The Star Alliance Deception

By David DeVoss

We all know it’s difficult to redeem frequent flyer miles. There are space availability issues and black out dates. Don’t even think about using miles for a summer flight to Rome. One credit card company spends most of its ad budget trying to convince customers they actually will be able to redeem their mileage credits for tickets.

Back in the mid 1970s, after Congress passed the Fly America Act, U.S. flag carriers initiated code-sharing relationships with foreign airlines. United formed the Star Alliance and partnered with Lufthansa, Singapore and 24 other airlines. American Airlines created One World, a network of 17 airlines that included Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Royal Jordanian. Delta’s organization was called Sky Miles. Code sharing made it easier for U.S. government employees and contractors to move around the world while complying with the Congressional Fly America Act.

The airlines, however, sold their code share relationships as loyalty program enhancements. If all the flights from Atlanta to Paris are full, Delta explained, you could use your Sky Miles on Air France, if space is available.

Unfortunately, there are partners in United’s Star Alliance that do not honor the understanding.

Recently I flew from Los Angeles to Beijing on United’s Star Alliance partner Air China. A Chinese university had provided a round trip Economy ticket. I wanted to upgrade to Business Class using some of my 195,000 Star Alliance miles. If Air China has empty Business Class seats that should no problem, United’s Star Alliance desk said. “But first you must pay an extra $1,000 for an upgradeable economy ticket.”

“Can’t I wait to see if space is available before I buy the more expensive economy ticket,” I asked? “No,” said United. So I spent an extra $1,000 on an economy ticket that gave me no extra space or better food, only the possibility of an upgrade that United had to request.

Casa Del Mar

Three weeks and 13 calls to United later I boarded Air China’s economy class cabin and headed to a seat roughly twice the price of what everyone else had paid. The twelfth person I spoke to at United was apologetic and confided that Air China hardly ever calls them back. “You may have more luck on the return because we show there still are seats in Business Class.”

During my three weeks in China I called United six times, but Air China never acknowledged United’s request for my upgrade despite the fact United said space was available on my return flight.

After checking in at the Beijing airport for my return flight to California, I walked over to the Business Class counter and asked if I could use United Star Alliance miles to upgrade from coach to an open seat in Business Class. “Of course you can,” he smiled, “but the request has to come from United.” After telling my story about Air China’s refusal to respond, the attendant excused himself and conferred with his manager, who pulled up my record on a computer and sent the attendant back with “good news.”

“You should have said you have an economy upgrade ticket,” he smiled. “We can move you up to Business Class and it will only cost you $2,500.”