Why Won’t American Let Me Use Miles on a Connecting Flight? (Ask Cranky)

American, Ask Cranky, Fares, Frequent Flier Programs

It’s time for another Ask Cranky. This one is a follow-up on a post I wrote last December.

I read your post in December [about American opening up more award space on connecting flights] and I am NOT seeing this space open up. In fact it has gotten worse. I’m trying to fly from Houston to Champaign, IL and despite [a MileSAAver] being available on both Houston to Dallas/Ft Worth and Dallas/Ft Worth to Champaign, I cannot book [a MileSAAver] from Houston to Champaign.

Is there anyone at American you can reach out to and see why the situation has not improved? I have tried calling and speaking to their agents and even supervisors, but they say, “The computer says no.” I am frustrated.

Good catch here, and sure enough, this is happening. It’s the exact opposite of what American said it was doing last December, so it had me a bit puzzled initially. But I suppose it does make sense.

You’ll remember back in December I said this:

Thanks to improved revenue management techniques, American has become much more skilled at maximizing its revenues on every flight it operates. So if the airline is going to open up more award availability, it wants to do it in a way that can have the lowest impact on ticket revenue.

In the original example, that meant American was fine selling cheap award tickets from Richmond to LA via Philly but not on the two local markets where it could get a high fare. But this can work in reverse as well. Let’s take a look at what Jon was talking about.

No need to share the dates here, but you can rest assured that these are all on the exact same date. First, here’s the availability from Houston to Dallas/Ft Worth:

Then there’s Dallas/Ft Worth to Champaign:

And finally, here’s the Houston to Champaign display:

We can really dive in and examine why this might or might not make sense on these specific flights, but I can guarantee you that American isn’t doing that manually.

Sure, Houston to Dallas is a big market with competition and cheap fares. So if American can take 7,500 miles instead of the $100 it’s likely to get on a fare, then that’s not bad at all. Might as well open things up and let travelers burn their miles. And on Dallas to Champaign, well, it’s an incredibly tiny market (less than one person a day) so the airline might think keeping seats open could help move people on to that flight instead of going via Chicago. But again, that’s a TINY market, and American can’t really be bothered getting into that type of detail.

Instead, what’s probably happening here is that American is setting up rules and letting the computers decide when to open up availability. Recently, American gained the ability to limit those by true origin and destination (Houston to Champaign) instead of just by individual flight, so that allowed the airline to manage things much more intricately. I have no idea how sophisticated the system is, but certainly the expected ticket price, mileage amount, and demand should come together and allow American to make a decision on whether it makes sense to give mileage seats at the low level or not.

This might be good for travelers, but frankly, we will never know. How so? Well, since American can control availability by full origin and destination and not just by flight leg, that means it may find that it’s worth opening up space more often than it used to.

Let’s zero in on that Dallas/Ft Worth – Champaign flight. Before, American had the binary option of leaving mileage availability open or closed for anyone who wanted to take that flight regardless of actual origin and destination. American might have made the decision in that scenario to not open it up. But now that it can open it just for the few people traveling on the local route, it may feel safe opening up availability that never would have existed before.

It’s also possible that before, American just would have left this open for anyone, and now it’s shutting down availability on connections because it has the ability to do so. That baseline is what we don’t know, and it’s why we can’t tell if this in particular is good for bad for travelers.

What I do know is that American has shown interest in giving people more opportunities to burn miles. That means that overall this is going to make more seats available. That doesn’t mean that in every situation there will be more availability, but more broadly, it does.

This does add complexity, and it’s already created an issue that’s fairly annoying. Jon can buy two tickets from Houston to Champaign for 20,000 miles if he’s willing to split them. Of course, if he’s checking a bag that’s likely to be problematic for him. But his other option is to spend a whopping 50,000 miles which would just be crazy. It would be nice if American had the ability to allow end-to-end redemptions, but I doubt that’s something we’ll see anytime soon.

In summary, this is frustrating for travelers who used to know you could just piece itineraries together flight by flight. But it should result in greater availability overall, so it’s not necessarily bad. What we do know is that this is reality, and it’s not going to change regardless.

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14 comments on “Why Won’t American Let Me Use Miles on a Connecting Flight? (Ask Cranky)

  1. It would be more productive if you could get an AA spokesperson to comment, rather than your just speculating about this….

    1. Meh… it would be more productive to enjoy Brett‘s commentary and be less pedantic about free content you read on the web.

    2. Based on the comments of Isom’s (later) interview, are the “productive” comments from AA spokespersons really that forthcoming?

  2. A quick tale: related to AA and using miles.

    My wife and I live in Paso Robles CA and needed to go to Boston/NH for a graduation.

    We tried booking first class from SBP with miles; initially routed via a three flight trip; two of which came up as coach!!

    And this at full first class miles used…….

    That was not going to work so we looked at a SFO or SJC departures; a 3 to 4hr drive.

    The best we could do was a two flight option; with the shorter leg in coach?!

    We took it from SFO to BOS, via PHL; which proved to be the absolute worst first class experience ever.

    [Closing in on 2 million miles flying.]

    We chose the upgraded flight because the trip would start with a redeye.

    Found AA’s first seats absolutely the most uncomfortable ever and with an absolutely minimum recline.

    This coupled with an completely indifferent cabin crew made for a very long night.

    Ironically we both found that, leg room notwithstanding, the coach cabin seat on the PHL/BOS leg was more comfortable!!?

    The return flight was the same; first class on the long leg but coach on the shorter one; PHX this time.

    I think my mistake was thinking their short leg contract operator aircraft did not have a first class section.

    That is the case if flying from SBP as they use an RJ to PHX to get you started to the east.

    On our itinerary all aircraft had first sections.

    To add insult to injury on these coach legs you are given the minimum boarding group (4).

    We hope we are smarter now but continue to wonder how/why we were charged first miles when one third of the trip was coach.

    PS My previous trip to BOS was with UA, SBP via SFO/DUL with a full flat seat in first for the redeye; wonderful!

  3. Could he purchase the two segments and then call AA to link the reservations? I’ve done something similar with UAL in the past.

  4. I wonder what the price would be if he uses multi-city IAH-DFW and DFW-CMI. Might still price at 20k but then it would be one res and avoid potential checked luggage issues.

      1. Just did a similar search – BOI to ABQ. On a particular day it gives me one choice at the saver level, with two stops, first in GEG, then a redeye to DFW, finally arriving into ABQ next morning. If I do a multi-city, I can do one stop, (PHX) at 12.5k and 7.5k miles respectively. But, the first flight is early morning (6am) and the second is late night (9pm) (at the saver level) so I’m wondering if the connecting time is too long and that’s why it won’t show up.

        Edit: If I search a day later I see the 6am departure arriving at 11:53 pm for 12.5k, so no, the connection is not the problem.

  5. Bottom line up front: this change has not been good for travelers. I can confirm this same problem. It has gotten much worse since your post. I used to be able to fly clt to various cities all the time on saver. (Especially last minute) Now it brings up crazy options. Does anyone really want to fly clt-dfw-grr instead of CLT-GRR? (And how can this be cost effective for American) But if I fly from cae or gsp there is availability cae-clt-grr. I am starting to question the purpose of having miles if I can’t use them for reasonable routings for a decent price. (No american I’m not going to spend 50k miles to fly one way from clt to dca).

    1. ORD is my home airport and I have a similar story – virtually impossible to find sAAver flights anywhere without multiple connections in strange places like IND, FWA, DAY, etc. My solution – stalk the award calendar and book long-haul flights on AA, AY, or IB. Sure, the calendar defaults to mainly BA options with insane surcharges but unicorns do exist if you look hard enough. Oh, and otherwise focus your spending at UA where you have much better availability. Good luck!

  6. I think “Cranky” is acting surprisingly much like an apologist for AA in this matter. It clearly is crazy when two component flights can be purchased for 20K miles total whereas combining them would cost 50K miles. I don’t care how you try to rationalize it, it just doesn’t wash. Please live up to your name and get CRANKY with AA over this example and the many others that people have written in about!

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