Why Can’t All Miles Be Redeemed For Premium Economy?

Reader Danny left the following comment on the Ask Lucky page of the blog:

Had an interesting experience. I was helping my aunt and uncle use their AA miles for an award booking from LAX to NRT early next year.

I used BA to search for award space for JAL and found First on the Outbound and Premium Economy on the return.

I was surprised to learn that AA doesn’t allow award bookings for Premium Economy, what’s the rationale behind this? If partners release the space why block it? It was bookable through BA, but we were using AA miles and who wants to pay those fees anyways.

It’s a good question. The popularity of premium economy has increased exponentially over the past several years, and it’s a trend we’ll continue to see. Airlines are in many cases adding premium economy at the expense of first class.

Cathay-Pacific-Premium-Economy
Cathay Pacific premium economy

However, what’s interesting is that you still can’t redeem miles from any of the “big three” US carriers (American, Delta, or United) for premium economy.

Premium-Economy-Awards

Why is that? There are a couple of possible explanations:

US carriers don’t have premium economy

The most prevalent argument seems to be that it’s because US airlines don’t themselves offer a premium economy cabin. While they do offer a section of economy with a few extra inches of legroom, that’s not the same as premium economy on non-US airlines, which is actually a separate class of service.

For example, Delta SkyMiles can’t be redeemed for travel in international first class, and the argument has long been that it’s because they don’t themselves offer an international first class cabin.

Do the big US airlines not let you redeem miles for premium economy because they don’t themselves offer a premium economy cabin?

Airlines just aren’t innovating

It’s really only over the past five or so years that premium economy has become really popular. It could very well be that these carriers don’t let you redeem miles for premium economy because they don’t have much of an incentive to do so.

At this point more oneworld and Star Alliance carriers offer a premium economy cabin than a first class cabin, so if they were going to stop offering redemptions in a cabin based on rarity you’d think it would be first class.

I guess to simplify this somewhat, premium economy is somewhat new and the airlines don’t have an incentive to add new redemption options. At the end of the day award redemptions cost airlines money, so the fewer redemption options the less programs cost the airlines (though in many ways that’s a short sighted approach, because you do want to keep people engaged).

Alaska DOES let you redeem miles for premium economy

It’s interesting to note that while the “big three” US carriers don’t let you redeem miles for premium economy, Alaska’s Mileage Plan program does.

Alaska lets you redeem miles for premium economy on both Cathay Pacific and Qantas. Presumably other US carriers could do the same, they’re just not really incentivized to open up more award redemption options, I think.

Alaska-Qantas-Redemption

Bottom line

Long term I suspect we will see more opportunities to redeem for premium economy. I don’t have a good explanation as to why it’s not more widely available now. My guess would certainly be that like many things in the industry, airlines just don’t have an incentive to offer more award redemption opportunities, so they’re conveniently keeping the status quo in this regard.

That’s good news for those collecting miles with non-US airlines, as it means there’s less competition for those premium economy award seats.

Have you ever redeemed miles for premium economy? Would you, if the option became more widely available?

Comments

  1. I would think this could be a “careful what you wish for” situation. If one of the big 3 US carriers were to add Premium Economy to their award charts, I could easily see them doing it in the context of making PE 2x the economy miles price and moving Business up to 3x (whereas it’s usually now around 2x). Especially for better programs like Aeroplan there just isn’t that much room in between the economy and business class award prices.

  2. FYI, from what I have been able to gather, Unites does let you do an award booking on SAS for PE. It comes up under mixed class and it 30,000 Saver one way.

  3. “For example, Delta SkyMiles can’t be redeemed for travel in international first class, and the argument has long been that it’s because they don’t themselves offer an international first class cabin.”

    Interesting, because I can redeem my SAS Eurobonus points for first class, even though SAS themselves don’t offer that cabin of service.

    At the same time, it’s also worth noting that SAS has blocked Eurobonus award redemption for their OWN premium economy on their long haul flights (known as SAS Plus)

  4. I’ve always been a something of a scrooge when it comes to miles/points. My wife calls me a “serial saver” because I love the game of getting and then rarely spend them (eg, I have just under 1 million IHG hotel points). So, in the parlance of “the grand game”, I LOVE to earn and HATE to burn. That same behavior carries over to my money as well. Thus, I always fly coach (domestically and internationally) because it’s the cheapest, and I can’t comfortably stay in high end aspirational hotels because I know it’s more than I need – and only do so as a treat for my dear wife when she’s traveling with me.

    But as I have gotten older/greyer and grown “more rotund”, I find coach is increasingly more of a comfort struggle – particular for international hops. I still don’t think I’ll ever have any need other than ego to fly first, but business is looking increasingly attractive, and the advent of premium economy is looking nice as well. So, when I was looking at the Quantas redemption chart and noted the redemption cost differential between economy and premium economy was only 10K round trip – yeah, I would spring for that.

    So, long story short, I don’t think I’d likely redeem for premium economy for domestic, but it will definitely be in the mix for international trips that I can bring myself to redeem for – especially transatlantic hops.

  5. I am debating whether to book premium economy from Sydney to LAX on Qantas or wait for availability for business. What do you recommend? Is premium econ worth it?

  6. This is a sore spot for me right now. Flying to NZ in the next month on Virgin Australia using Skymiles. Flying the LAX-BNE and BNE-LAX segments in business. The BNE-WLG and CHC-BNE segments have to be in economy because Virgin Australia only offers economy and premium economy on their Trans-Tasman flights right now. Premium economy looks similar to intra-Europe business with 2×2 with a blocked middle seat instead of 3×3. But of course Delta can’t book the P fare.

  7. One of the issues regarding Premium Economy redemptions that many carriers are struggling with is the lack, to date, of a dedicated redemption booking class for such inventory to be distributed in.

    For example, in Star Alliance the standard classes are X, I and O for redemption. Inventory made available by carrier A in these classes can be accessed by carrier B of the same alliance and priced as per the mileage grids. However, there is no such standard (yet) for Premium Economy.

    With more and more carriers introducing such a fourth cabin, I’m sure this is a topic of discussion amongst carriers.

  8. @ Bgriff — I mean I guess they *could*, but that’s certainly not the precedent which has been set in the industry. BA charges 1.5x as much for premium economy as economy, and 2x as much for business as economy. So the airlines could also devalue further without adding a premium economy redemption option; I don’t think the two would be related.

  9. @ Maury — Worth it compared to what? If you need to travel and that’s the only option then yes. Which miles are you looking at using?

  10. I have only flown econ and business class before and never premium econ. I am using Alaska miles and I cannot find availability for Feb from SYD to the US in business. The only other alternative is premium economy. Thank you

  11. If you book an “anytime econ” award with AA on their metal, you can choose to sit in MCE if it’s available on your flight(s). I was surprised to find this out earlier this year when I booked 3 tickets from ATL to LHR on AA metal for 45k each, one-way. Later I was able to find 3 tickets in biz on another AA flight(s) for only 5k more per ticket so I figured it was worth it to switch.

  12. @ Maury – I have flown Premium Economy on Qantas many times on these routes (LAX-SYD, JFK-SYD), and the answer to your questions is yes, it is unambiguously worth it over Economy. I have also flown Business, which affords you the flat seat which is, of course, even better.

    But Premium Economy on QF is not dissimilar in space to US domestic flying in First. You will be happy that you did it.

  13. Is it possible to book Air New Zealand PE award tkts using United miles? My experience is that PE on Air NZ btwn LAX and AKL on the 777-300 is as good as B class (and better when you’re a couple as you get to sit together) and wanted to use miles for the next trip home….

  14. Be careful what you wish for.

    You don’t want US carriers to start with this whole Premium Economy business and then realise an upgrade from Economy is no longer to Business but to Premium Economy!!!!

    Imagine an SWU for an upgrade from Economy to Premium Economy! That would be scandalous!

    I’m not suggesting allowing mileage redemption on partner carrier’s Premium Economy will lead to US carriers offering Premium Economy cabins. But it is one step away, once they start rationalising their product offerings.

    Let’s keep 3 distinct classes and be very glad an upgrade from Economy is truly an upgrade!

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