Mystery: Cancellations of Air China Premium Award Reservations Booked With MileagePlus Miles

If you have reserved a seat in the premium class cabin of this Boeing 737-800 aircraft operated by Air China using your United Airlines MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program miles, you are advised to keep an eye on your reservation, as similar reservations by other FlyerTalk members have been mysteriously canceled. Photograph by FlyerTalk member hkskyline. Click on the photograph for a trip report written by hkskyline.

You should be concerned if you redeemed your United Airlines MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program miles for an award reservation which includes a seat in the premium class cabin aboard an airplane operated by Air China in your itinerary, as the reservations of at least 17 FlyerTalk members have been unexpectedly cancelled — most of which occurred in 2014 — resulting in significant inconveniences for them.

The mystery is that the factors which are the source of these itinerary cancellations are still not known at this time. Theories include technology glitches and loopholes in the security of the official Internet web site of United Airlines — or, perhaps there is a conspiracy where enterprising “hackers” may have found a lucrative way to work with a broker or consolidator in canceling the award reservations of unsuspecting passengers who are assigned to seats in the premium class cabin. Could employees of Air China, for example, be conspiring with an entity which gives them a cut of the profits in return for clearing out award inventory in the premium class cabin secured with frequent flier loyalty program miles from a foreign carrier to allow paying customers to purchase those seats?

“…the theory was proposed that hackers are figuring out Air China reservation numbers and passenger names, then contacting Air China or UA to cancel the reservation”, suggests FlyerTalk member snic. “Then, they sell the first/business class award space that might consequently open up. There’s clearly a security hole somewhere. I don’t think it has anything to do with UA’s 4 digit pin, or people hacking UA account passwords. It’s more that there exists the ability to cancel someone else’s reservation if all you know is the PNR and name — and these can be found out somehow, probably by brute force guessing on a reservation management website (like a Chinese version of checkmytrip.com, perhaps).”

FlyerTalk member zhuzheng theorized that “If Air China intentionally canceled this reservation, they could make the cancellation directly through their internal system (Travelsky) and pass the information to UA. In addition, Air China could not cancel the ANA segment in the reservation. However, the fact was that the OP received a Chinese cancellation email from United and UA agents thought the whole reservation was canceled by the OP/passenger, which proved the reservation was actually canceled through United’s Chinese website (https://www.united.com/web/zh-CN/default.aspx) by accessing the reservation with the PNR and last name. There have been several similar ‘incidents’ reported in Chinese forums recently. All the canceled award tickets were issued by UA and contained CA flight(s). Award tickets issued by every other *A carrier remained intact (including those issued by CA itself). This is not a coincidence since only United.com (among *A carriers) allows anyone to cancel an award booking online by simply entering the PNR and passenger’s last name.”

Three friends of FlyerTalk member lewende have also experienced cancellations of their itineraries. “People in this hemisphere may not be aware of how booming a business is at China right now for award seat scalping. Due to the language and food preference, CA (Air China) F and C cabin award seats are in high demand from Chinese travelers. As such, award seat scalpers in China are constantly looking for TPAC award inventory for their clients and if they find no inventories available, they will create availability by themselves. How? It is well-known at China that TravelSky, the Chinese version of Amadeus, is fairly vulnerable to protect Chinese travelers’ information. Unfortunately, it is also the case that if anybody purchases a flight ticket in China (e.g., to travel on CA, MU, or CZ), your personal information may very likely already be compromised through TravelSky. My best guess is: by accessing TravelSky’s database, these Chinese scalpers were able to locate passenger information (e.g., first and last name) as well as ticket information (e.g., PNR# and cabin) for any CA flights, even if the tickets are issued on a 016 stock. Now, how come only 016 stock tickets got cancelled by these scalpers, but not 037 (US) or 014 (AC) stock tickets? This all thanks to the super easy and hassle-free online award booking management system of UA. United.com only requests two piece of information from anybody in the world to accomplish a cancellation: PNR and last name, that’s it. Now UA has to do something to stop CA award seat poachers from China to protect MileagePlus members’ award benefits. This shouldn’t be a rocket science project but simply adding an additional layer of verification and security before anybody attempts to cancel a 016 stock award booking, such as booking may only be cancelled online when the account is logged in, or verified the pin code when cancelled through an agent.”

All of that is speculation, of course — something with which I usually attempt to avoid dealing here at The Gate

…but the reserved seats were supposedly no longer available shortly after they were suspiciously cancelled. Additionally, I find it appalling to read about FlyerTalk member after FlyerTalk member experiencing reportedly poor customer service on the part of United Airlines, which has been excruciatingly slow to react but has been resolving this issue on a case-by-case basis. Its employees should have immediately started their investigations as to what was happening to the itineraries of its customers who have earned the privilege to use their MileagePlus frequent flier loyalty program miles for their choice of a travel experience — in this case, being passengers seated in the premium class cabin aboard airplanes during flights operated by Air China…

…and FlyerTalk members had purchased other travel products and services which were based on their itineraries.

For example, FlyerTalk member MikeMpls — who was the first to post about his experience — was one of those people facing the possible loss of funds: “We had an award trip to Australia booked for the 2nd half of May, outbound in coach on UA, return in business class on China Air. Received an email today from United — in Chinese. I don’t read Chinese. Logged into our accounts and found that the itinerary had been canceled, leaving us holding the bag on $1K in nonrefundable domestic Australian flights on Qantas & JetStar, plus some hotel reservations. This has to be the absolute worst customer service example I’ve ever experienced in the reservations department.”

After booking an award ticket three months prior, FlyerTalk member ordbkkreceived an email from United that was entirely in Chinese. At first, I thought it was just your typical malware/phishing email but it referenced my name and PNR, so I called United to get the scoop. While waiting on hold, I pulled up United.com and our reservation was missing. The United rep answers and informs me that I canceled my own reservation. I laughed and said no, I did not. We went back and forth like this for awhile, when finally she gave up and said well it doesn’t matter anyway, let’s see if we can book you a new reservation. After putting me on hold for 40 minutes, she comes back and says all of my original flights have no award space available. (ITA shows that paid space is available for ALL my flights, just not award space). And at this point all they can offer me is a mix of United Business & First, on other dates or using alternate airports. This is incredibly disappointing. I expected more as a very loyal United customer.”

…so a representative of United Airlines initially placed blame on the customer. Nice. This was apparently repeated with other customers as well. Is this the customer service which should be expected by a customer from a major airline?

Additionally, ordbkk also reported that a representative of United Airlines said that “Many people go clicking around on the website and cancel out their own reservations without realizing it. I’m sure that’s exactly what happened to you.”

Oh, yes. I do this all the time. It is like a glass accidentally slipping out of your hand and crashing into a million pieces on the floor. I cannot tell you how many reservations I have cancelled without realizing it…

…wait a minute — on second thought, I can:

Zero.

In all of my years of traveling, I can safely say zero. I have never cancelled out my own reservations without realizing it.

Worse is that when a representative of United Airlines “found C space on UA to replace my F space on CA, she acted like it was a big upgrade and I should be thrilled”, recalled ordbkk. “I told her I like United, but I prefer to have my CA/NH tickets reinstated. She got quite upset with me and told me if I felt that way, I should close my account and book with Cathay Pacific instead! That should have been my clue to hang up and dial again.”

Dealing with a call center customer support agent can be frustrating — but hanging up and calling again is indeed one way to increase your chances of a resolution of an issue to your satisfaction. After all, ordbkk booked this trip specifically to experience flights operated by Air China and All Nippon Airways, as flying as a passenger on United Airlines instead is supposedly like “having your Bentley stolen, and the insurance company giving you a Chrysler and being told ‘It’s still a nice car compared to what most people drive.’ We didn’t win our original tickets. We earned those miles fair & square by being loyal to United, flying a lot, and purchasing some Premier Accelerator. We played by the rules and expect United to honor the terms of our transaction.”

Considering that ordbkk estimates a loss in excess of $1,000.00 because the airports served by All Nippon Airways are not served by United Airlines; that the only flight United Airlines offered departs much earlier meaning that ordbkk will miss an additional day of work; that the flight arrives a day earlier which requires an extension of the hotel reservation of ordbkk; and that ordbkk now must spend time and money obtaining a visa for China — I would say that ordbkk has a point and is not being unfair or unrealistic.

Should ordbkk receive additional compensation from United Airlines?

All I know is if I experienced this issue, I would expect the airline with whom I redeemed my frequent flier loyalty program miles to offer me a resolution for my inconvenience — such as reduce the amount of frequent flier loyalty program miles needed for a similar itinerary; or allow me to change the itinerary with no penalty imposed — and as quickly and expediently as possible. To me, it would not matter who was to blame — in this case, I would expect this issue to be resolved to my satisfaction by United Airlines.

FlyerTalk member nihaoa — also affected by this mystery — received the following communication which is supposedly from the office of the chief executive officer of United Airlines:

“Thank you for contacting United Airlines.

“I have reviewed the records for your parents-in-law and have confirmed the information regarding the cancellation. I can confirm, our system indicates someone logged in as a guest, canceled XXXXXX at 10:42pm and then canceled XXXXXX at 10:50pm. I regret the records were canceled, however, we are unable to solicit Air China to give us additional mileage seats.

“I have reviewed Air China’s mileage availability for several weeks to the mainland, and at this time, there is no availability in First class or coach. The only option is to retain the routing currently indicated in each record.

“Again, I regret the situation. We try to provide this value through a mix of safety, on-time performance, courteous and professional service, and a wide range of destination options. We want to make travel with us a convenient and trouble-free experience for our passengers.

“Our goal is to provide exceptional service every time your parents travel with United. Your support is important to United, our regional carriers, and all Star Alliance member carriers. We appreciate your business and look forward to welcoming your parents on board for the flight to California.”

United Airlines, you have a long, lo-o-o-o-ong way towards meeting your goal of providing exceptional service every time, if what FlyerTalk members are reporting is accurate.

Some FlyerTalk members have reached what they consider acceptable resolutions with United Airlines. “I received a phone call from a UA rep about my itinerary”, posted FlyerTalk member atiger29. “I was pretty surprised by the call. She booked me on a UA flight. I probably could have changed it to another flight but it makes the most sense time wise. Anyhow, UAInsider PM’ed me and told me that they forwarded my info to the appropriate person at UA. So it was resolved relatively quickly and easily for it happening that morning. Same day. Quite impressed.”

FlyerTalk member critten reported that “Ua booked me on standard ua metal flights at saver prices. I didn’t have a chance to ask for asiana or Ana since those from iah to pek would involve more than one stop that ua offered (should I really have asked for a worse flight heh).”

Here is how the issue was resolved for FlyerTalk member litesleeper: “Thanks to you guys on FT, I was contacted by UA, and have since been offered a replacement trip on UA metal. I had been looking forward to checking our Air China’s ‘forbidden Pavillion’, but I guess I know now why it’s called Forbidden Pavillion. You can’t go there, it gets cancelled on you!  Anyway, they are also refunding the $200 I spent to redeposit the miles to my MP account. I will be using pre-deval point levels on this as well, as I had on the original booking. Fortunately, I didn’t have any other exposure to loss of deposits such as ground transportation or hotel bookings, etc. My trip is in mid-June. Although it’s been a rough couple weeks, at least it looks like the ending is a lot better than it could have been. Thanks again, everyone!”

Well, that is fine, I suppose — but have the sources of this mystery been resolved? If not, why? What were the causes of having award reservations on Air China mysteriously canceled in the first place? Why should FlyerTalk members have had to go through unnecessary angst and worry instead of receiving acceptable and appropriate customer service which they deserve from United Airlines? Should representatives of United Airlines been more proactive pertaining to this mystery? Is what has been reported here in this article just the “tip of the iceberg” pertaining to a possibly large scandal? Have members of the frequent flier loyalty programs of other foreign airlines experienced similar issues with Air China or other airlines based in China? Should you avoid redeeming frequent flier loyalty program miles on award travel as a passenger seated in the premium class cabin of an airplane operated by a carrier based in China for the time being?

Thanking fellow members of FlyerTalk, FlyerTalk member travelinmanS decided to implement a pre-emptive measure and “avoided booking CA for my HNL-PEK trip in C later this year, despite the better timing and availability showing on UA’s website. Now I’ll have to take UA and NH and change in NRT but the peace of mind of not having to check whether my reservation has been cancelled every day is worth the small inconvenience.”

There are many questions which remain to be answered — and FlyerTalk members are still experiencing problems: “UA seems having some system glitch now”, reported FlyerTalk member lz80521 only moments ago. “When I entered my confirmation number and last name into ‘manage booking’ without log in, it showed my reservation (UA F award on CA flight) was cancelled. However, when I logged into my account, my reservation was fine and everything seemed right. Called UA and they said it’s system glitch.”

You might want to get the word out about this story. Consider reporting this to Star Alliance, informing the media, and alerting the Department of Transportation of the United States.

In the meantime, what are your thoughts?

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Comments (Showing 11 of 11)

  • weero at 9:45pm April 26, 2014

    Interesting story and decent anecdotal evidence for things are awry on today’s UA.

    The central tenet here – to extend the phenomenon of the popular ticket scalping (a practice perfectly legitimate in most capitalist countries) to the realm of cybercrime and mixing xenophobic myth into the fear of loosing one’s coveted award – is however entirely unacceptable iMHO. To make such an accusation of another culture without any evidence whatsoever (other than that train ticket scalping does happen in China but means something entirely different) drags down the otherwise good collection of data.

    I currently hold 3 CA premium awards booked on MP miles and had about 7 over the last 2.5 years. Not one was ever manipulated or touched. The reservation code for CA is different than for MP – I not able to retrieve my reservation when calling CA and using the UA record locator. I find it hard to believe that the users with access to the CA IT should be at fault for these events.

    • Brian Cohen at 9:56pm April 26, 2014

      I have to agree with you, weero. To state outright accusations without definitive proof is unfair speculation at best. The “evidence” which has been offered could be possible — but it has been no more than circumstantial at this point.
      What is needed are factual answers — and they are currently not being provided to the customers who need them. I would suppose that that is more frustrating than anything else.
      I welcome communication with United Airlines and Air China on this particular issue and will offer to post their side of this story if they are willing, as I prefer to be as fair as possible — but I have had no luck thus far.
      By the way, I am glad that you have not been affected at all by this issue.

  • Bretteee at 10:44am April 27, 2014

    We booked a ticket on SWISS. When we arrived at the airport they told us that they could not find the reservation and wanted to know the SWISS locator number which was different than UNITED’S.

    Thankfully UNITED ticket office at Geneva Airport was still open. It took us at least 1 hour of going back and forth to solve the problem.

    UNITED had screwed up with the reservation.

    • Brian Cohen at 10:48am April 27, 2014

      Although your problem was resolved, Bretteee, you should not have had to go through that trouble in the first place.
      When did this happen to you?

  • Slickw at 1:18pm April 27, 2014

    “… travelinmanS decided to implement a pre-emptive measure and “avoided booking CA for my HNL-PEK trip in C later this year, despite the better timing and availability showing on UA’s website. Now I’ll have to take UA and NH and change in NRT but the peace of mind of not having to check whether my reservation has been cancelled every day is worth the small inconvenience.”

    And what if these mysterious cancellations start showing up with ANA or UA award tickets? The solution is for United to fix the damn security of their site.

  • tireman77 at 9:39am April 28, 2014

    Wouldn’t surprise me if this originated within CA, but (as all other theories mentioned) its all speculation. I also believe that until a problem goes up the chain of command, there is little a ‘lower level’ CSR can do. From what i’ve read/heard, it sounds like UA reacted ‘normally’ with the initial reports. I am certain there are thousands of people ‘accidentally’ cancelling reservations, but no one admits it when they call in. Noooooo I didn’t do that!!! One person calls in saying they didn’t cancel their reservation, logic would say that they probably made a mistake, not a conspiracy of cyber pirates.
    Generally speaking once is a mistake, twice is a coincidence and three times is a problem. As more and more people were calling in with this specific problem, it could then be logically believed that its not just user error, but there is something else going on. This is probably why the later people had less issues with correcting the situation and some even got calls from UA to solve the issue. It went up to employees with more latitude.
    I would also assume that even UA would have difficulty dealing with CA.

  • robsaw at 12:29pm April 28, 2014

    Generic ticket scalping and “award ticket scalping” are not the same. One is legal in many places, the other is generally not. Plus, acknowledging the level of cyber-crime that originates in China is not simplistic xenophobia, it is just another validation of China as one of the leading countries in the corruption index.

  • sethb at 7:00am April 29, 2014

    For those who think people might be accidentally canceling their own awards: on which web site was the cancellation done? If (as it appears) it was a website that’s in Chinese, which the ticket buyer doesn’t read (and obviously never went to), then it seems to me Untied should be responsible for all damages.

  • 777 global mile hound at 8:18am April 29, 2014

    Just another one of 100 reasons to not fly United or use their program
    Hope United isn’t thinking its just some of their overly entitled elites
    making a fuss
    Maybe they can actually step in help a customer. Those are the little people out there that actually spend money. If they satisfied a few they might have only lost 400 million this last quarter. I do hope all those affected will get proper attention and resolutions from United

  • RunSilent RunDeep at 9:18am April 29, 2014

    I don’t have any clue what the United Mileage Plus program is doing ? No only are China Airlines Premium Class award tickets being cancelled, but you can’t find a Singapore Airlines flight available in any class online looking for an award. When I have called them to book an award, I have to stay on hold for 45 minutes because the taxes on the SQ tickets are no longer stored in the UAL computer. In addition United has increased the miles needed for awards. A few months ago I could fly one way in First Class from Miami to Bangkok for 70,000 miles one way, now it is 80,000 miles for a Business Class Ticket and 130,000 miles for a First Class ticket and these are the saver awards. I chose to open a Singapore Kris flyer account for my star alliance travel, and I am now flying American Airlines domestically in the USA and just got my Executive Platinum status with them with unlimited free domestic upgrades & 8 systemwide upgrades. UAL used to use the slogan ” The main line airways” What are you mainlining ? Your loosing your customer base domestic and international !

  • […] few weeks before my departure, Flyertalk had a swarm of posts about Air China award tickets being mysteriously cancelled. Fortunately, this did not […]

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