Should I make an exception to my “no mileage cases” rule?

Ronald and Vickie Lopresti want to fly from Philadelphia to Madrid in comfort this May, not in the sardine seats where American Airlines jams passengers in the back of its planes.

They figure they’re entitled to it. The Loprestis have given American a lot of business, and they want to redeem their frequent flier miles for a “free” upgrade on the flight.

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But American won’t give them the upgrade. At least, not yet.

“When I booked the flight on American Airlines, I was told that I could get an upgrade but that I had to contact US Airways, since the flight was actually operated by US Airways,” he says. (American and US Airways merged more than a year ago.)

Today’s installment of Should I Take The Case? — a totally unvetted reader question — makes me wonder if I should consider lifting my longstanding ban on mileage cases.

As a reminder, I don’t advocate for people with certain mileage problems because it’s a little bit like going to Vegas, losing at slots, and asking for a refund. When you booked your vacation to Sin City, you knew what you were getting yourself into.

Also, I’ve been trying to steer clear of loyalty program issues since the beginning of the year. (How am I doing?)

And yet, the Loprestis make me wonder if I should do something to help.

Let me hand him the mike:

I have spent hours on the phone to try to get the upgrade only to be told that it was the “other airline” that was responsible.

I called US Airways and they said to contact American since I booked the flight on American.

When I spoke to American, they said that only US Airways could grant the upgrade.

I began this process on Oct. 21 and was told by a US Airways representative that upgrades were available, but not yet, and that I should call back in two months.

Call me naive, but if Lopresti booked a ticket and someone told him he could get an upgrade, they should have given him an upgrade.

By the way, I can’t blame Lopresti for wanting business class. The seats on the Airbus A333 that US Airways uses on flight 740 from Philadelphia to Madrid are lilliputian: 31 inches of seat pitch, 17 inches of width with a 9 degree recline. That’s 10 hours of torture.

“This situation makes no sense to me at all,” he says. “US Airways and American are supposed to be merged.”

True, they are. But apparently, they’re only “merged” if it’s convenient for them. In this case, it isn’t.

After several more exchanges, a representative suggested he wait until the date of his departure to see if a seat was available.

“I really feel that US Airways and American Airlines are giving me the royal runaround just to avoid granting a request that should have been easy,” he says. “To then be told that upgrades can be granted but to wait until check-in or at the airport is ridiculous. If they are available then, why not now?”

The 28 Envoy “sleeper” seats will almost certainly be sold out by the time it’s his turn in line.

He adds, “My wife and I are loyal customers and American and US Airways have been our choice of airlines for many years. We also have both Aadvantage and Dividend Miles credit cards.”

Doesn’t that count for anything?

Not really. I’m no expert on loyalty programs, but I do know that airlines structure their upgrades so that the most valuable customers get first pick of the good seats. If you’re willing to pay the $3,462 for a seat, you can have it. Guaranteed. If you’re a super-elite with American or US Airways, maybe you can confirm your upgrade in advance with systemwide upgrades.

Never mind what a representative told you. It’s what’s in writing that counts.

That bothers me. I mean, here you have someone who gave US Airways his loyalty and believed the promises made by the ads about “free” trips. He swallowed it all — hook, line and sinker — only to find that when he needed a seat, he was bounced between airlines, put on “hold” and told to wait until the day of departure.

Cases like these do absolutely nothing to change my mind about the worthlessness of loyalty programs. US Airways took Lopresti’s money and made him promises it couldn’t be bothered to keep. Now their customer is coming to me for help.

Of course, I know what the airline will tell me. You know what the airline will tell me. But should that stop me from asking?

Should I take Ronald and Vickie Lopresti's case?

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45 thoughts on “Should I make an exception to my “no mileage cases” rule?

  1. “I’ve been trying to steer clear of loyalty program issues since the beginning of the year. (How am I doing?)”
    Great! Up until now. I would not touch this case.

  2. Technically the airlines are still merging, and not merged. They are now both owned by the same company, but they still operate as two independent airlines with more and more reciprocal agreements until they do fully merge.

  3. This is from the press release on the US Airways’ website when the merger was effective: “we’ll continue to function as two separate airlines for quite some time and very few changes will happen immediately.”

    This is from the US Airways’ website: “In the second quarter of 2015, we’ll bring the Dividend Miles program into the AAdvantage loyalty program.”

    As a member of the Dividend Miles program, I have received several e-mails and post cards from US Airways which stated when the Dividend Miles program will be out of Star Alliance; the last date when I can cash in miles for flights on Star Alliance members; the projected merger of the two programs; about booking flights on the other airlines; etc.

    What is confusing in the story is that the LW booked the flight on the American’s website in October 2014 but the flight was operated by US Airways. Why? Why not book the flight on the US Airways’ website?

    It has been my experience that you can’t book a partnercode shareetc. flight and expect to use miles for upgrades (we are not talking about using miles for reward travel). For example, years ago, I could book United flights on the US Airways website but I couldn’t use US Airways miles to upgrade the United flight nor could I used my United miles to upgrade. In other words, if you want to use your US Airways miles then book at US Airways for an US Airways flight not another airline and vice-versa.

    One option for the LW is reward travel (i.e. spending 90,000 miles for a business class ticket) instead of buying an economy fare and then using miles to upgrade.

    Personally, I won’t fly US Airways metal for business class travel to Europe…their product is substandard in my opinion compared to the European and Asian based airlines that flies to Europe.

    Several times I have used miles to upgrade to First Class on domestic flights when I have traveled with my family. However, I called to see how many First Class seats were available to upgrade with miles BEFORE I booked the flights. Most if not all airlines do put a limit on non-revenue First Class seats (i.e. reward; upgrades with miles; elite upgrades; etc).

    I have a hard time believing…

    …that an American Airlines CSR in October 2014 told the LW that they will could use American Airlines miles for a flight that is operated by US Airways when both airlines are still operating as two separate companies and their frequent flyer programs are not going to be merged until the second quarter of 2015.

    …that an American Airlines CSR told the LW that there are upgrades available when it was unlikely that an AA CSR could access the US Airways reservation system..

  4. Chris, you obviously don’t want to work mileage cases, but there is something about this one that make you want to try.

    What’s so different about this one? You didn’t spell anything out in perticular in the article…

    1. Don’t take this case. There is no way that you will win. The best outcome is that they can get a fee free refund. The rules for mileage or certificate upgrades are well published, but in general, you can’t use miles to upgrade on a codeshare. This is true for almost any airline. The LW just didn’t do their homework for what is ultimately a complex process. They also have no proof of what they may or may not have been told on the phone and they most likely misunderstood what the agent was telling them.

  5. I think, though, that this is not just necessarily an issue about loyalty/mileage programs, but about getting the runaround from the airline post-merger. Why is it another airline’s issue if the two are merged? What is the consumer experience post-merger? It seems anything but smooth…

    1. Seems like you didn’t read Arizona’s explanation above. They are NOT merged. They are owned by the same corporation and the merger is a long process, not something that happens overnight. UA/CO still has merger issues….

  6. As I understand it, most airlines don’t free up seats for international upgrades until a month or so before departure.

  7. The LW probably would have had better luck simply booking a “free” trip instead of trying to use miles for an upgrade, if they had enough miles.

    I have had nearly zero luck booking a mileage upgrade on any airline I have ever tried. Not sure why this is more difficult than booking a miles only “free” flight, but it seems to be that way. And the upgrade usually costs nearly as many miles as the full mileage flight and there is also almost always an upgrade fee which makes the bargain seat not so much of a bargain.

    I think the case should be taken just to get a better explanation from AA/US as to why, if there are mileage upgrade seats available, they cannot be booked.

    1. Because the airline wants to wait until the last possible moment because it is planning on selling the first class seat and not giving it away to a frequent flyer.

  8. Chris, I’ve long recognized that you hate mileage programs, for reasons I don’t really understand. I returned yesterday from a lovely Belize vacation with flights obtained with miles, and while there were a few flight problems, they had mostly to do with weather and a mini-strike at BZE. I’d love for you to take me as a case study to show why mileage programs are bad, since I can’t see it.

    I personally don’t think you should be “steering clear of loyalty programs” at all. I think the Las Vegas analogy is a poor one – if a casino did something wrong or dishonest, if it didn’t follow the rules, would you not think that worth of attention? Getting treated unfairly is getting treated unfairly, whether it has to do with miles or dollars. Someone needs to hold their feet to the fire, and you’re great at that!

    1. I agree. I think the almost-monopolies that the airlines have created are leading to worse service and higher prices, and I hate that I basically *have* to fly one airline exclusively (and get status) just to get humane levels of comfort and service. That’s my main reason for using airlines’ loyalty programs. But I’ve also taken plenty of “free” trips (that really were just about free, with fees of $0-$15), in both coach and first class, and never had any problems.

    2. There IS a difference between a Vegas casino and an airline loyalty program. If a casino cheats, it has to contend with the Nevada Gaming Commission (I have had contracts in this line of business). Airline loyalty programs are responsible to nothing and no one.

    3. He said in the article, “I’m no expert on loyalty programs,” so most likely it’s better for him to spend his time on things where he does have valuable expertise. This case looks unwinnable anyway. The customer can’t prove what he thinks he was told, and the airline won’t admit that a representative made a promise that’s clearly not policy (though it could have happened). I’ll be off to the Galapagos in a few weeks due to one of these awful loyalty programs. Keep enjoying your free trips, S363.

  9. This story does nothing more than bring out why I don’t play the upgrade game with my miles.
    Here’s the short version… It really doesn’t matter if they come back and give him an upgrade, he still only has an expensive economy ticket. If anything changes, he’ll could lose the upgrade. Weather issue causes a rerouting … welcome to steerage. Schedule change with a different aircraft, would you like steak sauce with your knee caps for the next 8 hours. (True stories)

    Just say no. Use your miles for an award ticket or save up to buy the front of the bus. The upgrade option is really like heading to Vegas except you had to pay more initially than you would for your economy seat.

    No Thank You!

    1. I had a full fare 1st seat on one airline where, for my “convenience”, i was placed on different flight in a middle seat in economy. And then when I requested a refund of the fare difference was told that I was the one who asked for the change and therefore was owed nothing. When I pushed, the airline told me that I actually owed them money, that they out of the goodness of their heart were not going to charge me, because the last minute fare in economy was more that the 1st seat on the flight I got moved from!

      So any flight in any class on any airline is a lot like gambling in Vegas. 🙂

      1. Mark …. I’ll admit that’s never happened to me … Probably would only happen once before I was seeking a new airline “for my convenience.”

      2. Sadly that happened to me too, well I was re-booked to an economy minus middle seat because my flight was canceled. In my case the difference between what I paid for F and the full fare walk up coach set was $90, so I got $90 back. Stunk, but at least I got home.

        1. Continental.

          Their excuse for moving me was that the flight I was on was being delayed due to weather and to get to my destination I had to be on the flight they moved me to.

  10. Why not point these nice people in the direction of the executive contacts page? Chris, I generally would prefer to see you get involved only after people have done everything they themselves can do.

  11. This illustrates that ‘loyalty’ counts for nothing. Money is the only thing that matters. There was a time when loyalty did matter and it really paid off with free flights and upgrades. I think my husband and myself have had the best of those times but those days are well and truly over. I think this case is pointless.

  12. “But apparently, they’re only “merged” if it’s convenient for them.”
    Is this ever true! I booked a flight on US Air because I have a baggage allowance. They changed the flight to an AA code share and refused to honor the allowance. I also have an allowance on flights booked with AA but because I had booked on US Air, they refuseed to honor the allowance. So I have a flight allowance on AA and USAir and somehow they figured out a way that I wasn’t entitled to it on a codeshare between the two airlines . . . . I’m a lawyer and understand the merger process but this was beyond the pale.

  13. The upgrades are 30,000 miles plus $300 per person, per way. The upgrade seats are capacity controlled. Just because business class seats are available for sale, doesn’t mean any are available for upgrade. If they don’t sell them, they generally do open more up closer to the time of the flight. This is all disclosed on US Airways website.

    1. the 30k miles for the upgrade is only on a cash ticket though, right? you cant use the 30k miles to upgrade a points ticket!

  14. Upgrades are not guaranteed at the time of booking even for “super-elite” members of the AA or US program using SWUs, so this couple would be no more assured of their upgrade than anyone else. As for the AA vs US, I think it’s rather naive of Mr. Elliott to expect two huge corporations to be able to merge and integrate their systems in a year on several levels. There are regulatory issues to be resolved and the single merged operating license is still a year in the future. There are union agreements to be negotiated and integrated, aircraft fleets to be standardized, routes and schedules to be rationalized…let alone FF programs and benefits to be integrated. It is certainly easier to write a column than run a multi-billion dollar business!

    As for seat pitch in US economy, 31″ is pretty good when compared to 27″-28″ which is standard on many other airlines in economy. The couple should have read all the mailings or merger updates on the AA or US sites to see what they could and could not do with their miles. And know that they booked a US plane and not an AA one. Yes, there’s a degree of caveat emptor but there also an onus to undertake due diligence when dealing with any company or program.

  15. I voted no. Technically, the LW hasn’t lost his bet yet. And it seems impossible to make the house guarantee that a guest will win.

  16. If sitting in business class is important to these people, why do they not fork over the extra miles needed and get a seat in business class?

  17. I dislike this particular airline trick because it feels a lot like bait-and-switch. The airline tells you that upgrades are available to its valued frequent fliers for XX,000 miles and $XXX. This gives you the impression that if you give the airline that many miles and that many dollars, your loyalty will be rewarded with the opportunity to get a first class seat at a deal. Great. Except, it almost never seems to work out that way, and now you’ve paid your money or burned your miles for a coach seat that might be better priced elsewhere, and the upgrade is nowhere to be found. I’ve been an elite level member of several different airline loyalty programs in several different alliances, and it always seems that there’s another category of customer who is more loyal than me, and that those customers already got all the upgrades. Sorry.
    As an aside, does anyone know why an international coach seat is $1000, but a first class seat is $12,000? It does’t take up as much room as 12 coach seats, does it? And I’m not talking about an Emerates “suite” on the A380, which probably does take up as much room as 12 coach seats, but *it* costs more like $30,000.

    1. The $12,000 fare is keeping the coach fare low. If the carrier can fill the first class cabin with paying passengers, they don’t need to fly any other passenger.
      BTW, the $12,000 FC fare is a unrestrictive fare. You can get it for less by booking a restrictive FC fare.

  18. It’s time, Chris, for you to give some thought to mileage issues IMHO. It is very possible that your intervention might turn this mess around. It’s true, AA/US will function separately (separately but together – airline speak) for quite some time. Continental and United merged years ago and parts still function separately. When the merger first got started, I would lose my seats every time there was a schedule change, and there were many. I’d have to call and book new seats – my original seats had been given to someone else, no doubt with higher status than I. Nobody does this stuff on purpose, it just is complicated.
    In this case, I would suggest a conference call among AA and USAir and the Loprestis. I have vast experience with upgrades on CO/UA, and always have my upgrade confirmed at the time of ticketing. I often pay a higher fare for the flight, so that may be an issue for the Loprestis. Before the conference call, get on the website and find out if the fare you paid is upgradeable. If not, decide how much more money you are willing to pay if there are two seats available. I think you have a shot at this, especially if you have some names and dates that relate to what you were told by the reps.

    1. The last CO/UA separation I knew of was their flight attendants not being able to work planes that belonged to the other airline prior to the merger (that is if the FA worked for UA before the merger they could only work on planes that belonged to UA prior to the merger and similarly for CO). That went away the start of this year.

      My careful choice of planes to get the flight crews I preferred are now all for naught. 🙁

  19. Of course you should. You’re a consumer advocate. Your dislike of loyalty programs notwithstanding. The whiplash each airline is subjecting the fliers to by telling them to go to the other and back again makes it fertile ground for you. S363 says it best.

  20. I voted yes because I think that your experience with the American/US Airways FF program might be of help to others in the same position. Because of the size of the merger, there must be many others who could benefit from what you find out. Perhaps you’ll be able to determine how the “merged” program will work, which airline to contact, etc., etc. Otherwise, I’d ignore what is just another infuriating, frustrating FF program.

  21. it’s a waste of time. i booked at first class seat 180 days in advance and lost the seat day of the flight. but publishing more of the cases will make people see that many of these miles deals are a scam.

      1. i don’t know they called me the day before if i would take miles to go back to coach, but i refused and they said that’s ok someone else will take it, then when I showed up I had no seats. I would have called chris, but i didn’t have time.

        it was for my tenth anniversary so I didn’t want to give up the seats, i planned the trip a year in advance… kinda knew this date was coming for 10 years.

        I was in a miles seat, that’ll teach me.

        1. Holey mackerel, this is terrible. And exactly why Chris should advocate for these kinds of problems. It’s just not fair. I guess I’ve been waaaay lucky all these years with Continental and United. But I don’t do tix w/miles, I just do upgrades. I’m waiting for someone to read all the rules and tell me that the airlines can toss you back in coach whenever they please … ugh!

  22. we do wish people would stop talking about seat pitch. Seat pitch DOES NOT equate directly to leg room.
    That is, you can’t compare seat pitch on different airlines, as seat pitch doesn’t take into a/c of the thickness of the actual seat back.
    Many modern seats are much thinner, so if 2 airlines have same seat pitch, but one has thinner seat backs(this can be as much as 4 inches difference), then the one with thinner seats, has more leg room !!!

  23. Just to the question of “take the case or no” goes… I think you could do either – however, IF you decide to take it, then that to me also means later on, others may ask you to take their case(s) as well.

    So, and IF you turn them down, now I think there’s a talking point about what cases you – or who ever makes that call to take the case or not – deem to be worthy/winnable/marketable or not…

    Right now, with a blanket “no”, it’s far easier.. It’s no to everyone… and I see merit in that. consistency… However, the world is comprised of shades of grey.. however, one must then be willing to be accountable or to ‘speak’ to why one case was not taken over the other.

  24. Uh…you don’t. You can save a lot of money taking whatever flight is cheapest of the airlines you don’t hate and then use the savings to buy an upgrade. In the long run, unless your idea of ‘humane’ means first class on every flight, you’ll probably save money without chaining yourself to any one airline.

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