While a series of concurrent acts may be unrelated, it is reasonable to ask whether Air Canada has just launched a multi-prong war against what it views as fraud. But are the innocent travelers caught in the dragnet simply acceptable collateral damage?
Three Things Suggest A Concerted Effort To Stamp Out Fraud By Air Canada, Star Alliance
Let’s review the three pieces of news.
#1: ExpertFlyer Cuts Off Star Alliance Award Space
ExpertFlyer announced that it was removing seat alerts and upgrade inventory for a number of Star Alliance carriers, including:
- Air Canada
- Air China
- Air India
- Air New Zealand
- ANA – All Nippon Airways
- Asiana Airlines
- Austrian Airlines
- Avianca Costa Rica
- Brussels Airlines
- Croatia Airlines
- Ethiopian Airlines
- EVA Air
- LOT Polish Airlines
- Shenzhen Airlines
- Singapore Airlines
- South African Airways
Award searches and alerts on Vistara and Virgin Australia have also been removed. Both are Air Canada partners with award space searchable online.
ExpertFlyer blamed the problem on “issues in obtaining award and upgrade data.”
How ExpertFlyer obtained this space in the first place was questionable, likely via scraping other websites. One Mile At A Time suggests it came from United Airlines, but I tend to think ExpertFlyer was scraping on the Air Canada Aeroplan website. Scraping (the extraction of data from a website) is a process that pits airlines against companies like ExpertFlyer. Airlines claim it represents the misappropriation of information while scrapers insist that it is simply harvesting publicly-available information. In any case, the ExpertFlyer founder has denied Air Canada was the source:
The data source wasn’t AC, and I wouldn’t hold out any hope that it’s coming back, sorry.
— Chris Lopinto (@chrislopinto) October 7, 2023
This move greatly reduces the value proposition for ExeprtFlyer.
#2: Seats.Aero Shut Down
Air Canada sent a cease and desist letter to popular award search tool Seats.Aero, which quickly displays weeks worth of availability across a wide range of flights.
An Air Canada executive hinted at the cease and desist letter earlier in the week, lamenting that points brokers used that tool to snatch award space within minutes or even seconds of its opening to the detriment of most members. This undermines the program for the vast majority of travelers.
#3 Aeroplan Accounts Locked Due To Fraud Concerns
Air Canada is also taking a heavy-handed approach to suspected fraud by suspending accounts, sometimes with balances as high as one million points. It is not clear how the algorithm triggers such account freezes, but systems are now in place to recognize transfers from American Express to accounts whose names do not match the American Express cardholder (yes, until now you could simply put in the cardmember’s name, anyone’s number, and transfer to whatever account you wanted via American Express Membership Rewards).
These sorts of transfers undermine the benefits of the program for everyone, though I know that most people who book for other people are not guilty of selling points.
How Much Is Too Much?
Tools like Seats.Aero make it much easier for those engaged in the practice of selling miles and points to efficiently siphon award space from members who use the program without pecuniary incentives. While many used ExpertFlyer and Seats.Aero simply for their own travels, these tools were abused by some, which always seems to be the case when it comes to why we cannot have nice things.
The Aeroplan account closures are bit concerning in that the program has no restrictions against booking for other people. Flying Blue, the loyalty program for Air France/KLM, became incredibly overzealous in years past in cracking down on suspected fraud to the point in which travelers who recently opened a Flying Blue account and transferred in points from a flexible currency (or searched too often for award space) took on a great risk of account closure.
There is some suggestion that this is an alliance-wide effort across Star Alliance. That may well be the case, though these three specific instances above appear to be driven by Air Canada.
Two of these three items explicitly came from Air Canada and it is conceivable that the ExpertFlyer scraping also came from Air Canada, despite the denial from Chris Lopinto, suggesting the Canadian carrier is taking steps it views as necessary to protect the integrity of its program.
Star Alliance and its member carriers have every right to protect the integrity of their programs. I shed no tears for those who have made a business out of sniping award space using miles and points that are bartered or sold and now find themselves facing a quandary. But I do hope that the Air Canada dragnet has reasonable recourse options for those falsely accused of fraud. I also would love to see award alerts return, but not if it means that point brokers snipe the space within seconds.
Mark this story as developing.