Airlines have control over the award prices they set and also over the amount of award space they release on their own flights. That makes it easy for them to control the costs of redemptions through their mileage programs.
However, with alliance partnerships, typically airlines release the same amount of award space to all their partner airlines. Back in 2008 Lufthansa released a ton of first class award space, often 8-10 seats per flight (back when they had 16 first class seats on their 747s). As a result it was the single most available transatlantic first class product to get on miles. While we don’t know exactly how much airlines have to pay one another for award seats, there’s obviously some cost to it. In 2008, that cost was too high for United, and they implemented something called “Starnet blocking” whereby they began blocking Lufthansa first class award space across the board.
My issue with this was twofold. First of all, it undermines the value of an alliance when different airlines make different amounts of award space available. But more importantly, the worst part was that United wasn’t at all transparent about the Starnet blocking, and for months actually denied it was happening.
After the merger between Continental & United, the blocking stopped for the most part, though US Airways picked up the practice. They started by only blocking Lufthansa transatlantic first class award space, and they did it in spurts. Often at the beginning of the quarter US Airways would show award availability (I assume their partner award space quota was reset), and then after that they wouldn’t have access to any first class award space for a while.
Eventually the US Airways Starnet blocking spread from just transatlantic Lufthansa first class award seats to all Lufthansa first class award seats, which has been the situation for over a year now.
Anyway, the past several months that blocking has spread even further, and now US Airways is on many days blocking all Lufthansa award space, in first, business, and even economy class.
As a general rule of thumb, US Airways seems to display Lufthansa business and economy class award space on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but shows very little space on other days. However, that’s by no means a rule, as I’ve seen space blocked on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and seen space not blocked on other days as well.
Obviously this is extremely frustrating for several reasons:
- US Airways isn’t being transparent about the blocking and is claiming that the space they’re displaying to their agents is all they’re being given.
- It’s one thing to block Lufthansa longhaul award space, but it’s really tough to plan awards when they’re blocking intra-Europe award space, given the number of Star Alliance routes within Europe operated exclusively by Lufthansa group airlines (many Swiss and Austrian intra-Europe flights are being blocked as well)
- You can’t search Star Alliance award space on the US Airways website, so you have to call to even find out if they’re blocking the Lufthansa space or not, which is a pain.
Sadly, I’m afraid there’s not much we can do. It’s frustrating, it’s annoying, but at the end of the day US Airways will be leaving the Star Alliance soon (probably in the next couple of months), so the best we can do is work around the Starnet blocking to the best of our abilities and keep booking 90,000 mile business class awards to North Asia.
We can also hope that the “new” American doesn’t engage in these practices once they’re part of OneWorld, given that it is US Airways management in charge of the new carrier…