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Airlines Keep Throttling Biz & First Class Award Space for US Travelers

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After years of record-setting credit card bonuses, American travelers have piled up more credit card points and airline miles than ever. But even points and miles millionaires are facing more and more roadblocks to actually redeem those points – particularly for top-dollar business and first class seats.

That hinges on the black-and-white issue of award availability: Is an airline allowing you to book that seat with miles or not? And airlines abroad are increasingly blocking travelers in America – whose credit card and frequent flyer ecosystem dwarfs the rest of the world – from booking their best seats. 

It's not exactly a new phenomenon, but the issue has accelerated in the last year. Consider this:  

 

finnair business class
Photo courtesy of Finnair

 

These behind-the-scenes games with award availability are becoming a bigger hurdle for redeeming credit card points and airline miles. Increasingly, travelers with points saved up aren't just contending with nonstop devaluations and award rate increases … but whether they can find those seats at all. 

 

What Are Airlines Up To? 

In some ways, these kinds of games are nothing new. But let's back up and set the stage for how this works – and, increasingly, why it doesn't.

There are two essential elements of booking every award ticket using miles:

  • The award rate, or how many miles you need to book a flight from point A to point B
  • The award availability, or whether that flight is actually bookable using miles

The airline whose miles you're redeeming determines the award rate, but it's up to the airline whose plane you'll eventually board to decide whether to make those seats bookable using miles. And they don't always play nice – especially for the ultra-valuable partner award bookings when you use one airline mileage program to book a flight on another carrier for fewer miles. 

Airlines routinely grant more award space to travelers redeeming their own frequent flyer programs than to their airline partners. Singapore Airlines, for example, practically requires you to use their own KrisFlyer miles to book business and first class award tickets. Just recently, Live and Let's Fly pointed out that United has begun restricting many Star Alliance partners from booking award space that was previously easy to score.

But this trend has escalated within the last year, taking an even sharper turn for the worse. It's dogged travelers with their hearts set on flying one of the world's best business class seats.

 

qatar qsuite

 

American Airlines charges just 70,000 AAdvantage miles and a few bucks in taxes and fees to fly Qatar Qsuites from the U.S. to Doha (DOH) or even the Maldives (MLE) or just 75,000 miles to get as far as South Africa. That makes it not just the best way to book Qsuites – it's one of the best deals in the world of points and miles, period.

But those award rates only matter if you can find the award availability … and flyers using American miles have been shut out. Aside from a random spurt, Qsuites have been virtually impossible to book with AAdvantage miles for the last year and change. You can easily book a Qatar economy seat with American miles, but here's what you'll likely see for business class: nada, a blank calendar. 

 

qsuites search

There is award space out there, however – particularly if you're looking 10-plus months in advance. You'll just only see it if you search through British Airways or Qatar using either airline's Avios miles, including for that exact same route that came up empty for American Airlines flyers. 

 

chicago to doha qsuites reservation
QSuites award availability booking through British Airways

 

Read more: The #1 Tip for Booking Qatar Qsuites Right Now

Iberia business class won't take the mantle of world's best from Qatar Airways anytime soon, but it's a hard deal to beat for as low as just 34,000 miles each way. But while American's website is easily the best for zeroing in on this deal, this trend of throttling award space has made that much harder. 

Nowadays, you'll never see more than one Iberia business class seat bookable through American's website … 

 

iberia 1 seat aa

 

… even when there are, in fact, two seats bookable on that exact same flight through Iberia or British Airways. 

 

iberia 2 seats

 

The same trend carries over to Finnair and its fancy new business class seats – but in this case, the motivation is crystal clear: American travelers rife with points are getting less availability than others. 

Get this: Search from AA.com for any Finnair route, like Chicago-O'Hare (ORD) to Helsinki (HEL), and you'll never see more than one business class seat. The same goes for searching directly through Finnair.com with your location set in the U.S., as you normally would. 

 

finnair business class aa

 

finnair us search for business class

 

But if you simply switch your location on Finnair's site to Finland or elsewhere in Europe, everything changes: Booking business class for two on that same flight is suddenly available! 

 

finnair business class for two

 

This isn't a fluke: It's intentional. Trying to book Finnair business class through my normal British Airways account, you'll also see one seat available at most. 

 

british airways search

 

Replicate that exact same search from an account registered outside the U.S., however, and you can magically book two seats instead! 

 

jfk to helsinki ba search

 

If that doesn't tell you what's happening here, I don't know what will. 

 

But Why?

The pattern is clear – and so is the rationale, if you ask me: Airlines abroad are fighting back against the explosion of credit cards and points in the States.

What was once a standard 60,000-point welcome bonus on *amex platinum* has steadily grown to as many as 175,000 points. Chase has upped the ante with its most popular travel cards coming out of the pandemic, with bonuses of 75,000 points on both the *chase sapphire preferred* and the *chase sapphire reserve* … though that's gone as high as 100,000 points in the past. Travelers barely bat an eye anymore unless Delta or United offer at least 100,000 miles as a bonus on their co-branded cards.

All the while, social media influencers and, yes, websites like ours, have promoted those credit cards and the so-called “travel hacks” to redeem them for seats that typically cost $5,000 or more. What was once a niche hobby confined to online forums has exploded into public view: More Americans are collecting points (and more of them) than ever before.

 

ITA Airways business class seat

 

Much like inflation for frequent flyer miles, airlines have raised award rates to offset that influx of points.

It always stings for travelers, and more of these devaluations are around the corner.

But maybe it's not enough. So airlines are turning to the intricacies of award availability instead, making it harder for Americans flush with points to book their top-dollar seats in the first place. 

If nothing else, all this reinforces the importance of leaving your favorite U.S. airline's credit card in the drawer – not swiping it everywhere you go. It doesn't matter if you've built up a mountain of AAdvantage miles or Delta SkyMiles if you can't actually book the flights you want. Earning transferrable credit card points from banks like Chase or Amex gives you the flexibility to pivot to an airline program that actually gives you access. 

Read more: Quit Charging Everything to Your Favorite Airline’s Credit Card

 

Bottom Line

As if the constant devaluations and rising award rates aren't enough, airlines are increasingly making it harder for U.S. travelers to book business and first class tickets using miles.

They're doing it by turning to the opaque yet critical world of award availability, keeping their priciest seats off-limits – or giving us just a subset of what the rest of the world can see. 

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

10 Responses

  • and all of this started with Delta. Although, it could have been any US airline. Remember who bailed out the airlines during Covid? Then Delta turns around and rewards us with high prices in both monetary and miles and congress does nothing. Then again, like any US company, it all depends how much is in the white envelope for congress representatives.

    Great article Kyle!

  • What kind of account are you referring to when you say ‘an account registered outside of the US’? A loyalty account or an email account? Thanks!

  • Specific to AA, it’s disappointing that through all their acquisitions and the reality that Doug Parker and his team actually bought American as USAirways and respecting that using the AA mantle was the go-forward move in those years around 2015. What is truly a “What have you done for me lately” approach, reflects only what is in one’s bank of accrued Miles, no reference to Lifetime Achievement i.e. 1,750,000 possibly. No reference any longer as to longevity in the Program, i.e. 1982. Though during my pre-retirement career from PSA, HP, USAir and AA, once at a position where weekly travel (48 Wks/Annum and 100+ Segments was the Rule, and Platinum, Chairman and President’s Club the Respect given, now, again, there is no reference to Lifetime Achievement in minimally Miles, which negates Loyalty in these inflationary times where Miles or Points are greatly increased over early millennia levels. It is, what it is, but be so apprised, of what is down the road, between Congressional Inteference and Brands seeing where their bread is buttered!

  • I feel some of it has to do with people applying for 6 or more Chase Ink CCs. These people come onto Facebook groups and blogs, crying like no tomorrow, because they didn’t get approved for 7th, 8th, 9th Ink CC. It is beyond insulting to the majority of us who cannot be approved for Chase business cards. These same people then cry about not getting 4 business awards to Europe or Asia. News folks: it was always hard to get more than 2 award seats overseas!

    All of the blogs make money off these applications for CCs. But blame should passed around evenly. Chase definitely should take a bit more than others because they encouraged some of the gluttony. I always say pigs get feed, hogs get slaughtered. But in this situation, the majority of us are getting the shaft by a small subset!

    My own self care has been to ignore the blogs and Facebook groups. If anything I just skim them because, being retired I can’t apply for a new CC every month. In the end that will hurt the blogs because eyeballs is how you make money besides CC marketing. Take credit that your own success is going to kill your business…or discourage some of this abhorrent behavior!

  • Airlines are no longer in the flying business. They are in the credit card business. Every flight features FAs pushing credit card applications. Worse yet, it’s a con game. The airlines sell miles then deflate their value faster than Weimar Republic (pre-WWII Germany) marks. This has been especially bad for us who earn miles the old fashioned way. We can’t use the miles in a meaningful sense but the planes are full of occasional travelers burning credit card miles. If legislation can’t ban airlines from selling miles to credit card companies, there should be legislation banning devaluation. (I have flown more than 5 million real miles in 50 years. Most of those years were not unpleasant but I now feel physically ill whenever I go to an airport. Anyone who thinks frequent flyer “status” has value is not paying attention.)

  • I booked 2 Business seats on Emirates 9 months before to Milan from New York. For about 88,000 miles. No availability on the United web site so transferred miles. I found 2 Business seats 5 months before from Stavenger, Norway to New York on KLM and Air France for about 80,000 miles but a $300 charge. United want 175,000 miles and Delta 300,000 to 500,000 one way. Economy seats seem available but Inited want 75,000 one way to Europe in economy. Yes Business is getting to be very difficult or requires very high mileage.

  • It’s not just the overseas carriers that are stingy with award availability to partners though. Good luck finding any Delta availability using Virgin points, another sweet spot. I moved some points over to Virgin pre COVID with the intention of flying Delta one to Europe. Since COVID there has been virtually zero availability to Europe, nor on domestic flights within the US. So I’m still sitting on those VS points as I don’t want to pay VS’s sky high “taxes” (aka fuel surcharges) to go to the UK. I’d happily burn them domestically on DL but nothing there either (of course plenty with sky high points redemption with Sky miles). And I spent a long time looking for ANA availability from all over the US to Japan nothing there either. AA at least have a bit more domestic availability to burn BA Avios and managed to redeem Avios on a flight to Japan instead of using VS points. And the UK isn’t exactly dumping big sign up bonuses on anyone, in fact they are pretty poor!

  • This article needed to be published & should be publicized, it’s what most of us know yet don’t discuss. Appreciate the insights, if only there was a solush.l!

  • Great article. Ditto on the flights to Asia. I used to see premium cabins in EVA and Asiana all the time.

    I blame the social media influencers mainly. YouTube less so, because you’d have to deliberately find these videos there. It’s really the IG and TikTok ones who post shots of themselves sipping champagne in Biz or First and a tagline of “This flight only cost $200. Click the link below and I’ll tell you how.” Travel blogs and forums have been in existence for over a decade. But it’s that now all this content is being pushed out to pull in the masses, these points have become even more devalued (in their practical utility, not just the airlines’ valuations of them).

    FFPs used to exist to serve their intended user groups: frequent flyers. Later on, those with an interest and willingness to learn the ins-and-outs of these programs came along and benefited. Then came along all these IG and TikTok users who have been led to believe that it’s “easy” to fly in premium cabins, at the detriment of the first two groups. This has left us all to fight for scraps and led to inflation in the points arena that’s been even worse than currency. Maybe this situation will resolve on its own once the glut of points has been used up along with the post-COVID surge in demand for travel. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking and what’s gone is gone.

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