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Should I Book My Award Ticket With US Airways or United?

Dear Tim,

I live in San Diego, and I plan on going to Washington, D.C., for a college reunion in early June 2005. I have a little over 25,000 miles left in my US Airways frequent flyer account.

I was thinking of cashing in these miles in the next few weeks if I can get an award ticket for my June 2005 trip on United, rather than US Airways. Assuming that United does not liquidate, I will at least know that I have a ticket.

If I use my Dividend Miles for an award ticket on United, and US Airways liquidates before June 2005, do you think I will be able to make changes to my ticket through United without having to pay substantial penalty fees? In addition, can I realistically book an award ticket so far in advance?


Dear David,

Sadly, it has reached the point where I think Dividend Miles members would indeed be best served by redeeming their miles sooner rather than later. There is a good chance that US Airways will be forced to liquidate, and if they do, your unredeemed miles will probably be lost altogether.

So I think your plan to use your miles is the best of the available options.

To address the specifics of your question:

Yes, you can book a June award flight now. Typically, airlines make both revenue and award seats available in their computer reservations systems 330 days prior to the flight date, and we are well within that timeframe. In fact, booking this far in advance should improve your chances of securing one of the limited number of award seats. But as we’ll discuss below, if US Airways goes belly up, you may have to reschedule your trip.

When making your travel arrangements, I would suggest paying extra to have a paper ticket issued instead of an e-ticket. In a worst-case scenario, the paper ticket may prove more “negotiable” than an e-ticket.

I also endorse your strategy of booking the award trip for travel on United, rather than on US Airways. However, there is no absolute guarantee with booking on either airline in the event of a US Airways liquidation.

If the trip were booked for travel on US Airways, and US Airways stopped flying, you would probably be re-accommodated by another airline, on a space-available basis, for a fee of $50 or less. I say “probably” because there is some uncertainty in this area, due to your proposed date of travel and the fact that you’ll be using a mileage award rather than a paid ticket.

Congress is considering extending for an extra year Section 145 of the 2001 Aviation and Transportation Security Act, currently set to expire on November 19. The provision mandates that U.S. airlines protect passengers stranded by another airline’s failure, to the extent practicable, within 60 days of an airline’s ceasing operations. While questions remain as to whether the protection was intended to cover frequent flyer awards, the prevailing opinion is that it will be interpreted as such, and, furthermore, that airlines will follow Section 145’s directions even if it’s not formally extended by Congress.

So, in the event that you find yourself holding an award ticket on a defunct US Airways, you would have to a) find an alternate carrier offering service between San Diego and Washington, b) make a space-available reservation on that airline within 60 days of US Airways’ termination of service, and c) have the US Airways ticket reissued on the new airline, incurring service charges in the process.

On the other hand, if the award ticket is for travel on United and US Airways liquidates before your trip, it may or may not still be at United’s discretion whether to honor the ticket, depending on the disposition of the legislation now pending in Congress. But either way, it will be easier, less time-consuming, and possibly cheaper if you’re already holding a United ticket because a US Airways ticket would have to be rebooked on United and reissued on United ticket stock.

If you’re lucky, US Airways will put its house in order and continue operating the Dividend Miles program for many years to come. If not, an award ticket in hand may be iffy, but it’s far better than having an account bulging with miles that can never, ever be redeemed.

Good luck.

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