Be warned if you currently are holding a confirmed award ticket issued by United Airlines that includes flights on Air China: reservations are mysteriously being cancelled.
The number of reported cancellations is rising and there seems to be common trend:
The problem is that United makes it far too easy for reservations to be cancelled and modified. You need only two pieces of information to control a United reservation: the six-digit record locator and the last name of the traveller.
If you have that, you can do anything with it. Change it? No problem and no verification required—no PIN code or anything like that once the reservation is ticketed. All you have to do is pull up the reservation on the united.com homepage, click cancel, and you can cancel the reservation—award or revenue.
So imagine this scenario, which seems to me the most likely case. You have an Air China employee who has agreed to work with a broker or consolidator to help clear clients off the business class waiting list. Note that this is a thriving industry in China. The Air China loyalty program is called Phoenix Miles, and like Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer has the option of waitlisting for awards.
Say you want to fly from Los Angeles to Beijing in business class and there are no more award seats using your Phoenix miles. You waitlist for the desired flight. You contact this broker, who perhaps is also the Air China employee or liaisons with the Air China employee, and the specific flight manifest is pulled up. Hmm…here’s a couple of people who have booked award travel using their United miles. Let’s just login to united.com and cancel their reservation, which will likely free up two of the waitlisted seats. Rinse and repeat as necessary.
Is this grand conspiracy really likely? I think so. As delicately as I can, I will say that I’ve done business in China. Draw your own conclusions from that, but note that I could see this happening in the U.S. too under similar circumstances. Heck, I’m surprised it is not more rampant.
This is not a matter of schedule changes auto-cancelling the segment. Rather it is a phenomenon that overwhelmingly targets longhaul flights in premium cabins with United web support confirming the reservations have been cancelled manually by guest users (not logged in).
The reservations are being cancelled from United’s Chinese website, because the following auto-generated cancellation notices have been sent to impacted travelers (I’ve also translated the note below–it is just UA’s boilerplate cancellation notice):
united.com 通知 – 航班预订取消
为确保此电子邮件顺利发送，请将 firstname.lastname@example.org 添加到您的地址簿或核准的发件人列表。请参见将我们添加到您的地址簿的说明。
您的预订 XXXXX 已取消，我们已收到您的退款申请。申请信用卡退款需 7 个工作日。如果信用卡退款未在一个付款周期内寄出，请联系信用卡公司。对于包括现金退款在内的所有其他形式的付款，需要 20 个工作日。
如需详细信息或查看退款的状态，请访问 united.com 并提供您的机票号码。
如果您遇到技术问题，请通过电子邮件或电话联系 united.com 服务支持。
版权所有 © 2014美国联合航空公司。保留所有权利。
• • •
united.com notice – Flight cancellation
To ensure a smooth sending this email, please add email@example.com to senders list in your address book. See Add me to your address book description .
Mr. XXXXX, your reservation has been canceled , we have received your refund request . Apply for a credit card refund takes 7 working days. If the credit card refund is not sent within one billing cycle, please contact your credit card company. For all other forms of payment including cash refunds, the refund process may take up to 20 working days.
For more information or to view the status of a refund, please visit united.com and provide your ticket number .
Please do not use the ” Reply ” to reply to this e-mail address .
The information in this email is for the use of the original recipient .
If you encounter technical problems, please contact united.com service support by email or phone .
Notice : Ticket derecognition
E-mail address : XXXXX
Thank you for using united.com
Copyright © 2014 United Airlines . All rights reserved.
Could this then be an issue on the United side? Perhaps. After all, Air China flights were problematic for years at legacy United, when the two reservation systems often would not sync, resulting in Air China often saying they saw no valid ticket from United.
But this seems different to me and is cause for great concern. The good thing is that United has a heavy presence in Beijing and if you too find yourself a victim of a pernicious cancellation, United can and will (some agents may require more pressure than others) open up space on United metal to re-accommodate you.
Watch your Air China flights if booked with United MileagePlus. Though relatively few have reported issues thus far, there is enough to raise concern that something is rotten in Denmark. More discussion is unfolding on Flyertalk and we now await United’s acknowledgment of this problem.
United should think hard about its security policies. It is remarkably simple to cancel booked reservations and United’s first move should be to require a PIN code or login to cancel a booked trip. To do otherwise invites the sort of criminality that is going on now.
Holy crap. Thanks for the heads up, Matt! I have 5 flights with them coming up in Aug/Sept. Yet, another thing I have to look out for now.
Oh, great! I have an award flight with them in a few weeks – it was always amazing to me there’s no good security on modifying reservations 🙁
Friends don’t let friends fly Air China.
Makes me nervous now. I have a trip from PEK to SFO in July booked. I will monitor my reservation closely now. On a side note any reviews on business class service on the 777-300? My first time in Air China.
Matt what is the best way to put pressure on United to fix this? How have United been compensating people affected by this obviously lax security?
Thanks for writing. Yet another gift of UAdbaCO IT systems. It is a simple fix and United needs to make it. As you allude to your work in China, I would strongly agree this would be exploited by those that can benefit. Mainland China and apparently insiders at Air China will take the chance to make some RMB when given it. Another reason to direct business to those that meet your business and ethical norms.
Hi Matt. The same thing happen to me in October. I had a one-way award back from SE Asia with a Air China F segment (PEK-LAX). About a week before my flight I received the same e-mail from United in Chinese.
I called United and they told me that “I” had canceled the flight. I told them that it was impossible because, (1) I was on a 14-hour flight during the time when the e-mail was sent to me, and (2) I don’t speak or understand a word of Chinese.
I needed to arrive back in the US before a meeting and needed to leave Asia shortly after a weeding and there was absolutely no availability in First Class on any route and the best I could do was a mixed J/Y routing. In the end, I had to pay $200 to have the miles refunded and I ended up redeeming AAdvantage miles and took CX home. I will never book another CA flight again.
You do realized your flight was probably cancelled by someone using your PNR and last name on United.com’s China website? That information may or may not come from CA. In fact it is easily obtainable from a multitude of sources. Blaming CA without any concrete proof sounds like barking up the wrong tree to me. Granted CA should be more co-operative in nabbing the culprit.
United should make the cancellation process more robust.
ptahcha April 24, 2014 at 03:18 pm
Friends don’t let friends fly Air China.
Amen to that 🙂
@Ord- How else would you be able to get the PNR for a United award redemption on a specific flight, only knowing the flight number? An Air China employee has to be involved.
Extremely worrying…..I am about to buy a ticket to Tokyo using United miles and the only awailable flights United offers out of Paris are Air China flights… needless to say I am not going to book a flight with Air china.
Hello Matthew. Hope all is well. Flying in 2 weeks, award ticket using UA miles booked 6 months ago, Air China, first class, JFK-PEK. I haven’t heard or read much about these “MYSTERIOUS CANCELLATIONS” in the past few years. I’ve called CA several times to confirm, to date it’s still in their system. Do you think these types of cancellations are still a concern? Thank you. Best regards,
Hi Harry, I have not encountered one in over a year.
Thank you. I’ll let you know if I have any problems, no news in this case can be considered good news. Thanks again.
Thanks also for Live and Let’s Fly; always interesting and informative.