Why Is Alaska Blocking Cathay Pacific Award Space?

Alaska Mileage Plan has a great loyalty program, and some very valuable award redemption possibilities. For the most part their awards are easy to book, and while they don’t allow holds, most agents are generally competent.

There have been, however, issues over the years with Alaska not offering full access to partner award inventory. The latest instance of this is with Cathay Pacific, and Alaska is not giving Mileage Plan members the ability to book awards even when Cathay Pacific is making the space available.

This is different than the situation with Fiji Airways, for example, where Alaska only ever has access to two fewer seats than Fiji Airways offers to American. Cathay Pacific seems to be making this inventory available to all their partners (even non-oneworld partners), and it seems to only be Alaska that has problems accessing it.

The throttling of Cathay Pacific award space is new (or newish — Ben wrote about some of the availability discrepancies for first class back in July), and it’s very problematic.

As an example, we’ve been working on a trip to Asia for a client, and there are four of them traveling using Alaska miles. Cathay Pacific is the obvious choice, as they have phenomenal business class availability when booking in advance, and we found a date where all four could travel together:

CX-Award-Availability

This should have been an easy thing to secure. Yes, you have to encourage the agents to search segment-by-segment, but there are four seats, the miles are in place — should have been simple.

Cathay-Pacific-Business-Class-A330 - 3
Cathay Pacific business class

But no matter how many times we tried, and even when we tried different dates, Alaska agents couldn’t see more than one business class award seat.

A partial workaround

Back in the day, Thai Airways used to only release two seats at a time to partner airlines. They might have actually been willing to offer award space on the entire business class cabin, but their systems would show two seats, replenish those seats, show two more, etc.

It seemed like a long shot, but given that Alaska could see one seat, we figured we might as well try this method. So we booked the first seat.

And then Alaska could still see one seat, and we booked the second.

With two down and two to go, Alaska could still see a single seat, and we booked that too.

But when it came time for the fourth seat, and even though inventory was still available, Alaska couldn’t see any business class award space on that flight.

This seems relatively consistent across dates, and for the most part it seems Mileage Plan can see one fewer seat than Cathay Pacific is actually making available to partners.

What about the “old system”?

When Alaska was having issues booking Emirates awards last year, the solution was to find an agent who could go into the previous booking system and manually enter the data. This is a reasonable thing for agents to do during a software transition, and most were happy to.

Nowadays, it seems that there is only one system for booking Cathay Pacific. I haven’t been able to get a clear answer from an Alaska rep as to how they’re trying to book this (and between my colleague Jordan and I we’ve spoken to 30+ agents), but the consensus seems to be that there is only one way to book Cathay Pacific awards.

If there is another system for Cathay Pacific, either agents don’t know about it, or have been told it can’t be used. My suspicion is that the “old system” is the default for Cathay awards (which can’t be booked online using the “new system”).

I would further speculate that the data link between Alaska and Cathay has been corrupted somehow, which is what is leading to the discrepancy.

“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

I mention the data link because that seems the simplest and most likely explanation. Cathay Pacific is making this space available to all their partners (even tiny Bangkok Airways!), and Alaska is the only one not able to see the full inventory.

presume that Alaska isn’t intending to only make one Cathay seat available per flight, or to not show space at all when only one is available. And given the debacle when they launched their new website, I think it’s safe to say Mileage Plan doesn’t have the best computer and software engineers in Seattle at their disposal.

So rather than a vision of cackling executives trying to find ways to screw their frequent flyers, I think this is probably just negligence. Annoying negligence, certainly, and something that seems like it should be fixable if Mileage Plan were to make doing so a priority.

I’m not sure if that’s better or worse, but it does give me some hope that his could be fixed (Alaska, I’ve done half your bug report for you now, should make fixing this easier!).

Bottom line

This stuff is just annoying. There’s little reason for it, and having frustrated members degrades loyalty programs.

Alaska management: Fix your systems, or train your agents. You’re already on trust probation.

Everyone else: Be wary when planning Cathay Pacific awards on Alaska for now. The program still has great values, and I’d feel comfortable buying miles if I had a flexible schedule, or were planning for a couple. If you want to travel as a family, however, right now you’ll need to find dates with one more seat available than you actually need, which could be a bit tricky.

Have you dealt with this? Anyone have a workaround that I’m missing?

Comments

  1. I’m curious what kind of award you booked. Is it U.S. to Asia? I’d put Fiji within South Pacific, but Alaska’s award charts don’t list Cathay Pacific as an option to visit South Pacific — only Korean Air, Air France, and Fiji Airways. Generally if a partner is not listed you’re not allowed to use miles to fly on that partner to that region.

  2. May be it’s CX policy to restrict Alaska’s ability to book more than one seat at a time? CX is famous for being stingy.

  3. @ Louis — I could be wrong, but experience suggests that CX restricts space by route, or by date, not by partner carrier. I also find them to be one of the more generous operators overall, as they do release quite a bit of space.

  4. I’ve been trying to book HKG-DPS in Business for a month now, around May 20th next year. This is part of a larger itinerary from LAX. Inexplicably, more and more space keeps opening up on CX now. BA’s site is showing four seats on some days! Alaska agents can’t see a single one. I’ve called four times with four agents on different days, and all they can see is economy. Infuriating!

    All other segments I’m seeing space on they can book. First class LAX-HKG? No problem. Business from HKG-SIN? Not an issue!

    I wish they had a process in place where they could contact CX to request an award… Nope! No luck when trying to suggest that either.

  5. @Tiffany on a completely different and selfish CX issue, what is your experience w/ CX YVR-JFK F space…Do they ever release –2– award seats ahead of time, or only CLOSE in…???Thank you…

  6. @ Darryl — Does the space show on the JAL site as well? Sometimes the BA tool lies.

    But agree that it’s maddening. Maybe try calling and asking for just that segment, for one person, and seeing if it’s visible when not connected to another itinerary?

  7. When I was trying to organize a similar itinerary for 2, the AK Partner Desk agent said that the limits were coming from CX and not Alaska. I don’t know how you might verify that, but she seemed quite certain and had clearly been asked this before.

  8. Wow, impressive you found any premium CX award space using anything other than AsiaMiles (unless it’s just a few weeks out).. Alaska was awesome for CX awards until they enhanced their website and could no longer book seats as soon as CX released them. Now it’s worse than pulling teeth to find space.

  9. What site was used for the first picture in the article that shows four seats available? I only ever use BA’s site.

  10. @ Russ — I’m sure she was quite certain, but I’m also quite certain she was misinformed. I don’t really expect airline agents to have insight into how award space works across programs, or even what the tech limitations are on their end. They’re just trained how to search space, and that if it isn’t there, it’s because the partner isn’t making it available.

  11. @ Mser — Anything through the end of March is brutal due to all the pre-devaluation AAdvantage bookings, but in general I find CX makes plenty of business class seats available. I’ve seen 7+ seats per flight for next summer, which is in line with what they’ve historically offered.

  12. “we’ve spoken to 30+ agents”

    That’s the most impressive part. Pure dedication!

    BTW have you guys encountered the VX blocking of SQ space for any clients? It’s an absolute fiasco.

  13. @tiffany,
    on a side note, do you know what regional flights by CX are serviced in F? the only one I know of is HKG-HND and friday/saturday for HKG-BKK.

  14. I posted this on one of Lucky’s earlier posts about CX availability through Alaskan:

    “I was looking for CX availability through British Airways and what I could see when I searched was different to what my friend could find when he searched. We called Alaska and they could only see what I could see, not what my friend could. But then later when we called again to book flights on different dates, they could see the availability my friend could see. So I think it’s definitely worth calling more than once and that some British Airways accounts may see different availability to others.”

  15. @Tiffany
    I booked 5 Cathay J seats with Alaska miles in July for travel next April. It was painful. For some flights Alaska could see all the award availability showing on BA’s and JL’s websites and for other flights there were huge discrepancies (5 showing on BA, Alaska seeing 1 or 2). There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for which flights Alaska could all the seats and which ones they couldn’t. I eventually found a flight out of JFK where Alaska could see all five seats. The lack of a pattern was perplexing. Like you said- the HUCA made no difference. Best recommendation going forward is to plan early and have flexibility in your dates and/or US airports.

  16. Hi Tiffany. I’m a fan of you, Lucky and the blog. It’s always my go-to blog for info, interesting articles and more. I think everyone knows OMAAT is the best blog by far.

    You have comments for a reason right, to spark discussion and for people to leave their opinions? I hope so anyway.

    Here’s mine and sorry if it’s not welcome. Hopefully you may take it as constructive?

    I think this kind of entitlement and abrasive rhetoric such as “Hey Alaska.. fix it now, train your people, you’re on a time out, probation, blah blah” just harms us.

    The various bloggers and points junkies demanding loudly that AA keep their very rewarding program didn’t do much to prevent the devaluation did it?

    Loyalty programs are a privilege not a right. Of course selling miles aggressively to hit their members with a no notice deval is wrong and wildly frustrating. But that’s rare and not what happened here. Also… Sometimes you gotta take risks.

    Personally I love being able to purchase Alaska miles on the relative cheap to fly Cathay premium class for around 30% of face value. Or of course even better by multiple credit card bonuses fueling my lust for luxury travel for pennies on the dollar.

    I think the danger is when people expect and are entitled. To think you “should” always have access to 4 award seats on every flight on arguably one of the very best all round biz class product in the world is ridiculous.

    Programs all have their pros and cons for the most part and their idiosyncrasies. Obviously you know that, you do it for a living, but do you take my point that we can become entitled?

    Good guys like Sean Commer being outraged that Hyatt change their (still very very generous) suite upgrade policy, is silly. And personally knowing human nature, if I was running a reward program I might be inclined to think Jeez, these people are never happy so let’s reduce benefits coz they are gonna be angry whatever we do.

    It doesn’t help us banging fists on tables and demanding more “free stuff” Wahtever you do, don’t get like Rene! These companies are in business to make money, and that’s the bottom line.

    Saying all that… Thanks for your work and so many informative helpful articles!!

  17. @ Tiffany – I just booked two J awards AKL-HKG-JFK (travelling as a couple) for next July. I checked using the JL tool ahead of time which showed 4 seats on AKL-HKG and HKG-JFK (as an aside, BA showed 8 on AKL-HKG and 5 on HKG-JFK). Oddly AS couldn’t see the CX space on the date that I wanted AKL-HKG but could see availability on the dates either side, but could confirm HKG-JFK as per my search. I ticketed on a date that had available AKL-HKG space, and called back in the next day. The new agent I spoke to could see the availability on the original AKL-HKG date I wanted and changed me over to it no problem.

    I wasn’t sure what to make of the issue at the time – whether it was agent error the first time (which would have been odd, since she was pulling the other space correctly) or whether CX availability ‘comes and goes’ in the AS system. In the end, since it ticketed for the dates I wanted, I didn’t think it productive to think about it further!

  18. @ Andy — Thanks for taking the time to comment, and for being so thoughtful. I see what you’re getting at, but I do disagree a bit with the premise.

    I don’t think this is an issue of entitlement (though I certainly agree that there is an issue with that in this space), and I don’t agree that loyalty programs are a “privilege”. Nor are they a right. Instead, it’s part of the contract a business is making with its customers — a “we realize you can buy this product from multiple sources, here’s why you should buy it from us.”

    I don’t think (nor did I say) that we “should always have access to 4 award seats on every flight” — I’ve never asserted anything close to that. But if Cathay Pacific’s inventory and revenue management teams think that makes sense for their business model, and is making four seats available to all their partners, why would Alaska throttle that inventory? It doesn’t make sense, hence my feeling that it’s a tech glitch. But it’s one that frustrates customers, and one they should care about fixing.

    I 100% agree with your assertion that these companies are in business to make money. Alaska makes millions of dollars in ancillary revenue selling miles.
    I’ve received almost a dozen emails from Mileage Plan promoting their current mileage sale. I could have written a post about how delightfully easy it was to use Mileage Plan miles, that it was quick to search availability on a partner site, that the agents were friendly and helpful, and that the booking process was completed in one simple phone call, and that anyone wanting a similar experience could feel confident in purchasing miles from Alaska.

    I’m sure they would have preferred that post
    , and it would have brought them far more revenue. But that didn’t happen, because we’re instead talking about a tech issue that anyone preparing to purchase Alaska miles needs to be aware of.

    Alaska is also pushing a narrative that they are “better” than the legacy U.S. carriers. They suggest they’re trustworthy. The underdog. That a “mile will always be a mile” in Mileage Plan. Their standing with their customers is really important to them, especially as they are facing increase competition, and are getting ready to go through a merger, which is always rough for an airline.

    So if they don’t want to develop a reputation for being sneaky, or for having bad tech, or otherwise being just like a legacy carrier, then yeah — they have to tread lightly, and they have some things to fix. I don’t think it’s “banging fists on tables” or “demanding more free stuff” to point those things out.

  19. I’ll go one further. AS is unable to find F space on their OWN FLIGHTS for award travel. We were trying to fly CX from JNB-HKG-LAX-SEA for April 17 last summer. We could get as far as LAX on some days but AS had no availability from LAX-SEA. In frustration I phoned AA to book Qatar CPT-DOH-LAX-SEA on the same day and they had NO PROBLEM WITH THE LAX-SEA segment. It was available on the AA award but not on the AS award and it was AS metal.

    Because of the EK fiasco we had to change our outbound flights on EK and are now booked on a flight SEA-SFO in January on AS in economy for a J class Award on EK. SO again AS is not releasing any F seats on their own metal even when connecting to their super-expensive EK awards.

    Looking at the flights in question on the AS site there are no seats taken in F on either of the flights – totally empty in F yet they won’t release space. We are elite with AS as well!

    Something is truly rotten in (Denmark) Seattle!

  20. Haven’t had this issue, but have been having big issues with CX flying empty F/J seats because they no longer consistently opening them up within 24hours like they used to. Very annoying – wife got stuck in J due to this.

  21. I say a tech stuff-up, but what’s the point of miles if you can`t use them.
    QF F awards are a joke, also. They are there on the site, but fizz out after entering CC details ( I`ve tried a dozen dates!). Try yourselves if you don`t mind multiple harvests of you CC details.
    And other dates available on QFF /BAec/ JL can`t be seen by the agents (they used to be able to ).
    Maybe it is a conspiracy? Give us your money and run!
    AS, you ARE on notice.
    Aeromexico farce parts 2 and 3.

  22. I just booked LAX-HKG on Cathay business using Alaska miles in March 2017. Ran into this issue as well which caused me to change the itinerary, but there were dates with up to four business award seats available per flight. Had the Alaska agent look up award seats day-by-day for all of March to get accurate info.

  23. Have recently booked two one-way awards for 4 people (mix of F&J) to Seoul and return from HND. Even did an intra-asia award (4 in J). The last one was a cinch – in less than 20 minutes, and just within the past 7 days. Used JAL tool almost exclusively. Only in one instance did the JAL info not match what the AS agent was seeing. Didn’t at all get the feeling Alaska was blocking CX space.

    This takes research, time, patience and dedication. In the end, worth it.

  24. Thanks for the observations Tiffany! Do you happen to know if this extends to Cathay F bookings — as they only ever release 1 seat far in advance? Does Alaska have access to the 1 F seat that is 10+ months out? Also, how about last minute where there can be multiple F seats released, any data points for last minute awards for 2 or more F seats? Thanks!

  25. I flew today (Tuesday), from HKG to LAX in J. There were only 2 ppl seated in F on CX 898. I was surprised to see this.

  26. Having the same problems LAX-HKG in late October, Alaska simply can’t EVER see the final available award seat in any class. Yeah, if I can’t use my miles, why would I care about accumulating them on Alaska? And no, this isn’t a privilege. It’s Alaska effectively running a bait-and-switch on a contract we have concerning loyalty and status. If they won’t hold up their side of the contract, they won’t keep getting my money for long.

    Otherwise they can just give me money back instead of miles.

  27. I just booked CX F and J using AS miles. I could see J seats on BA but the first agent said nothing was available. HUACA. The second agent was clueless and asked me repeat the airport code twice – I could tell by her manner she wasn’t competent, and when she put me on hold I hung up. The third agent was able to see all the seats right away (I fed the exact flight # to them all) and also saw an F seat (which was not showing up on BA).

    Like AA, I think agents are just not efficient/trained/smart, whatever. You need to call back and get another agent.

    Most importantly, we are now booked for a combination of NH, SQ, and CX F flights next summer 🙂 Fingers crossed XXX

  28. I flew LAX-HKG on the 28th, and there were only two other people with my in First. I walked through the cabin right before I went to sleep, and EVERY OTHER SEAT on the plane was filled. It was a sight to see.

    I don’t even bother with the BA site any more, it’s useless. Half the time is misses availability, the other half it shows phantom seats that aren;t bookable by anyone. JAL is the way to go for sure, no question. Unfortunately, you can’t use them for close-in searches, so then you’re stuck with the Qantas website.

    I can attest to the fact that the AS Partner Awards agents are rooting for us on this one. I must have changed my ticket 6-8 times when things open up as I got closer to my dates, and every one of them was a delight to work with. They get how hard this is, and respect the effort we put in when trying to grab a J or F redemption…

  29. Just tried to book Cathay First from YVR to HKG on Jan 26, 2017. Both JAL and BA were showing 1 award seat in F. Unable to book with Alaska – showing as unavailable. Talked to a different agent who attempted to long sell (said she wasn’t supposed to). Came back unconfirmed. So annoying.

  30. Yeah, basically we can NEVER get at that last seat other partners see. Alaska always gets x-1 versus all other Cathay partners. The new normal.

    This wouldn’t be as frustrating if Cathay and Alaska were honest with Alaska Mileage Plan members about these draconian restrictions on redeeming towards the paucity of award seats they make available.

  31. For anyone just stumbling upon this – just tried to book CX F on Alaska with 1 seat shown via BA this morning – the agents weren’t able to see it. I then booked successfully 5 minutes later via AA. Annoying since I had to use 110K AA miles vs. 70K AS, but at least from this post I knew not to panic when the AS agent couldn’t see the space.

  32. Appears to be an ongoing problem with CX. BA shows multiple seats (3 to 4) available in J (JFK-HKG), Alaska agent says either none available or just 1! Any workaround to this?
    Thanks!

  33. I can’t seem to book a flight either, BA shows one seat ord-hkg, but when I call AS multiple times, they can’t seem to locate any seats in F.

  34. Just another data point. I was able to make two separate AS award reservations for CX flights this morning.
    HKG-JFK – BA shows 1 seat, AS could see and book seat
    HKG-LHR – BA shows 2 seats, AS could see and book both seats.

    I knew I was lucky and probably in the minority. Phew

  35. Having the same issue, but with Premium Economy as well. Talked to Supervisor. Issue is essentially that for whatever reason, Cathay is only releasing ONE seat to Alaska, while releasing 2 to everyone else. So that’s the deal.

    Major bummer and I’m going to be cancelling my Alaska Credit Card. Save up all these miles, but can never use them because Alaska’s international reward availability is just awful right now.

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