Award search websites blocked by airlines
- making it easier to view available inventory over several days
- multiplying the possibilities of departure and arrival points
- alerting the user when award seats are added to the inventory
After years of letting things slide, Air Canada and other Star Alliance airlines (such as United) have decided to restrict access to their award inventory.
Either this was done “diplomatically” (as with Cowtool, whose inventor never sought to make money with it and decided to shut it down), or via “cease and desist” letters from lawyers (as with Seats.aero, who chose to keep it open…for now).
In any case, most of these sites no longer provide visibility of award flights available from Star Alliance airlines, which significantly reduces their appeal, especially for Aeroplan points users.
How these websites worked
This is nothing new: most airlines still use tools created in the last century. Few have put the necessary effort into upgrading their tools and servers.
The whole airline award inventory system has become complex with global alliances such as Star Alliance, Skyteam and Oneworld, and interconnections between partner airlines(Air Canada or Air France with Etihad, for example).
Knowing that award search tools vary significantly in quality, it is not uncommon for a Star Alliance Miles user to search for awards onAir Canada (Aeroplan) orUnited (MileagePlus) rather than Lufthansa (Miles & More), for example.
Above all, most third-party award search tools (such as Expertflyer, Seats.aero or Cowtool) have built their webscrapping infrastructure around Air Canada (Aeroplan) or United (MileagePlus) websites. With no genuine official partnership with these airlines.
President of Aeroplan, Mark Nasr, has indicated that he has called time on these tools (during a Facebook Live with Points Miles and Bling).
For much of August 2023, many airline award availabilities were missing from Aeroplan. Besides Air Canada and United awards, most airlines (including all Lufthansa Group awards) were unavailable for online booking.
All award flights from specific countries (such as India and China) were also unavailable.
All this has now been largely restored.
Mark Nasr cited four reasons for the lack of availability:
- Aeroplan partner airlines joining other alliances but have not officially gotten rid of their partnership (such as Oman Air)
- Aeroplan partner airlines with more limited technical systems
- Fraudsters and resellers of award flights using illegally acquired points
- Third-party award search tools that have an impact on the system
Some of these reasons may be interlinked.
For example, third-party tools can facilitate the search for award flights for brokers who have obtained their points through program members reselling them (or through data theft) and using Aeroplan Family Sharing to book flights easily (since then, the creation of new family sharing accounts has been temporarily suspended.).
And Air Canada has indicated that it cannot upgrade its tools, as the airline also relies on the more rustic tools of its partners.
The aftermath of the blockade
Some of these tools have already announced that they will no longer offer Star Alliance awards search. This is the case, for example, with ExpertFlyer, which has announced it by e-mail to its users.
Due to issues in obtaining award and upgrade data for the below airlines, we have removed them from our list of supported airlines in the Award & Upgrade search for the time being. This also means that any active Flight Alerts for those airlines are not currently working.
The airlines affected are mainly Star Alliance airlines:
- Adria Airways
- Air Canada
- Air China International
- Air India
- Air New Zealand
- ANA- All Nippon Airways
- Asiana Airlines
- Austrian Airlines
- Avianca Costa Rica
- Brussels Airlines
- Croatia Airlines
- Ethiopian Airlines
- EVA Air
- LOT- Polish Airlines
- Shenzhen Airlines
- Singapore Airlines
- South African Airways
- TAP- Air Portugal
- Thai Airways International
- United Airlines
- Virgin Australia
For his part, Ian Carroll, the founder of Seats.aero, has indicated that he will keep his tool active, even if it means taking Air Canada to court.
It appears that Air Canada is trying to intimidate us into shutting down Seats.aero’s support for Air Canada, and potentially other travel sites as well. We do not intend to comply with their request and will continue to maintain Seats.aero’s support for Aeroplan for the foreseeable future.
What are loyalty program members looking for?
As a general rule, loyalty program members seek a simple, flexible program that meets their needs. This is one of the reasons why cash-back programs are so popular. The member understands how it works, and it’s easy to use.
It is therefore essential to provide the right tools to help members make the most of their loyalty program.
Airline search tools are too complex to understand AND use
If the search engines for the various airline loyalty programs were better constructed and easier to use, award search websites such as those mentioned above would probably not exist.
To compensate for the lack of tools in the program itself, companies are developing tools (or search robots) to help members simplify the use of their points.
Loyalty program members are legitimately looking to:
- Optimize their hard-earned points
- Limit the time spent searching for different availabilities
- Discover the full flexibility of the loyalty program
- In the digital age, using a self-service tool without clogging up call centers, for example, just to research options.
Today, this difficulty of access via official websites contributes to a perception of complexity, cumbersomeness and lack of flexibility, leading to a certain disengagement on the part of members.
In the short term, these restrictions deprive members of loyalty programs such as Aeroplan of valuable tools for optimizing their points and miles.
Most Milesopedia readers report difficulties in their search for award flights and a desire for more comprehensive, rapid and flexible tools.
And knowledge of tools, like those mentioned above, enabled program members to use their points more effectively to meet their needs.
Directly or indirectly, the airlines are using these restrictions mainly to limit the activities of black-market resellers of airline points and award flights. These brokers seem to be the actual source of the problem. More so than award flight search tools or the archaic systems of some airlines. Unfortunately, these restrictions also deprive members who, in good faith, seek to optimize their loyalty program.
While we are in favour of limiting reseller and black market activities that jeopardize the value of points and the great flexibility offered by airline loyalty programs, here are a few recommendations we offer:
- Recognize the strength of these tools developed by fintechs and possibly partner with them or even integrate them into the master research tools of aerial programs. Star Alliance Airlines could join forces and offer inventory managed by the alliance as such, rather than by each individual airline. This would enable each airline to connect to a single database and offer high-performance tools. Using a common tool, the programs could reduce their respective development costs while offering a powerful, flexible and easy-to-use tool.
- Restrict the booking of award flights to Aeroplan account holders and their immediate family and friends (also Aeroplan members). For example, by using Aeroplan Family Sharing to book award flights ONLY for members of the family sharing account;
- Develop an alternative for Aeroplan members wishing to book an award flight for someone outside the family sharing account.
In the meantime, the coming months will be complicated for those who used to use these different sites to search for award flights.
But this won’t change much for the average user who used to search directly on the Air Canada website. On the contrary, the latter should see improvements on the Air Canada site or via the mobile application, which has become particularly slow lately due to the overload caused by these search robots.