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
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.
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.
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?