Using frequent flier miles to escape from New York

Felix Chan’s parents are stranded in New York after a storm. They can’t get back to Hong Kong because he used miles to pay for their ticket. Are they stuck?

Question: My parents, who are visiting me from Hong Kong, are scheduled to travel on Cathay Pacific later this week from New York to Hong Kong. But their flights were canceled because of a hurricane. Here’s the problem: Both of their tickets were redeemed using my British Airways points. And those tickets follow a different set of rules.

A Cathay Pacific representative told me that since this is an award ticket issued by British Airways, there is nothing Cathay Pacific can do and that I should work with British Airways, who issued these two tickets.

I then proceed to contact British Airways over the phone, where the representative told me that all they can do is search through the Cathay Pacific “award inventory” and they do not see anything for another month. I did ask if they can try to rebook my parents on British Airways or another airline, but they were turned down.

I definitely feel I am now stuck in the middle, as I feel I am getting caught in between both carriers. Using rational common sense, I feel one of these airlines should offer assistance to my parents, and not just leave us out in the cold. I feel they should offer the same treatment to all passengers who travel with them, and not make my parents second-class citizens. — Felix Chan, New York

Answer: You’re right; one of the airlines should have promptly rebooked your parents on the next available flight — not the next flight with available seat inventory.

It helps to know a little about how award tickets work. A sophisticated computer algorithm determines how many seats per flight become award seats, which is to say, seats for which the airline is willing to accept frequent flier miles as payment. But what the system is actually calculating is the number of seats that would go unsold. (Maybe they ought to call them leftover seats instead of award seats?)

Anyway, when your parents’ flight was canceled, the system gave you two choices: either refund the miles for the unused tickets or book your parents on the next flight with leftover seats.

This seems perfectly rational to the airline; after all, it’s giving you something for nothing. But from your perspective, it’s an insult. You worked hard and spent lots of money to accrue those miles, and to ask you to wait a month is unacceptable.

I notice that you spent a fair amount of time on the phone with British Airways and Cathay Pacific after the storm (this incident happened several months ago, but I am just now writing about it). That’s fine, but you also want to put your grievance in writing so that you have a record of it.

I list publish the names of British Airways’ executives on my website.

At some point down the line, British Airways will realize that it ticked off one of its best customers, and a written record tends to help everyone reach that point sooner.

I contacted British Airways on your behalf, and it worked with Cathay Pacific to find your parents two seats on an acceptable flight.

Are loyalty programs an appropriate way for an airline to thank its best customers?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • polexia_rogue

    “computer algorithm determines how many seats per flight become award seats, which is to say, seats for which the airline is willing to accept frequent flier miles as payment. ”

    is that what people mean by “blackout dates”? i never had a frequent flyer credit card, i just don’t fly enough

  • Stanley Wester

    Award tickets are in fact a type of REVENUE ticket. It is a like a kickback for using their flights. The only time passengers loose their rights is if it is a NON-REVENUE ticket. Basically free or deep discounted tickets are what travel agency staff or airline staff get. They are called AD00, AD75,AD90, ID00, ID90 etc. These are usually on space available bases or if confirmed, are always restricted to the airlines on the ticket. No change of airlines and most of the time no rerouting too.
    Cathay Pacific and British Airways should be ashamed of themselves for not using basic common sense and if I am not mistaken, broken even IATA policies when they denied these travelers first available flights.

    The ONLY time airline check for specific inventory seats (a.k.a booking class or RBD) is when a traveler requests for an a Voluntary change. Involuntary changes and rebooking can and must be done and usually within the same Cabin class. (economy to economy and business to business etc).
    Shame on Cathay and Shame on British Airways. You have to start Airline 101 training for your staff!

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    As I understand it, a blackout date is when the system is set to set award inventory to zero, i.e. exclude a date from the potential award inventory. You see it especially with hotels and rental cars.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    This notion that loyalty programs are a way to thank customers or have anything to do with loyalty is a product of hype. The marketing genius who put that spin on these programs earned his/her salary many times over.

    Loyalty programs are simply a semi- symbiotic relationship. I spend enough travel dollars at your establishment, you let me stretch them. It’s a twist on volume discounts. The more I spend, the greater my discount.

    For example, I have a trial in Orange County, CA, at the end of the month. They’re probably 25 comparably priced hotels that I could stay at. I’ll be staying at the Marriott. Why? They’ll give me free breakfast and free Wi-Fi due to my program status. That about a $30 value per night. If I stay at the Hyatt, I receive neither.

    Similarly I’ll be flying either Virgin or America. Virgin gives me one checked bag and no additional cost, America gives me two. Either way, that’s at least a $30 savings each way. My job is to make sure that the benefits received outweigh any costs associated with participating in the program.

  • sirwired

    If the passengers themselves had canceled the flight, I could see making them wait until the next flight with FF inventory, or requiring them to return the miles (with re-deposit fee) and starting over.

    But since the flight was canceled by the airline, I don’t see why they weren’t treated like any other canceled passenger by Cathay; with a ticket on the next available flight. And either Cathay as the carrier, or BA who is essentially acting as a travel agency, should have been able to fix the problem.

  • Stanley Wester

    If Flights are delayed only the Airline can fix a problem. If it was a travel agent that issued the ticket, still only an Airline can fix any involuntary re-booking matters.

  • John Baker

    I’ve flown on a number of FF tickets. I’ve been “Newarked” more times than I can count and I’ve never had to “wait” for a flight with an open FF seat. Here I thought these two airlines were supposed to be “customer friendly.” I guess not!

  • BillCCC

    How about I like my miles but I don’t hate people that hold a different opinion than I? I believe that once the airline had issued tickets it should not matter how they were obtained. They should have booked them on the next available flight.

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Love the poll questions!

  • Christopher Elliott

    Yeah, I could have predicted which one wins! None of the above. ;-)

  • JewelEyed

    True, but a travel agency or a company that is acting as such in some capacity would be wise to advocate for the person the deal was made with and accepted some responsibility for. British Airways really should have called Cathay and told them this was unacceptable and to fix it from the start.

  • sirwired

    You need to find a better agent. Helping you navigate the re-booking process when your flight gets canceled or delayed is one of the primary things a good agent does that differentiates them from just booking direct with the airline website.

  • MarkKelling

    OK, we get it, you hate “loyalty” programs. But as long as airlines continue to have them and allow passengers to fly in exchange for accumulated miles/points people are going to use them.

    Anyone who has a ticket on an airline should be treated exactly the same no matter the source of the ticket when issues occur requiring a rebooking that was not initiated by the ticket holder. I have been on several flights that were cancelled for various reasons and the airlines have always managed to get me on a flight that still got me where I needed to be at an acceptable time. These have been reward tickets, fully fare tickets, discount tickets, and even bulk tickets from travel agents. I have never been told that because there were no available seats in the originally booked class of service I would have to wait until there were some. Of course I’m sure that someone who paid full Y or F fare probably gets priority on the rebooking process and might end up on an earlier flight than someone who bought the cheapest discount ticket, after all these are the people the airlines make money off of.

    Sounds like we might be missing something on this story. Did the OP try to reschedule before the airline actually cancelled the flight knowing it was going to be cancelled because of the weather hoping to get a better chance at getting a spot on the later flight? If so this would change the situation considerably and the statement that they could only be rebooked onto a flight with award seats available makes sense.

  • TonyA_says

    This is just inexcusable. The passengers are to be treated as humans and not baggage. They have already started their journey and are stranded. There is no other acceptable solution but to reaccommodate them on the next available flight (not the next time a booking class code becomes available).
    Cathay flies 4 times daily NYC-HKG, soon 5. I have been offered cash to accept JKF-LON-HKG by Cathay with BA flying the first leg so why can’t BA do that routing for them. I believe BA runs the operation in Terminal 7 (please correct me if I am wrong). Cathay also flies to HKG from ORD, YTO, LAX, SFO, YVR. They couls easily put them on partner AA to any of these other gateway cities. I am glad Elliott saved them. Amazing story.

  • MarkKelling

    OK, but if I am at the airport standing in front of a ticketing agent because my flight was canceled, how is an actual travel agent going to be able to do anything more for me than the airline employee I am standing in front of especially if it is the middle of the night where the agent is located?

    Don’t get me wrong, I use travel agents for my more complicated travel situations and have always been extremely happy with the provided service and the miracles they can work getting me where I need to be based on my last minute bookings, but I have also had to be proactive to get rebooked onto flights after a last minute cancelation instead of calling my agent and waiting for a miracle.

  • ExplorationTravMag

    I’m scratching my head on this one. A stranded passenger is a stranded passenger, no matter how they got their tickets and for the airline to shrug their shoulders and move on seems more than a little heartless, even for an airline.

    This couple should have been re-booked on any plane that could take them home, not just one with award seats on it.

  • Alan Gore

    I’m a major advocate of using travel agents for any kind of complicated journey, but do TAs even handle award flights?

  • Christopher Elliott

    I do not hate loyalty programs. You might say that I hate what they do to otherwise rational travelers.

  • Owassonian

    To be honest, I have used frequent flyer miles to my benefit and it has saved me and my family some money over the past few years, that I would otherwise have paid for the tickets. So I can’t necessarily downplay the usefulness of the frequent flyer miles program. At the same time, I don’t go out of the way to earn these miles/points either. Unless the price difference is negligible for an international flight, I don’t opt for a specific airline. Domestic flight ticket prices are usually fairly competitive. I look for the lowest price and the best schedule before frequent flyer miles or rewards programs. I also understand that there are limitations to the usage of these miles and plan accordingly. There are many times when the frequent flyer miles are not useful and I end up buying a ticket on an airline on which I am not a frequent flyer. If one participates in these miles programs in moderation and not get too involved, it still is a useful thing. It’s like any other coupons deal. If you want the item, you can try and save on it. You don’t buy the item just because you have a coupon for it.

  • Daddydo

    It is probably time to realize that it does take an advocate to deal with anything in the travel industry. RIGHT means nothing! The advocate is your travel agent or somebody like Chris.

  • teddybeargraham

    i agree that the airlines treat reward tickets as no significant revenue but as a business owner I can tell you there is significant revenue generated by the airlines for this. I pay 3.5 percent on every charge on one of those cards that gives miles, so when I redeemed 500,000 miles for 2 tickets in first that was worth 17,500 dollars in revenue for the airlines, so they should treat you like that.

    the airlines want to make money from all sources of revenue, so we should be treated not like second class citizens.

    I see my bill every month from visa and I pay a lot of fees and since the airlines get a large cut they should keep that in mind.

  • $16635417

    I have mixed feelings on award programs. One could argue that it DID manipulate your behavior. I’m curious, without your Marriott membership and benefits, what factors would come into play in making your hotel choice?

  • emanon256

    My “none of the above” is, I like my miles, and I like you too for helping people and warning people of how miles can be bad for most people :)

  • emanon256

    Anyone who has a ticket on an airline should be treated exactly the same no matter the source of the ticket when issues occur requiring a rebooking that was not initiated by the ticket holder.

  • TonyA_says

    They can do the work for you if you give them your FQTV details and credit card. It is called Award Booking Service.
    But they are doing it as if YOU are the one booking it yourself.

  • TonyA_says

    A little clarification is need here.

    A travel agency is acting on behalf of the validating airline. So if I issue you Cathay Pacific 160*** tickets, then they, CX, should take care of you since it is their tickets.

    When BA issues their own tickets on CX flights, they are not agents of CX, per se. Airlines are allowed to sell each other flights but I am not sure you can call them agents of each other. Interline Agreements simply allow carriers to issue their own tickets for other carrier’s flights.


    I am not surprised BA did not do a better job with this. Some friends were in the states from France when the Icelandic volcano happened. They had booked through an online discounter in France and when they tried to get rebooked to go home after the volcano BA told them they would have to wait nearly 6 weeks as other passengers who had paid more had first priority. Took a number of calls and intervention by the French consul general here to get them on their way home. Simply ridiculous.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Manipulate? It sounds so sordid. ;)

    Beyond that I would say that it did exactly what it was supposed to. I have to book at hotel, and I found that the Marriott in that location is the best cost benefit for me

    I have a criteria for any hotel stay.

    Overall comfort (bed, pillow)
    Do I need to impress anyone? (aka clients)
    Out the door price (base price plus items I am likely to use, e.g breakfast, internet, parking)
    Proximity to my destination

    For example, my preferred LA hotel is the Westin Bonaventure. For me, the Westin bed is the best. In fact, I loved it so much I bought one. I can meet clients there, the price is comparable to other similar hotels, and the platinum perk of free internet and breakfast is a cost savings, plus its near 4 major freeways so I have easy access.

    As an added bonus, they always upgrade to a one bedroom suite, and often one with a conference room attached so I can appropriately meet a client there without having to rent a meeting room. Proximity isn’t a big deal for me unless I can walk to my destination.

  • Jonathan Woodman

    I don’t hate you for criticizing air miles. But I have used miles to fly business class around the world. Just last year, we used 100,000 miles to get tickets that priced out at $6,000 each. That’s a bargain to me.

  • Christopher Elliott

    That’s great. I think Mary Chapin Carpenter said it best: Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug.

  • TonyA_says

    Hi Chris,
    In your research, did you come across how partner airlines on same the alliance compensate each other for award tickets?

    I think that this kind of information could be eye opening.

  • jim6555

    In the USA, Frequent Flyer reward air tickets tickets are not issued by travel agents. The account holder must book the travel directly through the airline. I don’t know if this is true in other nations.

  • omgstfualready

    This is a shame. I would prefer a push for this to be clearly disclosed and let the consumer make the decision; pay full price and get served should an event happen, or take the ‘free’ flight but know you are lower priority.

  • omgstfualready

    The airlines do get paid on the charges but it is a small fraction of the 3.5% merchant fee. The merchant exchange (I assume you have Visa & Mastercard since AMEX is 5 or 6%) gets the lion’s share and the bank underwriting the card used by the customer (ie BoA or Citi) gets the next biggest chunk, then the sponsoring company (in this case the airline) gets what is left. It isn’t nothing, but it is crumbs compared to the entire amount you are paying as a merchant.

  • omgstfualready

    Or if they are not going to be treated equally, state that clearly and let the consumer decide for themselves.

  • omgstfualready

    Agreed. I travel frequently for work and all things being similar I’ll go where I can get the most for the money. I don’t need to have an upgraded room but the free wi-fi and breakfast/evening drinks is a savings to my company; the hotel wins because they got the business over the one across the street, my company wins by saving me having some out of pocket expenses, and I’m not out of the way or uncomfortable. so it’s a win. Perhaps it is when the use of these programs for infrequent travelers that people start doing silly things to try to game the system, which we know always favors the house and isn’t worth the effort.

  • MarkKelling

    The bank which issued your miles card to you buys miles from the airline at a flat rate which it then awards to your account when you buy things. The bank also pays the airline a marketing fee to include their name on the card and feature it in whatever advertising is done. The airline also gets a discounted rate over what other merchants pay when you book directly with the airline using that card. While none of these amounts is trivial, the fees you pay to your credit card company (your stated 3.5% and other misc fees) stay with the bank, the airline sees none of it.

    This works for the airline because the majority of those miles go to people with the credit cards that will never accumulate enough to actually cash them in for a free flight. Since the miles were paid for, there is income for the airline. Since the credit card holder pays the associated fees for the privilege of holding the credit card to the bank, the bank has income to offset thefes it pays the airline for the miles and marketing.

  • Cybrsk8r

    Yea, like that’s gonna happen. I can just see that fine print now.

    “Awards passengers holding tickets on a cancelled flight will be left twisting in the wind and basically treated like pond scum”.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    Perhaps it is when the use of these programs for infrequent travelers that people start doing silly things to try to game the system, which we know always favors the house and isn’t worth the effort.

    That’s where we disagree (although the rest is100% right on). My experience is that infrequent flyers spend almost no time with their loyalty programs. It’s the road warriers to do “silly” things.

    But what’s “silly”? Are mileage runs silly? Depends on the benefit derived. I did a run to Chicago once. Cost about $250 round trip. The resulting benefit was free domestic upgrades for the next year as well as 4 round trip international upgrades.

    Or, when I visit my relatives in NC, I fly American. For the same price, my choices were fly a direct flight in coach, or first class with a layover. Both are perfectly reasonable options.

    Same with mattress runs. Literally on the way to SFO to take a trip to Paris, I stopped at the cheapest Marriott I could find (~$75). Checked in, messed up the bed, and left. The status achieved by that run give me free breakfast, free wi-fi and a 2nd weekend night free coupon which I used at least monthly for the next year. The free wi-fi alone ($10 per night times 49 nights) was a $490 savings.

  • Carver Clark Farrow


    Perhaps something more like, in the case of irregular operations (irrops), passengers will be accomodated based in the following order: Class of service, fare class, award tickets.

  • technomage1

    I agree. A delay of a few days would have been acceptable. But a month? How are people in the middle of a journey supposed to cope with that? If they were staying in a hotel, those bills would really add up, not to mention the expenses back home (such as long term parking) and the impact to any job they may hold.

  • omgstfualready

    I don’t see what you do as silly at all. You weighed the time and effort (costs) against the free or upgrades you would get (benefits) and made the decision based upon that. In my personal travel I tend to stretch the points I get from my business travel so again, choices in hotel being similar, I’ll try to do the cash+points so I can go away more often for less money.

    But I do think it is those that don’t travel often that are getting those reward credit cards and spending way more than the benefit they get is worth. The only air reward card I ever bothered with was when I knew I had a few trips about 8 months out. Dates were flexible but the trips weren’t optional. To reduce my costs I got a card for a no annual fee for the first year, spent the minimum to get the maximum introductory miles, then put the card away and went back to my trusty Amex Blue. I then had a note on my calendar so I wouldn’t forget to cancel the card the month before the next year’s annual fee was to start so I never had to pay for the honor of having their card. I pay my bills in full each month so the interest rate was of no concern, I had no plans on buying any big ticket items so the temporary knock on my credit score for opening/closing an account was of no concern, and the miles I received paid for all the flights I needed.

    I tend to think many of those non business folks with reward credit cards don’t realize that they spend $100 a year for being allowed to have the card then say they also pay $300 a year in interest charges too (I know I’m a rarity not paying interest on anything). That’s $400 paid for a ‘free’ flight worth likely less than that plus they now have to deal with black out restrictions and all that fun stuff.

  • Carver Clark Farrow

    That’s a good point. Affinity cards are one area where infrequent fliers err. I had one on my personal account but I didn’t charge enough to justify the fee so I cancelled it.

  • omgstfualready

    I just want all these restrictions / fees / whatever term comes up next month to be disclosed. I don’t want them banned. I like free markets but it only works when people make educated decisions on published information. That’s why the requests for help here that had that information clearly disclosed (non-refundable rates are pretty clear) annoy me. The reward tickets obviously had very buried or totally undisclosed restrictions that didn’t allow the consumer to make an educated decision.

    Though a disclosure about being ‘left twisting in the wind and basically treated like pond scum’ would be refreshingly honest….. :-)

  • Asiansm Dan

    I don’t understand the behavior of British Airways and Cathay Pacific. I had many many free trip on Star Alliance and do have interruptions because of weather and Star Alliance carrier member don’t care who issued the ticket on what program. They just rebook me on the next available seat on the Star Alliance available space (any routing, any fare type), not necessarily on Non-Rev inventory.
    And the same thing with DELTA Skyteam. I had an interruption in Detroit because of snowstorm and they rebook smoothly my free tickets travel on Korean Air and Delta (Originally ticketed only on Delta). This case show AVIOS miles worth nothing.
    I better stick with Star Alliance and Skyteam.

  • MarkKelling

    And you can rack up hundreds of thousands of miles through the credit card without ever flying a single flight on the airline. Problem with that is the airlines reserve many of their “free” seats for their higher status level frequent flyers and the miles received from a credit card do not get you any status. So you have nowhere to spend your miles that you want to go because those seats are not visible to frequent flyer program members who are not high level status.

  • bodega3

    Using miles can be risking. I had an experience with UA a few years back when our plane was damaged on arrival in SFO before our flight and they were reaccommodating everyone. Due to our miles, space isn’t just reassigned, as it has to be in inventory compared to the reaccommodating of paid fares. It was going to be 48 hours until they could get us on a flight.
    When you use miles from a program, you work with that carrier, who has to send a message to the operating carrier when you are traveling on a partner airline

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    My vote: I love my miles, but I don’t hate Chris; I feel bad for people who don’t understand how the system works.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    On the “get them back to Hong Kong” problem, I hope that Chris has helped them solve it. I learn so much from these posts …. and I guess this one’s lesson is “don’t fly on free tix without the ability to buy a return ticket if you have to”. It’s sad that airlines treat us this way, but they do and everyone knows it.

  • bodega3

    That isn’t how mileage tickets work. It is based on space available, not any seat available.