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.

As odd as it is, sometimes a “partner” of an airline charges fewer miles than the actual airline itself. For years, this has created unrest amongst flyers loyal to an airline, who feel like all the “good seats” they’d like to book with points go to those from other loyalty programs, many of which are created via credit card points. If recent events are any indicator, it seems we’re facing the beginning of the end of airline partner awards…

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

  • 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.
  • British Airways started making two seats available on every flight in business, premium and economy, but its available to their members before it’s bookable by people who use other miles.
  • Etihad began blocking agents from certain airlines from being able to see first 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 only makes first class seats available to book with other miles from 15 days out, meaning they’re only available last minute. Swiss First can 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.
  • 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.

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.

Why would an airline encourage travellers 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.

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.

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 trend, not a prediction of the extinction of booking airline seats using miles from another airline to do so. Yet, the writing is kinda’ on the wall. 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 30% point transfer bonus from 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, on ANA, over the phone…

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.

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