This is not a post about poor service or dirty planes. This is a post about an endemic problem on one Star Alliance carrier that has not been addressed for three years. The consequences are profound: delayed, cancelled, or ruined trips for many.
Three years ago I wrote a story entitled Mysterious Cancellations of Air China Award Travel Booked with United MileagePlus. Passengers found their award bookings on Air China suddenly cancelled without notice or explanation.
I posited that it was happening to United MileagePlus members because United made it so easy to cancel award space. At the time, no login or password was required: only the last name of the passenger and the confirmation code.
I speculated that this was being done within China because 1.) online-generated cancellation notices were sent in Chinese and 2.) Air China’s Phoenix Miles loyalty program has a waitlist feature for awards, incentivizing nefarious action in order to clear waitlists.
It seemed clear that this also had to be an “inside job” because access to the passenger manifest was needed to find out who booked using United miles.
But nearly three years have passed and United, to its credit, has made it more difficult to cancel an award. Login is now required and United’s multi-factor authentication system makes it not impossible, but much more difficult than before to cancel tickets maliciously.
And yet the problem persists.
A Flyertalker just shared of a ruined Christmas trip on…Air China.
The problem is also not exclusive to United any longer: Aeroplan bookings have also been cancelled. Part of it may be back-end communication breakdowns. The Air China system has traditionally had trouble communicating with other airlines. That led Aeroplan to suspend all Air China bookings temporarily last year.
But I still think there must be foul play at work here: and it may even be institutional. It still seems far too coincidental that passengers on low-demand flights do not encounter any issues. Passengers who do run into this issue, however, are always told, “Sorry we cannot help because the flight is full.” They are also always seated in business or first class.
Is Air China deliberately cancelling award space on flights? I cannot give you an answer, but circumstantial evidence suggests the answer is yes and for that reason alone, I would avoid Air China, when possible, when redeeming your Star Alliance miles.
How to Protect Your Air China Reservation
Ultimately there is no way to protect your Air China award reservation, but you can take steps to mitigate damage if something goes wrong.
1. Watch your reservation like a hawk
Sometimes segments drop out weeks before a trip, sometimes only days. The sooner you discover an error, the more likely you are to find a viable alternate solution.
2. If Air China space is cancelled, contact the issuing carrier of your award ticket
Air China is unlikely to help you if your Air China flight suddenly drops off your award reservation or if your entire reservation is cancelled. Passengers who have contacted Air China are provided some iteration of the line, “Not our fault! They didn’t ticket it right!” Forgive me for questioning that, but when only premium seats on high-demand flights are cancelled, I doubt it.
Nevertheless, if you booked your award ticket through United, call United and explain the issue. Agents may say, “It looks like you cancelled it yourself”. Simply state that you did not. With the new MileagePlus security features, this question may not come up any more.
3. Try to find an alternate solution before calling
Using united.com or the Aeroplan award search tool, try to come up with a combo that works for you. As a last resort, insist that you are rebooked on the ticketing carrier’s own metal, even if there is no saver space. No matter what some agents may say, supervisors are empowered to open this space under extenuating circumstances and this would certainly be such an occasion.
So say your Air China flight from Beijing to San Francisco was cancelled. Insist that United place you on its flight, even if there appears to be no saver award space. Obviously this doesn’t help for destinations served by Air China but not United.
4. If the problem occurs in the middle of a trip, understand that all parties will attempt to deflect blame
A passenger shows up in Beijing for his connection to Bangkok. His Air China award ticket is canceled. Air China blames United and instructs the passenger to contact United. United blames Air China and instructs the passenger to go back to Air China. Air China again blames United and refuses to help. United also refuses to help…
This happens. To avoid it, your path of least resistance is to deal with the ticketing carrier (United in my above example). That is not to say United is ethically responsible, but stand your ground with United (or Aeroplan) and you will get results, even if it takes several calls. It is doubtful the same will be true of Air China, no matter how many reps you deal with.
You won’t always be able to avoid Air China and the Chinese flag carrier is surprisingly better than ever to fly. It is sad that these sorts of games continue, thus I encourage you to avoid Air China for the time being if possible. But if you cannot, just keep an eye out on your reservation so that you can quickly handle any cancellation that might arise.