Can I use Cathay Pacific miles to escape from New York?

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By Christopher Elliott

Felix Chan’s parents are stranded in New York after a storm. They can’t get back to Hong Kong because he used Cathay Pacific miles to pay for their ticket.

Question

My parents, who are visiting me from Hong Kong, are scheduled to travel on Cathay Pacific later this week from New York to Hong Kong. But Cathay Pacific canceled their flights because of a hurricane. Here’s the problem: They redeemed their British Airways points for the tickets. And those tickets follow a different set of rules.

A Cathay Pacific representative told me the airline can’t help because my parents are using an award ticket issued by British Airways.

I then proceeded to contact British Airways over the phone, where the representative told me that all they can do is search through the Cathay Pacific “award inventory” and they do not see anything for another month. But I did ask if they can try to rebook my parents on British Airways or another airline. The airline refused.

I feel caught in between both carriers. Using rational common sense, I feel one of these airlines should offer assistance to my parents, and not just leave us out in the cold. I feel they should offer the same treatment to all passengers who travel with them, and not make my parents second-class citizens. — Felix Chan, New York

Answer

You’re right; one of the airlines should have promptly rebooked your parents on the next available flight — not the next flight with available seat inventory.

It helps to know a little about how award tickets work. A sophisticated computer algorithm determines how many seats per flight become award seats, which is to say, seats for which the airline is willing to accept frequent flier miles as payment. But what the system is actually calculating is the number of seats that would go unsold. (Maybe they ought to call them leftover seats instead of award seats?)

Anyway, the system gave you two choices: either refund the miles for the unused tickets or book your parents on the next flight with leftover seats. (Related: Nothing says “I’m sorry” like airline miles.)

This seems perfectly rational to the airline; after all, it’s giving you something for nothing. But from your perspective, it’s an insult. You worked hard and spent lots of money to accrue those miles, and to ask you to wait a month is unacceptable.

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How do I handle this problem with Cathay Pacific?

I notice that you spent a fair amount of time on the phone with British Airways and Cathay Pacific after the storm (this incident happened several months ago, but I am just now writing about it). That’s fine, but you also want to put your grievance in writing so that you have a record of it.

I list publish the names of British Airways’ executives on my website. I also have the names of the Cathay Pacific executives.

At some point down the line, British Airways will realize that it ticked off one of its best customers, and a written record tends to help everyone reach that point sooner. (Related: Where is the refund for my upgrade that never happened?)

You reached out to my advocacy team for help. I contacted British Airways on your behalf, and it worked with Cathay Pacific to find your parents two seats on an acceptable flight.

Are loyalty programs an appropriate way for an airline to thank its best customers?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in São Paulo.

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