Why Won’t American Let Me Use Miles on a Connecting Flight? (Ask Cranky)

It’s time for another Ask Cranky. This one is a follow-up on a post I wrote last December.

I read your post in December [about American opening up more award space on connecting flights] and I am NOT seeing this space open up. In fact it has gotten worse. I’m trying to fly from Houston to Champaign, IL and despite [a MileSAAver] being available on both Houston to Dallas/Ft Worth and Dallas/Ft Worth to Champaign, I cannot book [a MileSAAver] from Houston to Champaign.

Is there anyone at American you can reach out to and see why the situation has not improved? I have tried calling and speaking to their agents and even supervisors, but they say, “The computer says no.” I am frustrated.

Good catch here, and sure enough, this is happening. It’s the exact opposite of what American said it was doing last December, so it had me a bit puzzled initially. But I suppose it does make sense.

You’ll remember back in December I said this:

Thanks to improved revenue management techniques, American has become much more skilled at maximizing its revenues on every flight it operates. So if the airline is going to open up more award availability, it wants to do it in a way that can have the lowest impact on ticket revenue.

In the original example, that meant American was fine selling cheap award tickets from Richmond to LA via Philly but not on the two local markets where it could get a high fare. But this can work in reverse as well. Let’s take a look at what Jon was talking about.

No need to share the dates here, but you can rest assured that these are all on the exact same date. First, here’s the availability from Houston to Dallas/Ft Worth:

Then there’s Dallas/Ft Worth to Champaign:

And finally, here’s the Houston to Champaign display:

We can really dive in and examine why this might or might not make sense on these specific flights, but I can guarantee you that American isn’t doing that manually.

Sure, Houston to Dallas is a big market with competition and cheap fares. So if American can take 7,500 miles instead of the $100 it’s likely to get on a fare, then that’s not bad at all. Might as well open things up and let travelers burn their miles. And on Dallas to Champaign, well, it’s an incredibly tiny market (less than one person a day) so the airline might think keeping seats open could help move people on to that flight instead of going via Chicago. But again, that’s a TINY market, and American can’t really be bothered getting into that type of detail.

Instead, what’s probably happening here is that American is setting up rules and letting the computers decide when to open up availability. Recently, American gained the ability to limit those by true origin and destination (Houston to Champaign) instead of just by individual flight, so that allowed the airline to manage things much more intricately. I have no idea how sophisticated the system is, but certainly the expected ticket price, mileage amount, and demand should come together and allow American to make a decision on whether it makes sense to give mileage seats at the low level or not.

This might be good for travelers, but frankly, we will never know. How so? Well, since American can control availability by full origin and destination and not just by flight leg, that means it may find that it’s worth opening up space more often than it used to.

Let’s zero in on that Dallas/Ft Worth – Champaign flight. Before, American had the binary option of leaving mileage availability open or closed for anyone who wanted to take that flight regardless of actual origin and destination. American might have made the decision in that scenario to not open it up. But now that it can open it just for the few people traveling on the local route, it may feel safe opening up availability that never would have existed before.

It’s also possible that before, American just would have left this open for anyone, and now it’s shutting down availability on connections because it has the ability to do so. That baseline is what we don’t know, and it’s why we can’t tell if this in particular is good for bad for travelers.

What I do know is that American has shown interest in giving people more opportunities to burn miles. That means that overall this is going to make more seats available. That doesn’t mean that in every situation there will be more availability, but more broadly, it does.

This does add complexity, and it’s already created an issue that’s fairly annoying. Jon can buy two tickets from Houston to Champaign for 20,000 miles if he’s willing to split them. Of course, if he’s checking a bag that’s likely to be problematic for him. But his other option is to spend a whopping 50,000 miles which would just be crazy. It would be nice if American had the ability to allow end-to-end redemptions, but I doubt that’s something we’ll see anytime soon.

In summary, this is frustrating for travelers who used to know you could just piece itineraries together flight by flight. But it should result in greater availability overall, so it’s not necessarily bad. What we do know is that this is reality, and it’s not going to change regardless.

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