours prior to departure.

What can you do? Always make sure that a ticket number is issued, visible, and attached to your reservation. You’re looking for the following:

  • Confirmation code, both for the airline you’re booking with and the airline operating the flight
  • Ticket number (For example, this will start with 001 if American issued the ticket, or with 006 if Delta issued the ticket)
  • Your card was charged for the full amount of taxes and fees
  • The mileage was deducted for your ticket, and it’s the correct number of miles

If all of the above has not taken place, then there could be something wrong with your ticket. Call and ask and if the agent doesn’t seem sure, ask a supervisor to double-check. If you’re booking a partner award (meaning the airline that is operating your flight is a different airline than the one that issued your ticket), you can also check your reservation on their Web site to see whether a ticket number is attached.

Avoid problems at the airport. Check your reservations carefully. And if anything looks off, get in touch with the airline that issued your ticket.

The Great Southwest Meltdown Of 2022

A lot of people have been asking for an explainer on what is going on with Southwest Airlines and the massive meltdown that has occurred. I’m almost at a loss for words: Southwest is the largest US domestic airline. They serve 23 of the top 25 markets in the US. One of my friends is currently stranded with his cat in Las Vegas, and Southwest can’t get him back home until *checks notes* 2023.

Shelby is unimpressed by slot machines, which do not dispense kitty treats

When it suits them Southwest says, in effect, “we’re a small carrier serving small places, the rules shouldn’t really apply to us” (whether it’s safety or anything else) but the reality is that they’re a major airline. They should be considered as such, and treated accordingly.

However, Southwest is highly unusual. Their IT is almost entirely homegrown, with software they built themselves. It’s creaky and antiquated – you’ll observe this if you watch their schedules. They’re irregularly and manually loaded into the system. The majority of airlines use standardized reservations systems like Sabre, Amadeus, etc. which integrate well with other standardized tools. While Southwest has kinda sorta migrated to Amadeus, they only support limited integrations in specific circumstances.

Other airlines (apart from Allegiant, Southwest, Spirit, Frontier and a couple others like Avelo and Breeze) have relationships with airport hotels so they can issue vouchers to stranded passengers and crew. They also work with each other in a system called “interlining” where they take each other’s passengers to avoid total systemic meltdowns like these. For example, when Delta melted down in the past, American and United have bailed them out (and vice-versa). In this case, it’s the week between Christmas and New Year, and there are no seats on other airlines to book their passengers into. Even if there were, there is no interline agreement. So Southwest behaves like an ultra low cost carrier (where you expect poor service and paid a fare to match, rather than the above-market fares Southwest often charges), basically says “see you next week” and dumps you wherever they left you.

So, about aircraft positioning and crew scheduling – Southwest is essentially a short and medium haul airline. They mostly don’t do long haul services except for Hawaii. Southwest turns aircraft quickly, in less than 30 minutes. They have higher aircraft utilization than any other major US airline. They often run their crews on tight loops where they’re out from home and back the same day so they can save money on accommodating crews who overnight away from their home base. This is all really clever and it works really well until it doesn’t.

So when Southwest melted down due to weather events, they didn’t have nearly the number of rooms reserved that they needed for their own crew, and it was Christmas so hotels were full. Crews often did not get rooms. They just got dumped like passengers at airports. At least there are crew break rooms at most airports, but it’s not very comfortable. Major airlines usually have enough hotel relationships to be able to work something out (American has had some issues too) but Southwest does not.

The airline now has a problem where they need to figure out where all of their crews are (lacking accommodations, some have found their own way home), and where their planes are, and whether either are where they need to be, and basically redo their entire crew and aircraft scheduling plan for the whole airline. The only real way they have to do this (because of the way they operate and their limited IT capabilities) is to stop for an entire day and set to work inventorying their assets and crews and then build out entirely new trips for everyone.

However, they were also just really mean to everyone who works for them, and who knows what that will do for the motivation of their employees. They effectively required employees to come to work sick, making others sick just before they’re most needed to recover the operation. Given Southwest’s checkered past with safety, will they pressure employees to work when they really aren’t fit to fly? I personally hope the FAA is watching.

Anyway, how does Southwest fix this? Just like in IT security, every time there is a high profile problem, there is a vendor promising to magically fix everything with AI. Unfortunately, just like in IT security, the problem space is also very complicated and AI is not good at solving most of these problems. One way they could handle it is already proven, it’s just expensive: holding crews and aircraft in reserve to recover from irregular operations. Qantas successfully does this.

A week ago, Qantas had an A380 unexpectedly land in Azerbaijan. They thought there might be a fire in the cargo bay so they landed in Baku. It turned out there was a real problem with the aircraft and it couldn’t be promptly repaired in Azerbaijan, a country which doesn’t frequently see A380s. So, Qantas sent a rescue flight, something that Southwest has repeatedly proven they lack the capability to do. Because Qantas plans ahead for emergencies (and they absorb the expense of doing so), they were effectively able to recover their operation.

To be fair, it’s not just Southwest who does their route planning this way. You see the same sort of problems with Flair Airlines in Canada. They’re an extreme example but fairly representative. Flair serves 34 destinations with 24 aircraft. You can imagine the follow-on impact if any flight, on any leg, has a problem. So why would an airline do this? It seems crazy, right? Well, it’s a question of incentives.

This holiday season could have worked out really well for Southwest, had everything gone according to (a very aggressive) plan. Southwest did their route planning the same way that most American companies do supply chain planning: “just in time” with no slack or contingency planning. If it all melts down, they simply dump the problem on their customers. Southwest, after all, legally has no responsibility to practically anyone except for their shareholders. They are covered by their Contract of Carriage and US Department of Transportation rules (which are lasseiz-faire at best).

You didn’t get home for Christmas? You got stranded in Las Vegas for a week? Well, dear consumer, Southwest won’t help you, the government won’t help you, nobody will compensate you for the losses you suffered, and you also can’t sue because the federal government has given airlines a liability shield along with endless taxpayer bailouts. If you don’t like it, you’re looking at one middle finger from the federal government, and another from Southwest.

One last piece of airline trivia before I leave you all to digest this post. American Airlines cancelled less than 1% of its schedule yesterday. Southwest cancelled over 70% of its schedule. Southwest will likely (successfully) claim that under the Contract of Carriage, they do not have to pay for stranded passengers’ hotels. Keep this in mind any time that politicians show up saying that every problem will be fixed with tort reform to keep evil class action lawyers from driving up costs.

What’s the fix? Liability. Airlines are actually run by really smart people. They’re just allowed to optimize for only one thing: shareholder returns. As it turns out, this hasn’t worked out any better for essential services like airlines than it has for any other sector of the US economy. We need to be OK with the idea that corporations have obligations other than shareholder value, and those obligations extend for longer than this quarter’s earnings call. Create damages which aren’t excluded from class action liability, and airlines will suddenly become extremely interested in reliability (as well as extremely interested in a DOT-regulated standard for weather delays and disruptions).

I don’t personally think re-regulating is the solution, as many pundits have proposed. Instead, financial accountability is the solution. The US should just copy EU 261 from the European Union. It has worked very well to improve airline reliability in Europe because there are actual financial penalties paid to consumers. There have still been occasional meltdowns, but far smaller scale than the largest domestic passenger airline in the US entirely collapsing for multiple days.

Some people will say that this will drive up costs, making flying more expensive. With respect, I observe that you can routinely fly over 1,500 miles within Europe for under 22 euros:

It’s long past the time that airlines should get a free pass (if they ever should have). Real, financial penalties are a market-based solution to encourage airlines to improve reliability. Organizations respond to incentives, and the federal government must create the right ones.

Aeroplan Locking Accounts For Signup Bonuses

Air Canada Aeroplan is a popular program to use for award bookings, so it’s not surprising that a lot of people outside of Canada engage with it. You can transfer your points from American Express, Capital One, Marriott Bonvoy and Chase to the Aeroplan program, and use them to book flights on either Air Canada or its truly massive number of airline partners (both StarAlliance and other carriers such as Etihad and Oman Air). So given that, you might be tempted to pick up a Chase Aeroplan co-branded card. These recently launched, and they come with a generous sign-up bonus along with some excellent bonus categories (such as 3x points at grocery stores).

See polar bears with Calm Air, an Aeroplan partner

Well, if you had the Chase Aeroplan card in mind to get you closer to an Aeroplan award, you might want to put those plans on hold. Air Canada has just updated their Aeroplan terms and conditions with some vague and disturbing legalese to their Terms and Conditions that seems targeted at people who qualify for welcome bonuses from Aeroplan banking partners (like Chase):

"Aeroplan may, in its sole discretion, choose to limit the number of Welcome Bonuses or similar bonuses or incentives a Member may receive in any period, and, in addition to the other remedies set forth in these Terms and Conditions, reserves the right to suspend, revoke or terminate the Account of any person who engages in a behaviour of excessive use of the Welcome Bonus offers."

Aeroplan then goes on to vaguely define what it considers abuse in a non-specific way. It’s important to note that this language appeared after multiple Canadian users of Aeroplan reported that their accounts have already been locked “at the request of a bank” after qualifying for signup bonuses, so it appears that Aeroplan is already locking accounts based on some set of criteria.

One of the downsides of frequent flier programs is that they are almost entirely unregulated, and when they operate in countries like Canada (which offers generally poor consumer protections, especially when it comes to airlines) you’re pretty much entirely at the mercy of an airline. They control the vertical and the horizontal. The points in your account hold no value, as they happily remind you in the Terms and Conditions (irrespective of the fact that you can buy them from the airline for actual money), and they also don’t belong to you. It’s very much a one-sided deal.

I don’t know how this is going to ultimately shake out. It’s almost unheard of that an airline program would lock a frequent flier account because of a legitimately earned signup bonus. However, this has clearly happened. Until the dust settles, I recommend that you don’t sign up for the Chase co-branded Aeroplan card. There aren’t enough benefits to holding the card for most people in the US to justify the risk that Aeroplan will randomly decide to torch your account because you earned a signup bonus.

JAL Blocking Seat Selection On Award Tickets

I’m returning from Bangkok after Songkran next year, and it’s a long flight. Over the past two months, I just earned a ton of American Airlines AAdvantage points through generous credit card signup bonuses. However, no sooner had I earned them than the program started rapidly devaluing by moving to a dynamic award pricing scheme for flights on American Airlines. Given my lack of trust in AAdvantage at this stage, I decided to make burning these points a priority.

JAL recently started service to Seattle on their new 787, which is configured with Apex Suites (they brand it SKY Suites). And better yet, there was a more or less perfect itinerary returning from Bangkok which was bookable with AAdvantage points. Because it’s a partner flight, it’s also still bookable at the old (pre-devaluation) AAdvantage rates! So, using the brand new capability to reserve JAL flights on the AAdvantage Web site, I booked the flight.

With these seats, seat selection matters. Window seats in this configuration are much better and more private than aisle seats. So, I went ahead and called American Airlines to get the JAL confirmation code, which I then plugged in to the JAL Web site to pick seats. I was super disappointed to see the following maps:

No window seats. None at all. Right?

Only aisle seats were available to select. However, this didn’t sit right with me. This is a brand new flight to Seattle, and April isn’t exactly peak season to fly to Seattle. Who would be buying out every single good seat on the plane, in a premium cabin?

So, in a separate incognito browser window, I assumed my trusty alter ego of “Fo Do” and went back to the JAL site. This time, I was buying a flight, rather than assigning seats on an already ticketed flight. Lo and behold, when you’re not booking a partner award but are buying a flight from JAL, the seat map is totally different:

Just look at all those window seats!

Exasperated, I took a note of all of the open seats (any of which would be acceptable) and called JAL. Naturally their US office was closed, so I called their Tokyo number and reached an astonishingly dishonest agent (I’m used to being lied to in many countries in Asia, but not in Japan). First the agent lied and said the first two seats I asked for were “under airport control.” OK, fine, I gave him two alternates. These were “reserved for elites.” OK, fine, I gave him the last alternate. “This seat is not available.” Why isn’t it available? “I’m sorry, it’s not available.”

The agent was clearly uncomfortable with the conversation, so I explained exactly where I was looking at the seat map, and that the seats were clearly available. So why, when I already have a ticket, am I not able to pick one of those seats? Was there possibly a technical problem? Might it be possible another way (in Asia, always provide a face-saving way for someone to solve your problem)?

Nope. The agent wouldn’t budge. The seats weren’t available and that’s that. So I asked some very sharp questions. Is seat selection blocked for partner award tickets? For award tickets in general? And with that, I got a clear answer: yes, it’s blocked by fare class. The only way to pick a window seat on an award ticket is to check in online 24 hours in advance and hope one is still there.

This is incredibly frustrating. I went out of my way to fly JAL, and paid quite a bit more, to enjoy the excellent SKY Suites experience. For me, it’ll be considerably less excellent in an aisle seat.

Icelandair Awards Unavailable With Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

I forgot that there’s a long weekend ahead, and what better to do with a long weekend than fly to Iceland? This may seem crazy, but domestic travel during holiday weekends is crowded and expensive, while international travel is often available with points last-minute. When I went to check on Alaska Airlines’ Web site, though, nothing was available. I mean, nothing. There was no availability from any Icelandair gateway city all the way through the end of the schedule.

I reached out to Alaska Airlines on Twitter and after some back-and forth they have confirmed that there is an issue:

It’s unfortunate that, given the current lack of European partners, one of them isn’t bookable. Hopefully Alaska will solve the problem soon!

Near Disaster: Chase Ultimate Rewards And Flying Blue

I needed to take a last-minute business trip to Kiev. Cash fares were hovering over $900 one way for one-stop itineraries, so I started looking for opportunities to use points. When I book my own award travel, I optimize for the most efficient use of points and the stand-out value was 25,000 Ultimate Rewards points for an Air France flight. There was a long layover in Paris, but I really like Paris so the 9 hour layover was fine. It’s enough time to visit the Louvre and enjoy a coffee in a sidewalk cafe.

air france economy class seat

Unlike most airlines, Air France touts their economy class cabin. We’ll see if it lives up to the hype!

Unfortunately, the Flying Blue program is an absolute disaster right now. Air France/KLM just switched the chart from a fixed value redemption chart to variable redemptions (which, based on my analysis, is one of the biggest airline devaluations in history–most awards are up a minimum 30% and some are up 500%). It was a total fluke that the flight I wanted still cost 25,000 points, yielding 3.2 cents per point in value all-in (net of taxes/fees I had to pay out of pocket). This is very good redemption value on a ticket for which I would have paid real money. However, the devaluation comes on top of another negative change, removing the award calendar, which has driven call center volumes through the roof (because the only way to search for availability over a range of dates is to call now). Because of this, it can now take 2 hours to get through to an Air France representative.

Of course, my worst nightmare happened. Rather than posting immediately, after I transferred my Chase points, the points didn’t show up. I called Chase, who said that they transferred the points and it was Flying Blue’s fault. I called Flying Blue, and they said they hadn’t received the points so it was Chase’s fault. Both suggested I just wait. So I waited, and waited, and waited. I called to put the seats on hold so they wouldn’t disappear while I was waiting. Eventually I gave up and went to bed.

The following morning, the points still weren’t there. 4 hours before the flight, they still weren’t, so I called Flying Blue again. Fortunately, the friendly representative in the Mexico-based call center had a solution: “We are aware of this issue so we will advance you the points and your account will have a negative balance. When the points post from Chase, your balance will go back to zero.” She put me on hold, then came back a few minutes later to collect my credit card number. And just like that, I had a ticket to Kiev! I didn’t really believe that I did until I went to check in, and the computer spat out boarding passes.

So, certainly a stressful beginning to a trip, but a happy ending. I have no status with Flying Blue. I have never booked a ticket in their program. They don’t know I write this blog. They just thought on their feet and solved the problem by taking a risk (I could have been lying about transferring the points). And so instead of stranding me, which is totally what I expected, I’m now on the way to Kiev.

Summary

Chase is now reading a new telephone script when you call: “It can take from 1-7 days for your points to post after they are transferred.” After slowing down transfers to Korean Air and now Flying Blue, it appears Chase is trying to make Ultimate Rewards less valuable by making it impossible to redeem them for last-minute flights. This doesn’t appear to be a technical glitch; based on the policy change being communicated by their telephone agents, it seems to be deliberate. Also, there is nothing in writing on Chase’s Web sites to communicate the change, so people are going into this process with no idea that points transfers are no longer instantaneous.

Generally speaking, I like the Chase Ultimate Rewards program better than American Express Membership Rewards. However, the ability to have immediate use of transferred points is key. Award travel inventory is dynamic (a seat that is available now likely won’t be in a couple of days, particularly to a popular destination) and most of the value in keeping your points with a bank program instead of an airline program comes from the immediate ability to transfer and redeem points. There are fewer reasons to collect bank points instead of airline points if you aren’t able to easily redeem them for awards.

Airline points programs are rapidly losing credibility so it would be bad for consumers if banks to go the same direction and make points harder to redeem.

Xiamen Air Transit Hotel Disaster!

Xiamen Air offers some really cheap flights from Seattle to destinations in China and throughout Asia. The catch? You end up stuck overnight in Shenzhen, Xiamen or Fuzhou, China.

Not to worry, though, right? Xiamen Air provides a transit hotel. The details on their Web page are as follows:

Xiamen Airlines offers passengers transit accommodation services free of charge, when the tickets satisfying the following conditions apply:

1. All flights are carried by Xiamen Airlines. (code-sharing, chartered flights are not applicable);

2. Connection time of transit passengers is within 6 to 24 hours in Xiamen (G Class and Z Class are not applicable);

3. Must contain at least one international(regional) flight in the ticket;

4. The service contains only free hotel, passengers have to pay for meals and the other transportation fee.

The position of transfer counter:

Domestic Departure Hall on 2nd Floor, B11 counter or other check-in counter(no priority check-in counter)

Service consultation phone number: (0086-592)5739500 or (0086-592)95557

My tickets qualified. I called the US toll-free number to confirm, so it seemed like I was golden. And I have to admit, the room that was promised sure looked nice:

hotel room promised photo

Wow, what a nice hotel room. Would have been great to stay in it!

Now, if you have experience in mainland China, and with mainland Chinese airlines, you probably know where I’m headed with this. In China, this sort of thing is rarely easy to arrange in practice and also rarely works as advertised. While other airlines in other parts of the world might be expected to whisk you from your flight to a hotel room with a seamless transfer, Xiamen Air makes you figure out how to ask for the benefit when you arrive, and then they hit you with a couple of serious “gotchas.”

Gotcha #1: It’s Hard To Claim Your Room

When I arrived in Xiamen, and again in Shenzhen, I had to hunt around for the desk that could issue the voucher. In Xiamen, it’s a desk labeled “transfer services.” In Shenzhen, you have to go upstairs one floor from the baggage claim and find the ticket counter (where they sell tickets). This agent can take care of the hotel voucher. I’m not sure where to look in Fuzhou, but the guy who was sitting next to me on the flight to Shenzhen, and who continued onward to Fuzhou, emailed me and told me he couldn’t figure out how to get the room (or whether it was even possible) so he ended up sleeping in the airport overnight.

Gotcha #2: You Share A Room With A Random Stranger (Or Pay Extra)

When I arrived at the transfer counter for my room, some forlorn-looking guy was standing there waiting. “I guess we’re roommates,” he said. Um, maybe not. I insisted on escalating as far as possible, speaking to a supervisor, and showed screen shots from the Web page. It was no matter. The supervisor had heard it all before. She pointed to a laminated form and said “you must choose, either share a room (!) or pay 135 yuan (about $21) extra.”

How Xiamen Air tricks you

Oh, you thought you’d get your own room? What a strange Western idea.

This was discussed and explained in Xiamen but it was never discussed in Shenzhen (leading me to believe a different set of circumstances applied there). In Shenzhen, I arrived at the hotel, got my room, took a shower and was fast asleep when some random guy started trying to get into my room! Apparently the front desk had given him a key based on this crazy airline policy. The guy then tried to argue with me (in barely understandable English) that he was going to be my roommate etc. but I was having none of it. I shut the door, sent him back to the front desk and unplugged the phone. The hotel staff didn’t speak any English so I figured that would settle the matter (it did). It’s a good thing I’d locked the door with the chain from the inside! Otherwise, who knows what random stranger might have been trying to climb into bed with me.

Gotcha #3: Transportation Isn’t Always Included

In Shenzhen, the airport hotel has a shuttle that comes and picks you up at the airport, takes you to the hotel, and then returns you to the airport the following morning. You know, like you’d expect an airport hotel to do. In Xiamen, however, you have to take a local taxi to and from the hotel. However, this requires local currency, and the ATMs are all upstairs, and the airport closes down early, so you don’t have an easy way to get local currency for the taxi. Also, returning the next day, it’s hard to get a taxi on the street because the taxis have moved to using dispatch apps. This means you’ll need data service that works in China and an app called DiDi on your phone in order to get a taxi.

The Hotels

Both hotels were very local and Chinese. In Xiamen, it was the HMYL Hotel. It’s a basic Chinese business hotel on a leafy tree-lined street in central Xiamen. The room was typically Chinese with a hard twin bed, and was poorly soundproofed. Hotel staff was friendly but spoke no English.

In Shenzhen, the hotel was called the James Joyce Coffetel. I don’t know exactly what a coffetel is (coffin hotel? I wasn’t dead. Coffee hotel? No coffee in the room), but it had a room, and it was fine apart from being at the end of the airport runway (planes made the windows rattle starting around 6 in the morning) and being across the street from a giant noisy construction site. And, of course, apart from giving some random stranger a key to my room at 2am. They had a shuttle to and from the airport at least.

xiamen transit hotel

Tiny business hotel room with two beds in Xiamen. Should have been free, cost about $30 all-in.

shower picture

Large walk-in shower. This was nearly as big as the rest of the room.

trees in Xiamen picture

The Xiamen Air transit hotel is in a pleasant neighborhood with tree-lined streets.

 

I should probably point out that I lived in mainland China for 3 years and speak basic Chinese, but without that, I would probably have never ended up at either hotel.

James Joyce Coffeetel bed

The bed at the Shenzhen James Joyce Coffetel was more neatly made than this when I arrived, I put it back together for the picture

Extra bed picture

Second bed in a side bedroom. I didn’t sleep in this one. And the random guy who tried to come in at 2am didn’t either.

Shenzhen James Joyce Coffeetel view

Sweeping expansive view of … giant dusty construction site

Xiamen Air Staff Are Great, Despite It All

I have nothing bad to say about any of the employees I interacted with at Xiamen Air. Each and every one of them was kind, polite, and professional, and many went above and beyond for me (in Xiamen, a wonderful kind airline employee escorted me upstairs to the closed part of the airport so I could use the ATM, and then helped me get a taxi to the hotel without being ripped off). I think the airline puts them in a difficult situation of over-promising and under-delivering, and they’re all just making the best of it.

Wrap-Up

The Xiamen Air ground experience seems almost deliberately designed to strand Western travelers unfamiliar with navigating China and without a command of the Chinese language at the airport. Even with extensive China experience and the ability to speak basic Chinese (as long as I’m not trying to do it out of context or over the phone), I was thrown for a loop by the unadvertised shared room policy. It is understandable to do this when two people are traveling together on the same ticket, but hooking you up with a random stranger is absolutely insane. Unexpectedly giving someone a key to your room with no advance warning is even worse. And requiring foreigners to navigate the process of catching a taxi in Xiamen to and from the hotel (in Chinese) is an awful lot to ask.

If you’re prepared to pay extra and negotiate for your own room, and if you can speak Chinese and are familiar with how things operate in mainland China, you’ll probably manage (like I did) to muddle through. However, if you can’t speak Chinese, and you don’t have experience thinking on your feet in mainland China, you might find yourself sleeping in the airport instead.