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Does American Discriminate Against Families?

Dear Tim—

I have what I think is strong evidence that American Airlines has a policy against award tickets for family travel. Is this something you have heard of?

My evidence: For my desired award trip from Austin, TX, to Portland, OR, in July 2010, American shows, for one passenger, 10 departure days available for 12,500 miles, and nine return days for 12,500 miles.

However, for two passengers, the entire month of July is filled with 25,000-mile days, both departures and returns. Statistically the chances of this happening by other than a policy decision seem to me negligible.

Not only would my companion have to pay 50,000 miles, I would also have to pay the same. So American’s price is 100,000 miles for two people, but only 25,000 miles for one person, with abundant departure and return dates available.

What do you think?


Dear Donald—

First, thanks for sharing your experience in such detail. The data you provide—which are consistent with what I hear from many other travelers, trying to redeem miles on many airlines—certainly point up a real and recurring problem in frequent flyer programs.

But do the facts imply that American is targeting families for unfair treatment? I don’t think so.

The source of your frustration—and of many others who have tried to book two or more award tickets on the same flight—is the airlines’ (not just American’s) policy of closely controlling the number of seats available for booking with miles.

What is referred to in the industry as capacity control or inventory management is a balancing act. The airlines want to deliver on the promise of a free ticket for 25,000 miles. That’s the baseline expectation of the majority of consumers who participate in the airlines’ programs.

On the other hand, they don’t want to displace cash-paying customers with award travelers. The airlines’ calculation: Money in hand now trumps goodwill over the long term.

So, to put it bluntly, airlines make as few award seats available as they can get away with, without causing a consumer outcry that would undermine the program’s loyalty effect and give the airline a P.R. black eye. And as a result, finding two or more available award seats on any given flight is difficult at best, as you know.

But that calculated stinginess is not directed at families per se. It’s directed at anyone trying to book multiple award seats at favorable, restricted prices, on the same flight.

Making the Best of Capacity Controls

So, what can you and others in similar circumstances do to make the best of a bad situation? A few ideas:

  • Book one ticket at the restricted level (25,000 miles in this case), and the second ticket at the unrestricted rate (50,000 miles).
  • Unfortunately, if using miles is a must, it sometimes comes down to booking award seats on different flights and traveling separately.
  • Depending on the airfare cost, it might make sense to book one ticket at the restricted award level and pay for the second ticket.

Good luck with your Portland trip.

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