British Airways Ate My Award Seats!

Posts from me are going to be a bit lighter over the next week as I continue my dad’s round the world surprise birthday tripAs you may (or may not) know, I also have a points consulting service, whereby we help people redeem their airline miles. I have several colleagues working with me, and they’re some of the most knowledgeable and passionate people I know in this hobby. They’ve offered to pitch in and write a few posts to give me a bit more time off while I’m traveling, so hopefully you’ll enjoy the additional unique perspectives. This post is from my friend Alex, who is even more of an airline nut than I am.  — Ben

As part of what I like to call my “award chronicles” over at PointsPros, I had a small mishap with a booking last week. I figure if for no other reason than entertainment, there’s a good takeaway here that can protect you from the same fate.

The situation

A family of four was planning a trip to Europe using Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Traveling from New York, the award itinerary they preferred was on British Airways.

As y’all likely know by now, BA imposes offensive fuel surcharges on award tickets. I really appreciated Ben’s post questioning why airlines aren’t lowering fuel surcharges from last week, because I’m over in the corner asking the same thing.


British Airways fuel surcharges

Yup, on a simple round-trip from New York to London in first class, you’ll be using 120,000 Avios (or 125,000 AAdvantage miles) + $1,180.40 in taxes and “carrier-imposed fees.”

When purchasing multiple award tickets, with each costing over $1,000, it quickly adds up to a rather large transaction that may be declined due to fraud. This is exactly what happened to my clients. 

They received a call from their card issuer and I was able to retry the purchase almost immediately, but when I went to repurchase the flights, the award space had disappeared for their outbound (the return had at least nine seats open on both flights, so that wasn’t an issue).

Finding a solution 

I figured since seats had been pulled from inventory, a record had been created. I called British Airways to check if the flights were held… nope. My clients didn’t have a booking and nobody else had those seats! Four seats, all gone.


As they had already transferred their Ultimate Rewards points from Chase, they were stuck with British Airways. And of course there was no alternate award space for four people that would have worked well on BA or their partners.

We decided to wait, assuming the award space would go back into inventory relatively quickly. I checked inventory neurotically, and after 18 hours, they were back! I snatched them up as fast as I could before somebody else did.

While the outcome was still positive, the situation was not ideal. What if the award space had opened up and somebody else had grabbed them?  What if it never came back, and my clients had to book flights they didn’t transfer points for? What if there was no alternate space at all?

Moral of the story

If you’re going to make a large purchase, make sure your credit card issuer knows. I find a lot of banks are overly cautious when it comes to credit card fraud protection on airline tickets, and this isn’t necessarily in the consumer’s favor. This saves them liability from having to reverse fraudulent transactions down the road.

However, it doesn’t really make sense why a ticket in the cardholder’s name would be declined, but then again, I’m not too sure how credit card processors read initial information on a transaction. Maybe it just sees an amount, and not passenger names (which will show once a transaction finally posts)?

Have you ever had award space disappear as a result of issues with completing a transaction?


  1. I wonder if BA (although it charges in dollars) is sending the charge from the UK. Coupling that with a relatively high charge probably didn’t help.

    Still seems like not a huge amount to charge to a CC for it to get declined, but it all depends on the credit card usage pattern of the card holder I suppose.

  2. I mean if the people have enough UR points for 4 roundtrip first class tickets to London, I have to imagine that they spend enough that a $4-5k charge shouldn’t really raise a red flag.

  3. I’m curious, how long did it take between the time you tried to charge the tickets and the time when the clients got the fraud call?

    Losing an trip like that would be a real bummer, though your spending 18 hour obsessively re-searching for the space is admirable.

  4. @TravelinWilly – it was about two minutes at most? I gave the client a call as soon as the transaction was declined, and they got a call as we were on the phone.

  5. Similar thing happened to me in the Wideroe “sale” last year. Purchased four transatlantic tickets for something like $1200 before going to bed. Reservation was created but not yet ticketed. About 3 hours later while I was sleeping, I got an email saying my card had been declined (turned out to be fraud detection) and I’d need to enter a new CC number within the next two hours. Of course, I was still sleeping two hours later and missed out on it.

  6. It sounds like BA’s system (SABRE?) temporarily held those award seats pending a completed transaction and assigned transaction number/code based on some internal transaction numbering scheme/algorithm. When the sale wasn’t completed within a specified amount of time – due to the incomplete CC transaction – the seats were still *technically* held for the first transaction number/code, and were unavailable for anyone else. Because the customers were now under a different transaction number/code due to the second attempt on the CC, the seats were unavailable to them.

    I find this kind of thing frustrating given today’s technology. I lump it into the same category as the banking nonsense wherein a CC company can take your money and have a charge appear instantaneously on your statement, but it takes them 48-72 hours to process a return or credit. It’s bullshit.

  7. I work for a talent agency in London and this kind of thing has been happening to us more and more. The conclusion I’ve come to is that when the majority of spend is for the cardholder and then you suddenly chuck in a spouse, particularly on an expensive flight (or a second room in hotels) the cc companies get antsy.

  8. also always call your debit and credit card issuers to advise them of travel abroad! nothing like landing at 6am in berlin dead tired and not a single atm machine will allow me any cash. lesson i learned very early on.

  9. Sorry I don’t remember but does BA allow a hold on the seats. With airlines that do it might be safer to hold them which creates the record and then go back to pay for them. That way at least they might still be in a holding pattern if the card fails to go through.

    Interesting story. Thanks for the post.

  10. @DaninMCI – British Airways does not allow holds on award tickets. In some extreme circumstances it’s possible, but not anything I’d ever count on.

  11. @pavel;
    Chase credit card recently sent out an email asking specifically NOT to call to tell them you are traveling. They said it is not needed.
    I called anyway to let them know that I am traveling and was told I don’t have to call.

  12. I’ve seen this happen on revenue seats–on Aer Lingus, there was only one seat allocated to a discount business class fare, which disappeared after I made a failed attempt at booking a seat due to a fraud alert being thrown up by AmEx. After I realized what had happened, I did the same thing as you–I waited a day, and the inventory returned.

  13. The other way around this is to book each direction individually to make the transactions smaller… don’t know if that would still trigger the overly anxious cc firms but just a thought ….

  14. U.S. Airlines typically send the transaction through as separate charges per passenger even though a grand total is given for all passengers in the same traveling party with the same PRN given by the airline. And this is for both award or revenue ticket. Such situation hasn’t happened to me yet but I’d be VERY upset if my attemps to purchase airfare for my family of four get declined and as a result, what was available is gone… :’-(

  15. This is great advice. Happened to me two years ago and I had to book alternate flights with my Avios.

    Same thing almost happened last week but luckily the credit card rejection came immediately and the BA site asked for another card.

    Until I read this post, it didn’t occur to me to call the credit card issuer in advance.

  16. Ah, the mystery of how fraud detection algorithms work!! A few years ago, I triggered fraud alerts on two different US credit cards when I tried to buy two train tickets from Paris to Munich from my hotel in Paris (total cost 300 Euros). But the other fraud notifications I’ve received have been accurate (when someone did steal and use my credit card number for relatively small purchases).

  17. I can confirm that CC issuers do not receive passenger information upon authorization. This only comes through when the airlines settles with the bank (and not even 100% of the time).

    Funny that this article was written today because last week nearly this exact same thing happened to me. I had put together an itinerary that included QF FC and called US Air to book. The rep had pulled the seats and put me on hold in order to confirm with her rate desk when my phone cut out. I called back to see if a reservation had been created (it had not) and I had no record locator. I tried to start from scratch, but the seats were now gone and I never saw them reappear. I checked a few times a day for 3-4 days. They might have been snatched up by someone else but I was searching the slightly less popular LHR-MEL route. C’est la vie!

  18. My experience, at least, is that it’s not necessary to call them if you’re traveling internationally for purchases you’re going to make with the card in person, but the combination of internet purchase and foreign bank can trigger a fraud alert – some banks have triggers as low as a few hundred dollars. Had this problem a few years trying to buy a ticket on BA’s website, and while trying to book a prepaid hotel room on a British website. In both cases, a quick call to Chase letting them know what I was doing sorted the problem out.

    Many banks’ security algorithms are based on your spending pattern, so if you make a lot of purchases like this your bank’s computer may “learn” these purchases are OK.

  19. Actually BA does allow a hold of award seats if the reservation is made through AA . . . It’s a 5 day hold. Am currently trying to get 1st class SEA–>LHR on 12/19 and playing the hold game with reservations thru LAS while I wait for the nonstop for open up.

  20. @CleverRemark – that’s allowed if booking through a different program that does allow award ticket holds, like AAdvantage.

    When booking through British Airways Executive Club directly, they do not allow holds on award tickets.

  21. I’m guessing that happens only for first (this kind of big) transaction, similar to decline on a new card with gift card purchase.

  22. A word of advice regarding Lifemiles — better call the credit card company beforehand or, at least, take a screenshot/write-down transaction/confirmation number that’s displayed while the system is working trying to process the payment. Earlier this year was booking an award ticket and card got declined but the transaction/confirmation number wasn’t shown on page stating payment failed so if I didn’t have it written down, I’d be out of luck.

    Unfortunately, much like what happened here, seat was already reserved so couldn’t simply try to re-do the transaction. Had to call Avianca and then wait a few days for someone to call me back who could process the transaction over the phone.

    P.S. Some years ago we were trying to book last-minute tickets IAH-DME on SQ. Pretty much all of our cards got flagged for fraud because it was an international transaction. Back then, couldn’t confirm charge via email/app/automated system and fraud departments for all but one card issuers were closed. Wasn’t very fun!

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