Cathay Pacific, based in my hometown of Hong Kong, offers one of my favorite First and Business Class products out there. They have one of the least populated First Class cabins, with just 6 seats in a 1-1-1 configuration; their Business Class feature reverse herringbone seats, where every passengers gets a flat bed and direct aisle access.
Their partnership with American Airlines (through oneworld) and Alaska Airlines make it relatively easy to redeem award tickets. For example, it costs just 50,000 Alaska miles to redeem a one-way Business Class ticket from the US to Asia, and you can have a stopover in Hong Kong.
Cathay Pacific has also been extremely reliable in releasing award seats. This is true both far in advance, when schedule opens, and at last minute, if a seat in a premium cabin is unsold ~48 hours before departure.
Cathay Pacific Has Introduced Multiple Tiers of Awards for First and Business Class
Cathay Pacific today rolled out changes with Asia Miles (Cathay Pacific’s own rewards program) redemptions. Specifically, they added two “Priority Awards” tiers for First and Business Class redemptions. These tiers were already in place for Economy and Premium Economy award tickets, but had not been available with First and Business Class before.
This is how Cathay Pacific describes “Priority Awards”:
Priority Awards offer you more seat-redemption options and thus a higher chance of securing a seat when travelling on popular routes and/or during the peak travel season. They were first introduced in October 2014 to offer more redemption seats in Premium Economy and Economy Class on Cathay Pacific and Dragonair flights.
Essentially, these are awards that cost more on selected dates and/or routes. And Cathay Pacific rolling out multiple tiers of award tickets for First and Business Class is bad news.
Bad News for Partner Redemptions
Previously, there is only one tier for First/Business Class redemptions, called “Standard Award.” While Cathay Pacific does reserve some seats for Asia Miles members only (i.e. not available to partners like American or Alaska), for the most part, if a seat is available through Asia Miles, it is usually also available through a partner.
However, these new “Priority Awards” allow Cathay Pacific to put seats at a higher redemption level, one that is not accessible to partners. This means theoretically, Cathay Pacific can make all First Class seats a “Priority Award Tier 1” seat, and only sporadically release Standard Award seats accessible by partners.
Bad News for Asia Miles Redemptions
Some airlines offer redemptions with last-seat availability. American Airlines, for example, offer “AAnytime” awards, which cost significantly more than saver award, but are available as long as there is an empty seat available.
However, these new “Priority Awards” are still not awards with last-seat availability. They are simply new tiers that allow Cathay Pacific to charge higher prices on selected dates. Cathay Pacific would have you believe that this means they can open “extra” space, because they can now get more miles for it. However, the reality might be the opposite, where Cathay Pacific may actually be sequestering seats for the higher levels on busy travel dates.
This means, overall, that Asia Miles members will likely be paying more for award seats on average.
Cathay Pacific rolled out Priority Awards just yesterday, so it might take a while for us to truly see the effects. However, I can already find dates where only Priority Awards are available (i.e. no standard or partner award). Asia Miles members have access to flights 360 days out, while American and Alaska only have access to flights 331 days out. I will focus on flights that fall under the 331 day window in the examples below.
I looked for awards at the tail end of the schedule. For September 2, 2017 there are no Standard Award or partner award available in Business or First Class. However, Cathay Pacific is making them available through Asia Miles’ new Priority Awards Tier 1.
In my survey of the North American routes, this is a pretty rare occurrence. By and large, there is just a handful of dates where only Priority Awards are available (i.e. no Standard or partner availability). And that’s a good thing.
By introducing “Priority Awards” for Business and First Class, Cathay Pacific is building new price tiers for their most aspirational products. These new tiers give Cathay Pacific the potential to severely limit partner redemptions, and that’s something to worry about. Luckily, we are not seeing any drastic, immediate effects, but it’s worth keeping a (really keen) eye on.