Why hanging up and calling back doesn’t always work…

I received a reader email yesterday from someone trying to ticket an award reservation with American from Los Angeles to New York to Hong Kong to Bangkok, which should cost 67,500 miles in first class. However, an agent insisted this would require two award tickets (one from Los Angeles to New York and one from New York to Bangkok), and the supervisor that the issue was escalated to agreed. Calling back yielded the same result… twice.

First of all, I should clarify that this routing is allowed. As discussed here, American lets you exceed the maximum permitted mileage (MPM) for a city pair by 25%. Cathay Pacific’s maximum permitted mileage plus 25% for Los Angeles to Bangkok is 12,383 miles, while Los Angeles to New York to Hong Kong to Bangkok is 11,596 miles.

So the routing checks out fine. The fact is that not all agents know the rules, and even not all supervisors are familiar with the rules. So the person placed the ticket on hold, which was more or less his death sentence in this case. While we like to play the “hang up and call again” game, this only works well when you don’t have a reservation yet.

Nowadays agents almost always add notes to the record of a reservation every single time you call, so every agent that subsequently sees the reservation will see those notes. So in the case of this person, the first supervisor probably notated the record saying something along the lines of “passenger informed routing not legal and must use two awards.”

And call it peer pressure or something else, but once a record is notated it’s almost impossible to get a subsequent agent to overrule that, regardless of how wrong they are. Despite having booked hundreds and hundreds of award tickets, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve convinced an agent to overrule something that was previously notated in the record.

So what do you do in this case? Unfortunately the only real option is to cancel the hold on the reservation and start from scratch with a “clean” record. Hopefully the award space goes back into inventory, though it’s no guarantee.

Call back and hopefully you’ll have better luck with the next agent. And also keep in mind that a reservation isn’t confirmed until it’s ticketed. So just because you’re able to place a ticket on hold doesn’t mean they can’t change the cost or claim it’s not legal when you call back to ticket. So for “complicated” award tickets I always suggest ticketing right away to avoid a clueless agent you may get on a subsequent phone call.

Lastly, anecdotally I should note that I find American, British Airways, and United agents to most frequently notate records, while Delta and US Airways agents don’t do so quite as often (though still do sometimes).


  1. I had an incident a few weeks ago where there were schedule changes that led to misconnects, I called in and the first agent couldn’t help me out. I told him to leave it how it was and I’d see if there were schedule changes, but he unticketed it and told me he left a note that it was my decision to keep a misconnecting ticket.
    I called in the next day, the first agent destroyed my itin, the supervisor told me the routing I previously had, wanted to get, and have booked seven of, was illegal. Hung up from that call with a routing COS-DEN-PHX, LAX-IAH-COS (originally COS-IAH-LAX-PHX-LAX-IAH-COS).
    I called in a few hours later and after around 20 minutes talking to a supervisor, the agent I talked to was able to get the change fee waived and did a whole new itinerary on COS-IAH-SFO-PHX-SFO-IAH-COS with 787 SFO-IAH and upgraded to F on the whole thing from 20K miles.
    Luck, perseverance, whatever it was, I am very happy with the outcome.

  2. @ Kris Ziel — Happy it worked out, though sorry to hear it was so complicated. I suspect the fact that you had a schedule change outside your control worked in your favor.

  3. Ben, there is also a requirement that the most direct routing must be followed? In this case, clearly the proposed LAX-JFK-HKG-BKK routing is not the most direct. MPM is only part of the equation. I suspect that is the source of the problem. There is a very detailed thread on this on another Internet site that is posting some of the guidance available to the AAgents that is not normally visible to the general public.

  4. @ Ryan — Agree with where you’re coming from, but in practice that’s not what American uses to actually validate whether a routing is valid. After all, “most direct routing” isn’t really much of a directive. For example, New York to Abu Dhabi is more direct than New York to London to Abu Dhabi, so by the “most direct routing” logic it wouldn’t be valid. I think it’s certainly what throws agents off, though…

  5. Ben, I agree that there is definitely an element of discretion applied to the most direct routing requirement, but, from the information I read posted on the other Internet site (I’m being vague because I do not know whether you want the site posted) the most direct routing is definitely a rule; in fact, they call it the first rule. There also seems to be guidance to take the passenger’s intention into account. If the passenger is askign to route in a roundabout way, this guidance suggests that it should be priced as two awards. In your example, routing from JFK to AUH through DXB is not the most direct, but it is going in the right direction and stays within the MPM. I don’t think that would be problematic at all. However, the proposed routing here is going 2500 miles in the wrong direction, which is clearly not the most direct routing.

  6. @ Ryan — Feel free to post the site, not an issue! And I agree with you, just playing devil’s advocate to some degree. But if American’s intention is to only allow the most direct routing, I have to wonder why they have the single most generous policy in the airline industry when it comes to exceeding MPM.

    I think the other thing to keep in mind is that American’s west coast route network is absolutely abysmal. So for example while Cathay Pacific does fly from LAX and SFO to HKG, what if someone was originating in SEA, and Alaska had no award space to LAX, SFO, or YVR. In that case backtracking a couple of thousand miles is the most direct option.

    Definitely some agent discretion involved here. And I think that’s why the only way to get anywhere is to start from scratch with the itinerary.

  7. Ben, the site is http://www.travelingbetter.com and the specific thread can be found at:


    Specifically, posts #63 and #66.

    I think the MPM is designed to come in to play in the exact situations you mentioned, where the passenger is departing a city where there is no direct flight to the North American gateway city (although, in your example, Alaska may be an option to get to SFO or LAX). The problem for the passenger in question is originating in LAX, where s/he has the option to fly directly out of LAX on CX or to fly up to SFO or even YVR to connect to the CX flight. Backtracking to JFK (even without booking a stopover) is not probably taking it further than AA wants to allow. Of course, originating in JFK and routing LAX-HKG-BKK would most likely be allowed, even though one could go JFK-HKG-BKK because it is moving in the same direction.

  8. Ben, How would you call back and argue this with an agent?

    I mean I would definitely go LAX-HKG-BKK and save time. But how would you argue this rule?

  9. @ Jorge — I wouldn’t argue. I’d call till I find an agent willing to book it. Just tell them you found a routing that appears to be available, and ask if you can give them the itinerary segment by segment. If they have an issue with it hang up and try again. If an agent isn’t willing to book it there’s no sense in trying to convince them, since they almost never cave.

  10. This is pretty apparent case that it is against the backtracking rule. Backtracking does seem to be at agent’s discretion, so its probably possible to find an agent to book it, but it isn’t straight up “legal”.

  11. this is why i love Alaska Mileage Plan. Was able to backtrack from HNL to the CX SFO gateway, in F no less, and the award included the gateway flights on AS! Same on the return.

  12. Actually when it comes to “direct”, most people refer to the world map which is basically a cylindrical projection from a sphere. It’s not accurate at all. If you use math to determine the shortest distance between 2 points on a surface of the sphere (the right math-vocabulary is “manifold”), then it is far off from what people think on a 2D world map. That’s why we need to plot the route in gcmap.com. The direct path from NYC to HKG is actually closer to the north pole, no where close or in the direction of LAX… but most people’s common sense would think it’s ok to route JFK-HKG through LAX… and I understand that “common sense”. Keep that in mind, I do exactly like Ben said, keep calling and ticket at a time when you find a nice agent

  13. I tried to redeem value from an unused return ticket from Maui to Austin on United. Eight different calls yielded eight different responses (from you can only use it on the same city routing to you can change it for $150 plus recalculation and a one way from LAS to PHX would cost $932 for a ticket currently priced $182). The final outcome was that I paid $150 to get the ticket to cover a oneway LAS FLL flight one way and received electronic credit for $250 more. Waste of my time on hold but ultimately nominally better than losing the ticket value.

  14. Amazing that the fact that the world is round causes so much confusion.

    On one hand, a generous MPM policy makes sense because the alternative would be too restrictive: for instance, requiring award flights to always be on the most direct routing would prevent people from ticketing perfectly reasonable flights, such as Lucky’s example of NY to London to Abu Dhabi.

    On the other hand, with a generous enough MPM policy, there are cases where you can end up with an extremely convoluted itinerary that will cost the airline significantly more than a more direct routing.

    So the airlines come up with these hybrid policies that just leave everyone confused. From their point of view, this is probably fine because it discourages the behavior they don’t want (complex itineraries close to MPM) while still permitting “reasonable” itineraries that aren’t the most direct (NY-London-Abu Dhabi). It’s presumably only a small number of cases where the customer thinks a routing is reasonable but a significant number of agents don’t. So, by being intentionally vague and confusing, they irritate only a few customers while still protecting their bottom line.

  15. Does Cathay have a Los Angeles to JFK routing code share with AA? I always thought that even if 25% is allowed, you still need to have that partner on that route to technically have a single award flight on that route, otherwise they have to break up the ticket into two segments.

  16. @ PedroNY — They don’t need to. The rule is that the overwater carrier publishes a fare between the origin and destination, which Cathay Pacific does in this case (between Los Angeles and Bangkok).

  17. It happened several times that booking over the phone would end up ruining our itinerary.
    This is the same reason why I’m thankful that booking flights online are available anytime. This way, we manage our own time, decide the interval for each flight and we get to reserve the seat we want!

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