Stealth Mileage Plan Devaluation? Alaska Airlines Restricts JAL First Class Awards

One of the best values of Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan program is premium cabin awards to Asia. While business class at 50,000 miles is certainly good enough to get the job done, some people aspire for the pointiest part of the plane. That’s where Alaska’s award charts really shine. For just 70,000 miles, you can fly first class from the US to Asia on top airlines like Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines.

Unfortunately, those redemptions are nothing more than marketing if you can’t find the space. While not removed completely, it does appear that Alaska Airlines is playing games with one partner’s premium seats.

How this started

While travel is nowhere in our immediate plans, that doesn’t mean we can’t plan for the future. Eventually, we’d like to take a honeymoon. No one knows what things will look like next year, let alone next week. We’re still hopeful that eventually, things will get better though.

There are quite a few reasons to start looking for future award flights now. For starters, there is reduced risk in making speculative award bookings. While top-tier elites generally got award change fees waived, everyone else typically had to pay a change or redeposit fee. With the current uncertainty though, some airlines are offering additional flexibility. In addition to this, award availability is better now than it’s been in years.

Sometimes when you’re searching for award availability, you’ll stumble across something unexpected. Maybe it’s award space on a route you weren’t expecting or maybe it’s an exciting new partnership. However, we noticed something off while searching for Japan Airlines first class awards with Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan.

What changed?

While nothing has changed officially, I’ve noticed some…odd trends with Japan Airlines partner award space. Typically, Alaska Airlines releases award availability 330 days in advance. Sure enough, I’d see business class or coach seats available on Alaska’s site. However, there weren’t any first seats available. That didn’t mean Alaska wasn’t showing them. Sometimes, the seats just aren’t there. To verify it’s not just an Alaska issue, I’d check other partner websites. When I did that, I noticed something strange.

On Qantas’ website, they were showing numerous dates in April first class award seats that Alaska Airlines was not.

Award availability for 2 first class seats for ORD-HND through the Qantas Frequent Flyer program in April.

The same dates in April not showing any availability through Alaska Airlines’ search

Hmm…maybe Alaska Airlines just didn’t have access to the same amount of first seats. It happens from time to time. I checked dates with two first class award seats. Again, there were a few dates in April with Qantas, but nothing with Alaska.

Award availability for 2 first class seats for ORD-HND through the Qantas Frequent Flyer program in April.

Again, the same dates in April showing at least two first Class seats available with other partners, but not with Alaska Airlines.

Ok this was strange. Does Alaska not have access to first class availability?

I checked other dates closer in where Qantas was showing two first class award seats. This time, Alaska did show the same two seats available.

Award availability for 2 first class seats for ORD-HND through the Qantas Frequent Flyer program in February.

This time, Mileage Plan DID show the same availability as Qantas’ search

A few days later, I noticed a cluster of first class awards from New York to Tokyo. Both Qantas’ and JAL’s sites showed two seats for several consecutive dates in late March. When I checked Alaska Airlines, only flights within 301 days showed availability. However, 302, 303, and 304 days out showed nothing. I followed along for over a week. As the days progressed, availability would open up, one day at a time. Business class and coach ran on their normal schedule, but first class continued the pattern of only opening up 301 days out (if there was space). This wasn’t just an online issue either. Phone agents were not able to see first class availability past 301 days either.

301 days is still a long time out. What’s the big deal?

Award space is typically best at the beginning and end of the award calendar. This means that if you’re looking for award space, the best times for availability will be far out (330 days+) and close-in (<14 days). If you like to plan, your best way to get a premium cabin award seat is when the airline first releases seats. Once the seat is released, it usually doesn’t last long. Especially during peak travel times.

However, what Alaska Airlines is doing puts you at a huge disadvantage. First class seats are already hard enough to come by. Most airlines rarely release more than one or two at a time. Every day counts when it comes to premium cabin award seats.

As a comparison, here’s when other airlines have access to JAL award space:

  • Japan Airlines – 360 days
  • British Airways – 355 days
  • Qantas – 353 days
  • American Airlines – 331 days

Those extra days really do matter

First, let’s take a look at Japan Airlines award availability through their own Mileage Bank program. For the purpose of this exercise, we’re going to try to find two first class seats between the US and Japan.

JAL award availability for two first class seats on JAL’s Mileage Bank 360 days out

This makes sense. Japan Airlines is going to offer the most availability for their own program members. They also operate two flights daily between New York and Tokyo, meaning there are more seats available than other routes. At least two seats were available every day between New York JFK and Tokyo Haneda for the last week of the calendar.

Let’s see what happens when you wait two months though.

Award availability for 2 first class seats for JFK-HND through the AAdvantage program in March.

Nothing. Not a single date available with two first class seats. Availability isn’t much better for one seat.

Award availability for 1 first class seat for JFK-HND through the AAdvantage program in March.

And for February?

Award availability for 2 first class seats for JFK-HND through the AAdvantage program in February.

Ok, well New York to Tokyo is a premium demand market. Let’s try Chicago to Tokyo Haneda. Even though JAL only operates one daily flight on the route, demand isn’t as high so there’s usually a decent chance of finding award seats.

Award availability for 2 first class seats for ORD-HND through the AAdvantage program in March.

There were no seats available in March. How about February?

Award availability for 2 first class seats for ORD-HND through the AAdvantage program in February.

While it was slightly better, there were still only two dates available for the entire month. That’s still not great compared to the end of the schedule though. Plus, early February isn’t exactly high demand between Chicago and Tokyo.

Does this reduce the value of the Mileage Plan program?

As consultants love to say, “it depends”. If you didn’t plan on redeeming points for first class travel to Asia, you might not care. If you did, this is certainly annoying and a devaluation.

The real issue here is a loss of trust. In a vacuum, this is only pushing things back 30 days and the seats are still bookable after that. Looking at the big picture though, what’s to stop them from doing this to more high value rewards. This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen Alaska Airlines make a devaluation to a high-value award without notice.

If a program is willing to make changes or restrict bookings without telling their customers, what’s keeping them from making other changes without notice too? It’s one thing to give people bad news, it’s another to act and hope no one notices.

Final Thoughts

This appears to be a disappointing move by Alaska Airlines to one of their most valuable redemptions. While it’s still possible to book Japan Airlines first class awards, shortening the window by 30 days makes it significantly tougher. If this is truly intentional on Alaska Airlines’ part, it’s really disappointing. They’re one of the few airlines that seemed to be open and understanding with their customers.

Making changes and hoping no one notices will only erode trust over the long-term. I hope I’m wrong, but this appears to be more than just a “mistake”.

Author: Stephen Hoechst

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7 Comments

  1. I noticed that with business class awards as well.

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  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I brought this up on a titan’s blog and got the usual answer to one of my uncomfortable questions… silence. With Alaska having only one first class award seat available to Asia per flight with Cathay, JAL seemed the only way to go for my wife and I for our big trip. I’ve been eyeing flights in April to Japan but even though AA shows tons of space, Alaska shows zero. I’ve studiously saved up my Alaska miles for a few years for exactly the situation I’m looking for but suddenly Alaska changes the rules without notice or notification. While I’m more than a little unhappy, I really do appreciate your insight. Thanks.

    Post a Reply
    • Christian- I’m pretty much in the exact same boat as you. Wanting to book something with the missus, but Cathay not being an option because of the one seat.

      I will say, be careful with AA’s award calendar in the last month of the schedule. They show a ton of phantom award space. For a a more accurate calendar view far out, I’d recommend Qantas‘ award search.

      Post a Reply
    • Paul, unfortunately we tried it as a round trip and the same issues persist. Even on dates with two first class seats, there’s no availability.

      Post a Reply
  3. Oh no. No Mas First. ☹️

    Post a Reply
    • We will find a way…

      Post a Reply

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