Emirates First Class Champagne

Explaining the inner workings of the points game, there’s always one topic where you see the eyes start to squint, as bewilderment takes over.

That’s the moment you start explaining to people that if they’d like to fly with Qantas to Australia, they’re better off earning airline miles from an airline called Alaska, which doesn’t even fly to Australia.

That’s but one small example of airline partner awards, where you can save points by booking flights on one airline with miles from another, known as an airline partner.

As odd as it is, sometimes a “partner”airline charges fewer miles for the flight you want than the actual airline you plan to fly, for the very same seat.

For years, this created unrest among flyers loyal to an airline, who felt like all the “good seats” they’d like to book with points were going to those savvy mileage fanatics from other loyalty programs, where many of the miles are created via credit card points.

If recent events are any indicator, it seems we’re facing a period of steady change with airline partner awards, particularly for the best seats…

a bed with a television on it

To recap, here’s what we’ve seen happen to airlines and the way they control award availability over the last couple years…

  • Emirates now blocks first class award bookings for partner airlines and started doing so on April, 2021. Seats in first using points can only be booked using Emirates miles.
  • JAL appears to be blocking (most) first class awards from partners. Seats exist now that aren’t bookable by other mileage currencies, so they’re making it harder for partners.
  • Qantas started adding more first class availability, but it’s generally only now bookable with Qantas miles, and not bookable by British Airways, American, Alaska and other programs.
  • Delta & Virgin have made forays into aligning their redemption rates, so that Virgin isn’t a glaringly better option for booking Delta flights than Delta’s own currency.
  • British Airways started making two seats available on every flight in business, premium and economy, but seats are available to BA’s own members before they become bookable by people who use other miles, with few exceptions.
  • Etihad began blocking agents from certain airlines from being able to see first class or business class award space, creating an extra hoop for those hoping to use miles other than Etihad to jump through.
  • Air France only allows first class redemptions for elites of their own program, and no other miles can be used to book it. Not even non elites within the FlyingBlue program.
  • Lufthansa typically only makes first class seats available to book with other miles from 15 days out, meaning they’re only available to most other airline mileage programs at the very last minute. Swiss First can also only be booked by elites.
  • Cathay Pacific offers more seats to its own AsiaMiles members, which aren’t bookable by other airlines by charging slightly higher amounts on some dates. This keeps them out of “partner” inventory.
  • Finnair as of Jan 22, 2020, also announced that it would restrict those using miles from other loyalty programs from booking their flights, with no availability past 60 days out.
  • Singapore Airlines has never really allowed any other mileage program to book first or business class seats on their own long haul flights. You must book with KrisFlyer.
  • Swiss only allows elites to book First Class using miles, making it cash only for any non Miles & More elite members.

You’re probably already bored, but the list could go on and on.

It doesn’t take Jason Bourne to figure out that there’s a growing trend at making it easier, or more beneficial for an airlines own members to book seats on their flights, rather than those hoping to use another airlines loyalty program to book.

Really, it all makes sense, even if you don’t like it.

a group of people walking in a courtyard with Plaza Mayor, Madrid in the background

Why would an airline encourage travelers to use another loyalty program to earn points and book flights?

Loyalty programs are more valuable than flying passengers around, and surely airlines want to make theirs more attractive to potential customers. Having first dibs on seats, or more opportunity to use your points to book them is a great start.

During pandemic times, when more money is made from loyalty than flying planes, airline loyalty programs want their currency to be the most worthwhile to collect, and that means making their currency the best way to fly their own planes.

Look no further than the trend of monthly “promo awards”, where airlines reduce the number of miles you need for a given flight, but only if you use their loyalty miles to pay for it.

This tactic creates extra reason to earn miles with a given program and is already in use with American, Air France, Delta, KLM, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways, Singapore Air and surely more to come.

When you use airline miles from a different airline, the airline whose miles you’re booking with must pay the airline you intend to fly with. When the airline you’re using miles with is also the airline you’re flying, it’s really just wiping liability off the balance sheet.

a plane on the runway

The reason this matters, is that points savvy travellers may want to re-think their earning strategies, as it becomes increasingly hard to use these workarounds, like using another loyalty program to book another airline for fewer miles, or at all.

As i see it…

  • Credit card points become more valuable, since they can be moved into a variety of airline loyalty programs, rather than locking you into one. If someone has the availability, you move your points there.
  • Airline alliances become more strained as Oneworld, SkyTeam and Star Alliance flyers find struggle to redeem miles on airline partners.
  • Choosing which airline program you credit your miles to may become more about which airline you’ll actually fly when yo want to redeem, than which loyalty program offers the lower rates.

This is purely a look at a continuing trend, not a prediction of the complete extinction of booking airline seats using miles from another airline to do so.

Yet, the writing is kinda’ on the wall, and typically it’s good to read what’s written before you get bitten. You’ll still be able to book seats on other airlines, but your flexibility or advanced ability to do so may likely be encumbered as the trend carries on.

Intriguingly, there’s been talk of alliance wide currencies as the next frontier, where you’d earn one type of miles across all the airlines in an alliance, at rates set the same for all.

This would create new challenges for loyalty programs looking to add value by making theirs special, by doing things like limiting points availability to outside flyers, but it would simplify the concept, and the ‘ins and outs’ of booking.

This stuff is complicated.

People look like you’re explaining particle physics when you say that the best way to book ANA first class is to earn credit card points from Amex, wait for a big 30% point transfer bonus from Amex to Virgin Atlantic, search on United.com for ANA seats, then call Virgin Atlantic to book the flights to Japan, where Virgin Atlantic no longer flies, for a flight on ANA,.

Wait for it… booked all over the phone. You can’t book it online.

Going forward, it’s worth learning about the loyalty program run by the airline you actually plan to redeem your miles on, and seeing which credit card points can be created into miles from that airline.

Few people have the ability to wait 60, or 15 days before travel to book seats, and if you want to get around that, you’ll need to start focusing on the airlines you want to fly.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. Never had any issues redeeming economy class partner awards with miles so hopefully that won’t end anytime soon! 😉

  2. Great post, I agree this is the direction things are going which may significantly limit some of the outsized value sweet spots people have been hitting for years.

  3. Interesting article but reality may not be as draconian as you imply. A couple of examples if also challenge:
    – you can book SQ business class using virgin Australia miles quite easily
    – not sure it’s true that the BA 2 award seats in all classes are not available immediately to partners. I have regularly booked these with qantas points as soon as they opened (355 days)

    But generally yes it makes sense that if you want to redeem on airline X your miles should be with X. Don’t think this means you can’t use miles from partner Y but it will be harder!

    1. Tim, I hear you, kinda, but you’re looking for exceptions to the exceptions to the rule.

      -Booking windows for most airlines (excluding Qantas) don’t open when BA’s does.
      -You’ve found the one obscurist frequent flyer program that may have access to Singapore premium cabin Awards, other than Alaska, but availability for Singapores own members is always better.

      I appreciate your discussion points, but this is in my opinion only further illustrates my point.

  4. This is not fully correct though.

    SAS Eurobonus members have basically always been able to book SQ awards. Even on the ER-airplanes, including SQ F, and nowadays (since about two years back) also SQ Suites on certain routes.

    1. Again, you’re talking about 1,2 maybe 3 programs with access to a program, which is otherwise already entirely cut off to Star Alliance members and others. It’s already an exception to a growing rule.

  5. “Singapore Airlines has never really allowed any other mileage program to book first or business class seats on their own long haul flights. You must book with KrisFlyer.”

    Not sure how far your memory goes back, but to state never is wrong. Back in the BMI DC days I had first or business many times between Europe and Singapore

  6. AA is not in your list… I have not been able at all (trying for the last 2 years) to book AA Business Class/ Flagship tickets with Avios. Only able to book coach, instead I see AA members can book business in IB or BA.

  7. Now that we live in a covid-19 world, I don’t see much difference between first and business class especially in terms of the soft product and food. As long as business class award seats are available to partner airlines loyalty programs I’m a-ok with that!

  8. I think we went through this once before or maybe it was another blogger, if one researches say AF for example they always have blocked anyone but their elites from booking F/C once in a blue moon have they allowed non elites to book, BA is showing FC using AK miles, same with JAL.

    This is simply a matter of loading into the different systems and given all that is going on around us a hiccup once in awhile is forgiven, You wrote about EK “ending” Alaska redemption yet it’s wide open now.,

  9. The problem with doing this is that it wipes out a lot of the value for a customer, which reflects back on the program itself. Obviously there has to be some kind of balance so that first class isn’t completely full on partner redemptions 355 days in advance but offering partners little to no first class award space makes both airlines look bad. I’d say that the way Cathay used to do it was a great middle ground, where partners could book one first class seat almost a year beforehand, then Cathay would release 1-2 additional seats a few weeks before the flight if the seats were still unsold. That allowed Cathay to offer more availability to their own partners while giving first dibs on 2 seats to Asia Miles members. I have personally rolled the dice on this one a number of times and it’s worked out quite well overall. It’s certainly better than denying first class space to partners and the seats end up unsold. If you want people to yearn for your product, you have to let them experience it first. With these partner availability rules, that isn’t going to happen.

  10. Hey Gilbert, I haven’t looked lately but Alaska seems to have a fair amount of SQ J award space. It may be mostly in Asia, but I have seen SIN – EWR for 100K AS (too much). A nice award is SYD – SIN – TPE on SQ J metal for 65 AS miles. Cheers!

  11. Would it reasonable to think you could book an Alaska miles Emirates First ticket in March to fly later in the fall?

  12. These changes make Chase’s 1.25-1.5x redemptions through the travel portal look better all the time.

  13. Gilbert, it is unfortunate that you seem to be thinking about this the same way as many “jedi mind trick”/”enhancement” era airline executives do. When Finnair or luftwafte or whomever else restricts award availability it means that the likelihood of that seat going out empty drastically increases. This results in a lossed opportunity for revenue as they will never be able to sell that seat again. Whether another program offers a nebulously better value for that award is not really relevant. If anything it is an opportunity for the operating carrier to make their FFP more competitive. However, again many airline executives particularly those of the “jedi mind trick” era despise customers getting great value EVEN IF they’re making money.

    1. This is one way of looking at it. Another, is protecting a revenue premium. If you have 4 passengers paying $10k each, and someone is making noise about how they paid 80,000 miles and $120, you risk jeopardizing the demand at the $10k level for that product.

      I agree that there are many instances where inventory should not be spoiled, but in premium cabins, there’s a demand and reputation risk to making things too easy and accessible. The game plays on. I am not necessarily agreeing or disagreeing, but if I ran a loyalty program, I wouldn’t want for my program to be the second or fifth best way to fly my own airline.

  14. It was sad to see EK kill off F partner awards. I did get one good one, BKK – DXB – MXP – JFK all in F on the A380 using Marriott points xfer to JAL. 46K per leg in F was sweet.

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