How To Be Your Own Liaison

Airlines are notorious for making changes. Sometimes they are waiting on delivery of a new aircraft, or an equipment swap changes capacity on a route. Other times the operating carrier is Thai Airways, in which case good luck. 😉

And for the most part, airlines are also quite good at handling these changes and accommodating passengers. When the 787 was grounded early last year, for example, airlines worked to swap equipment to avoid cancellations. They weren’t entirely successful, so many flights were canceled, requiring many passengers to be rebooked.

With revenue tickets, this is fairly straightforward, given that most purchased itineraries tend to be fairly straightforward themselves. For award tickets, however, it becomes more complicated. There are often multiple partners involved, and award inventory and revenue inventory are vastly different.

And while airline have processes to endorse revenue tickets over to other carriers, there are more restrictions when it comes to award travel.

Alliance liaisons

So what you need — and I’ve written about them before in another context — is an alliance liaison. A general reservations agent will almost never proactively suggest this and often doesn’t even know they exist. But basically each alliance/airline partnership has an agent that liaises between airlines when serious schedule changes or cancellations occur that can’t reasonably be fixed without intervention.

In some cases, however, it can be nearly impossible to get to an alliance liaison in the first place. So I thought I’d give some tips on how to be your own liaison if you can’t find a cooperative airline agent.

I actually have a great example of an award booked through US Airways, and as they’re probably the most difficult airline when it comes to award ticket schedule changes I figured I’d walk through how to fix an itinerary due to schedule changes.

Schedule change: round one

US Airways Dividend Miles is the program we all love to hate — their agents are poorly trained and rarely competent, which makes things interesting to begin with. Now that US Airways has left Star Alliance and joined oneworld, life is even more interesting, and agents seem even less able to deal with changes than previously.

A reader and client of my award booking service had a particularly messy schedule change recently with an award we’d booked for him that was similar to my US Airways first class award to Australia. Qantas had made multiple, gradual, schedule changes, which completely screwed up the itinerary.

In the first round of Qantas schedule changes, Qantas retimed their London to Melbourne flight (that routes via Dubai) from an evening departure to a daytime departure to reduce ground time at London Heathrow. This created a forced overnight in Melbourne, as the connection to his final destination of Sydney wouldn’t leave until the following morning.

Of course that wasn’t ideal, especially since there’s a “direct” London to Sydney flight on Qantas (through Dubai), though such is life sometimes, and there truly weren’t any better solutions.

Schedule change: round two

However, the real trouble came in a second round of schedule changes, when Qantas canceled their London to Melbourne flight for the day he was planning to travel. Qantas rebooked him automatically, but for the day prior, which obviously wouldn’t work since he’d be enroute from the US to London at that time.

As there wasn’t any other first or business class award space to get him to London in time for the earlier departure date, the only real option was to get US Airways to contact their oneworld liaison, so they could get Qantas to rebook him on a more suitable flight (ideally the direct flight from London to Sydney).

Qantas-First-Class-1
Qantas A380 first class

Know the rules

To start, there are a few general award travel guidelines to keep in mind:

  • All changes to award tickets need to be made with the airline that issued your ticket (meaning the airline with which you redeemed your miles)
  • Airlines don’t typically have the ability to open up award space on other airlines
  • Airlines do have the ability to open up award space on their own flights
  • With a schedule change you should be able to cancel your award for free
  • Typically itinerary changes as a result of a schedule change will be an “even exchange”
  • Hang up and call again

And if none of that works, be your own liaison:

  • Ask the operating airline to open up award space 

Look for creative solutions

The first several calls to US Airways were met with brick walls. No agent was even willing to contact their supervisor, let alone Qantas or a oneworld alliance liaison. The offer to redeposit the award for free wasn’t an especially helpful solution, so we decided to try calling Qantas.

First off, we really lucked out, because the first Qantas agent to answer was extremely knowledgeable, helpful, and over-the-top friendly. She thought it was absurd US Airways wouldn’t contact Qantas, as that’s exactly what they would have done in a reverse situation. Of course, Qantas couldn’t “touch” the ticket because they hadn’t originally issue it, which is true. This means Qantas couldn’t handle the rebooking themselves beyond the automated adjustments that had already been made.

She left notes in the reservation along the lines of:

Customer requires rebooking on LHR-SYD due to a Qantas initiated change, please re-accommodate in originally ticketed class of service accordingly.

We then called US Airways again, explaining that there was no other solution but to call Qantas. We made sure to tell the agent that there were notes on the Qantas side of the reservation stating that they’d open up award space on the London > Sydney flight, which of course didn’t have any first class award space available. In fact, the flight was down to just four first class seats left for sale months out.

US Airways got Qantas on the line and in the course of about thirty minutes, they had opened up first class award space on the London > Sydney flight and booked it into the reservation. US Airways was then able to reissue the ticket in an “even exchange,” which was the most ideal of situations.

Bottom line

It’s not uncommon to be met by resistance when asking the airline who issued an award ticket to contact the partner who made the schedule change. It’s even more difficult to get an airline to contact their alliance liason.

Given how drastic the change was, it’s only reasonable to expect Qantas to accommodate the passenger. While I wouldn’t usually resort directly to calling the airline operating the flights, in some cases it might be the only option.

If you can’t get the issuing carrier to contact the operating carrier for whatever reason, I’ve had success in the past by initiating a three-way call with both airlines, so that might be an alternative.

Have you recently dealt with sticky partner award schedule changes? If so, how did you resolve them?

Comments

  1. i may have unwittingly had the help of an alliance liason officer. Last year was travelling back from VCE to SFO and lookimg for LH F to SFO. None existed, but was available theough Daen and SEA. i asked the UA rep about whether LH space might open up in LH, as I was leaving for the airport. she said hold the line, a few minutes later she reported thst LH had now made a seat available. perhaps was good timing but I was of the impression UA had contacted LH and LH modified their availability. i was grateful all round.

  2. @ Lantean — 2A, 3A, or 4A. The center seats share the right aisle, so I always prefer sitting on the left side if possible.

  3. Lucky, this is a very helpful post! Thank you! (knock on wood) but I’ve never had to change an award ticket. However, I recall reading a blog post from Rocky at upgrd.com last week about his experience on changing an award ticket on US Airways that may help your readers as well.
    I dont ‘know the maximum permitted mileage for your client’s flight but in case it was over the mpm, the likelihood of finding a US airways agent to change that flight without making any fuss is tough! Here’s Rocky’s blog post:
    http://upgrd.com/blogs/doublewidesfly/us-airways-denies-my-award-trip-change-request-your-initial-routing-is-illegal.html

  4. While not a schedule change, per se, we did work with 2 INCREDIBLE liaisons with Cathay Pacific (CX) and Alaska Airlines (AS) in early 2012.

    Some here will recall that in February of that year, CX went through a major IT overhaul. This affected award bookings and award space availability. Many of their partners – AA included, along with AS – could not see open space that was showing on CX’s site.

    There were four (4) of us traveling – 2 adults and 2 kids. We adults were already booked in First, while our sons were in business. However, we took a calculated risk after studying how CX released award space over the course of 2 years (releasing additional F inventory a week or so before the flight): we redeemed the full number of AS miles for an F award, as CX allowed waitlisting for those at the time, even though we had to manually call in if the miles opened up.

    Sure enough, the CX F inventory opened two additional seats in both our outbound segments two days after their big IT switch. I could see them on CX/Asia Miles, but AS couldn’t see them. After calling CX in Hong Kong and AS in Seattle in a plea that somehow airlines can actually talk with each other to find a solution, I managed to eventually hook up BOTH Liaisons. Both empathized and given that these are two of the best airlines in the world (IMHO), both went above and beyond to secure the two additional F seats. Again, nothing outside of their published rules was done, and our bet paid off.

    Liaisons are fantastic people, especially when they talk with each other and share a common purpose toward customer satisfaction!

  5. @Lucky, how do you handle it when the both the issuing airline and partner have the same travel advisory for an award? USDM won’t touch my AA routing without me incurring a change fee, I’ve tried HUACA 3 times this past weekend, they were all firm (even after a 1.5 hour schedule change).

  6. @ Chris — Sorry, what kind of a travel advisory are you talking about? Like, travel in the very near future with a weather advisory, or?

  7. I’ve actually had success with getting the partner airline to do an exchange and re-ticket on their own stock when things got dodgy. Flying on a BMI issued ticket on a weekend (viz. BMI call center closed), Egyptair rescheduled me resulting in a misconnection in Cairo and no onward flight to Accra for 3 days. Managed to convince Egyptair staff to pull the BMI ticket and reissue it on Egyptair stock for flights via Istanbul on TK metal instead. And to add icing on the cake, they rebooked in revenue Biz class so the miles posted as well! 🙂

  8. When dealing with US, I always have a backup list of flights for each segment. When a strike at CDG canceled my LH flight to connect in FRA to PHL last Nov, I called US who told me to call LH (which I knew wasn’t right) who sent me back to US. I had to ask for a supervisor to get me on the direct US flight CDG-PHL as I saw there were at least six open seats in Envoy. The first agent argued that my award ticket wouldn’t get me a seat because the points were more then I redeemed on the partner award (what?).
    Here I was having just landed from a long day in BKK stuck at airport due to protests only to have no flight home and the agent arguing with me and telling me incorrect info. Thankfully, I hung up, called again and asked for a supervisor was able to work with me on the direct flight home. It should have been a simple change but took a few international calls and about two hours to get right

  9. A great outcome. I’m sure your client is very pleased with the above and beyond service you and your team provided!

  10. The real lesson here is the Qantas knew what their agreement with the passenger required them to do and was willing to do it whereas USAir was not.

    A ticket is a ticket is a ticket. A ticket paid for with miles treated identically to one paid for with currency under the passengers agreement with the airline. That USAir simply refused to do what they obligated themselves to do whereas Qantas was happy to merely highlights the absurd situation we have in which the US based airlines have managed to snow most everyone into believing that they are permitted to create two classes of passengers when in fact no such right exists.

    Every airline obligates itself under it’s CoC’s to carry a ticketed passenger according to a set of rules. In almost every one those rules require carrying the passenger in the same class of service even in the case of a schedule change. Where that is the case those rule apply identically to all tickets available to the general public regardless of how they are paid for unless the CoCs specifically say otherwise, which none do.

  11. Would the liaison still work in a situation where the operating airline is no longer a partner? Specifically I have some US flights booked on United itinerary before US left Star Allaiance. Due to schedule changes on US Air side those flights are now ending up with impossible connection (flight B leaves before flight A arrives). There are no other options on star and US flights can’t be booked anymore. Would I have better luck United opening some of their space or could liaison be of assistance with rebooking US flights?

  12. @ Papa Smurf — That’s a sticky situation. There’s not really a liaison that can help, since they’re alliance specific. I might just try phoning United and seeing if they can open up space, and then three way in US Airways and see if they can reissue the ticket. Good luck!

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