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Why Can’t I Book Award Flights to Hawaii?

Dear Tim,

My family and I (four of us) all have over 35,000 miles, which is supposed to get us each a free ticket to Hawaii. Our airport is Wassau, WI, but we could travel to Chicago or Minneapolis if need be. I cannot find a flight for the amount of miles posted for a free ticket to Hawaii. All that comes up are Fare Busters for 70,000 miles.

We would like to travel during the first part of June 2005. How can I get our free tickets?


Dear Ann,

This is a problem which afflicts many, many consumers.

While there is no reliable data to help quantify the scope of limited award availability—and the airlines themselves are understandably close-mouthed on the subject—industry-watchers such as myself have seen the volume of complaints on this issue rise to all-time highs.

What’s going on? A couple of factors have combined to cause the current elevated levels of consternation.

First, planes are flying full. The airlines’ average load factors (percentage of seats occupied) are in the 75 percent range. If that sounds like a manageable number, bear in mind that load factors depict broad averages, including flights during both low and high seasons, on popular and unpopular routes. So when the systemwide averages reach current levels, occupancy rates on high-season, high-demand flights are often approaching 100 percent.

Less visible, but no less vexing, is what the airlines are doing behind the scenes. Airlines use highly sophisticated yield-management software to determine the number of award seats offered on each and every flight. That award allocation changes continuously, up until the flight departs, according to the number of seats remaining unsold, the time until departure, and the supply-and-demand history of similar flights.

The goal, programmed into the software, is to maximize revenue by reducing or eliminating the number of non-paying award travelers who could possibly displace revenue passengers. The result is that the most popular flights have the fewest available award seats. And sometimes—especially in times of financial desperation—they have none at all.

Coping strategies

What can you do? In the short term, consumers have few options. Among them:

Book early

As a rule, airlines make seats available for booking in computer reservations systems 330 days in advance of departure dates. That’s true for both revenue seats and award seats, so there’s a theoretical window of opportunity to snag an award seat by being among the first to put in a request.

In practice, this hardly amounts to a definitive solution because on high-demand flights, there may be no award seats offered at all, at least initially (but see the next item).

Book late

Within two weeks of a flight’s departure date, airlines often make extra award seats available if the flight is unlikely to sell out all remaining seats to paying customers.

This strategy may be viable for those with the flexibility to make last-minute travel plans. Unfortunately, it’s of little use to a family of four, who must coordinate school vacations and time away from work, pre-book hotels, and generally have a set schedule in place far in advance of the trip.

Zig where others zag

Attempting to redeem frequent flyer miles for a restricted award flight to Hawaii during summer vacation months is a recipe for disappointment. Equally frustrating is planning a trip around award flights to balmy Florida during the winter, or London flights during the Christmas holiday period.

So be a contrarian. If others are going north, go south. Not sure what the contrarian move is? Call your airline’s reservations number and ask the agent which flights show the most availability during the period you plan to travel. Or check the airlines’ websites for discounted award destinations. If flights on a particular route are being offered for fewer miles, it’s a sure bet the planes aren’t running full.

Use rule-buster awards

As distasteful as it is to those who earned their miles with the goal of redeeming them for a restricted award, many consumers have found themselves forced to pay the higher price—typically twice as many miles—for unrestricted awards, also know as rule-busters or anytime awards.

Unrestricted awards may still be somewhat capacity controlled, but they are much less so than restricted awards. Like it or not, if you can afford the extra miles, you have a much better chance of booking the award flight of your choice at unrestricted levels.

Speak up

Finally, you can complain. And you should.

Redirecting a denied award request to an airline supervisor will occasionally result in special consideration. If not, a complaint letter to the Department of Transportation, with a copy to the chief executive of the airline in question, is in order.

An outpouring of complaints won’t solve the problem in the short term. But in the long run, the cumulative effect may be enough to force the airlines to increase the supply of restricted award seats.

Otherwise, mileage programs will continue their downward trend, from worthwhile to worth less to worthless.

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