I’ve written extensively about Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan program on this blog, since I believe the program to still be one of the strongest in North America. They have access to award bookings on a variety of high quality airlines, they still award miles based on distance flown and not fare paid, and you can buy virtually unlimited number of Alaska miles when they frequently go on sale.
For instance, I still think redeeming just 50,000 miles for a one-way Business Class ticket to Asia with a stopover in Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific remains one of the best deals out there.
Alaska is Blocking Close-in Award Bookings on Cathay Pacific, Hainan, and JAL
It would appear that Alaska Airlines is now blocking close-in award redemptions (and changes) on Cathay Pacific, Hainan Airlines, and JAL. This means all new award bookings or changes involving travel on any of these airlines must be made at least 72 hours prior to departure.
There currently is not a list, we are working on updating the information online. The airlines are CX, JAL, and HU. To my understanding no changes are allowed 72 hours prior to departure. -Tara
— Alaska Airlines (@AlaskaAir) February 13, 2018
On the surface, this might not seem like a big deal. However, Cathay Pacific and JAL notoriously release many unsold First and Business Class seats close to departure. Their rationale is that since they are not able to sell those seats, they might as well get compensated for them by releasing them for award redemptions. As a result, I have made changes to award tickets on Cathay Pacific and JAL a number of times in the past, precisely because seats opened up in a better cabin, or because I’m able to make a last-minute redemption instead of having to settle for a back-up plan.
Why is Alaska Blocking These Close-in Redemptions?
Alaska claims this is done for fraud prevention. Presumably, one might be able to hack into an account, redeem their miles for a last-minute ticket, and then fly for free before either the victim finds out that their miles have been “stolen,” or before Alaska cancels the ticket.
Some “mileage brokers” might even do this and sell these stolen award tickets to unsuspecting customers paying cash for a “discounted ticket.” These brokers can essentially pocket the money and take none of the risk of actually being the person traveling on a fraudulently redeemed ticket.
It’s also important to know that this is not entirely unprecedented. Back in 2016, British Airways began blocking online award bookings on Cathay Pacific up to 22 days before departure. Many tickets are still bookable by phone, but some have reported that tickets to/from China are completely blocked.
Of course, I have no idea how prevalent fraudulent activities like this are. I would hope that they are serious enough that Alaska is either incorporating this policy to protect their bottom line (since they’d have to pay for any fraudulently redeemed tickets), or to prevent the problem from getting worse.
This is a move that is going to affect a good number of us who are trying to redeem miles on premium cabin tickets. And I would imagine that just like their no-notice devaluation for award tickets on Emirates, this will hurt their miles selling business.
I think with every deal there is, there’s always a way to criminally take advantage. Many of us remember the good old days of manufacturing spending to rack up points and miles, before many methods were shut down because people used the same means to launder money. Similarly, I imagine a very small subset of people are trying to profit in the miles business, either by hacking accounts or by brokering miles for award tickets.
Still, I think Alaska’s move is very punitive, especially in light of the fact that many award availability become available during that short 72-hour window. As a corollary, many people also cancel their “back up” plan within that same window, and the fact that Alaska is blocking any changes (at all) within 72 hours will also bring a new inconvenience. They certainly could have allowed for some exceptions, or a “workaround” that would provide an extra layer of security or verification. For example, British Airways blocks Cathay Pacific redemptions online, but still allows for many redemptions over the phone.
In the long run, I can imagine Alaska placing some restrictions, like only being able to use miles on a pre-set list of travelers that was defined well in advanced like British Airways already does. Perhaps they might request some verification information for that, not unlike Korean Air’s request for Birth Certificates and Marriage Certificates as proof of relationships. I don’t think any of these solutions are ideal, especially if they become a blanket requirement for all flights regardless of departure date, which would lead to a huge hurdle for those who are redeeming their own miles for their own designated recipients. But I do hope that this is either a temporary ban that will Alaska to buy some time to figure out how to best address this problem.