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Why Is it So Hard to Cash in Miles to Australia?

Dear Tim,

I am a frequent international business traveler and have amassed a significant level of miles on both the oneworld alliance through American and Star Alliance through United.

My question has to do with using miles: I am finding it almost impossible to use miles for partner airlines in business or first class. In effect, I believe that certain partner airlines have allocated exactly zero seats. For example, try asking American for a Qantas award travelling from the West Coast to Sydney for travel anytime in the next year.

It feels to me like this kind of behavior, if affirmed, borders on fraud. After all, I pay for my affinity credit card account and we business travelers make other carrier judgments motivated by the presence of programs that impact corporate travel expenses.

Am I the first to raise this issue? What is known and what do you believe are our options?


Dear Seth,

First, the good news. Alliance partners are always required to make some seats available for award use by members of other partners’ programs. So Qantas, for example, must allocate some seats for use by members of American’s AAdvantage program. That’s a requirement for all airlines participating in the oneworld alliance, designed to ensure that consumers view the alliance in a positive light. The Star and SkyTeam alliances operate similarly.

The bad news is that the number of seats airlines commit to giving away to their alliance partners is minimal, and they tend to do no more than is strictly required in their contracts. While the airlines would never admit it, the fact is that members of other programs will always be accorded lower priority than members of the program of the airline which operates the flight. That is, you would almost certainly fare better if you were redeeming miles earned in Qantas’s own program, rather than American miles.

Australia flights, I might add, have always been a thorn in the side of mileage redeemers. There simply isn’t enough service to meet demand. And Qantas has developed a reputation for being less than generous with its award seats. The difficulty is further compounded by the fact that you’re redeeming for business- and first-class seats. Not only are there fewer of them, but they’re especially desirable on such long flights.

Your frustration is shared by many. But as a legal matter, I believe (and I’m not a lawyer) that the airlines have protected themselves against litigation by including verbiage in their terms and conditions to the effect that “award seats are limited and may not be available on all flights.”

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