I've always liked Aeroplan. Maybe it's the very reasonable transatlantic award rates, or the fact that the French person who says "Aeroplan" when you call their customer service number pronounces it "Ahh-yey-roh-plohn." But this week they really tried to do their best to outdo another round of stealth Delta devaluations en route to becoming the most hated loyalty program out there. I'm not going to write about the ongoing saga with SWISS first class (go get 'em Matthew), which is some major, major bullshit. I was bummed that I missed out on booking the SWISS first class space when it was available, but given that I would have canceled an existing ticket had I done so, I'm now glad that I didn't get that chance.
No, this post is about the really annoying experience with them yesterday and today when booking an award flight for Justine to fly back home to New Zealand in January. Miraculously, I found business class space on United in both directions. United has actually been pretty good about opening premium space on this route, and now that it's on a 777-300, you even get to enjoy Polaris seats. The problem is that the space in both directions comes in waves that are usually a few weeks apart, so it's really hard to book round-trip unless you plan to stay for 3-4 weeks. My normal plan is to book one way in business and for Justine to suffer miserably in economy on the other leg because she prefers flying direct above all else (I know, it's ridiculous, but opposites attract, I guess).
So it was unusual to find space in both directions a week apart, and I wanted to lock down the ticket ASAP. I've never had an issue with Aeroplan showing phantom space before, so imagine my surprise when I went to book the itinerary and got this shit instead:
I got the same error across multiple days, despite the award showing as bookable on both Aeroplan and United's sites. And I had already transferred over Amex points, so I was especially pissed. After a bunch of messing around, I realized that it had to do with the ultimate destination - the bustling metropolis of New Plymouth, NZ (NPL). I went ahead and booked SFO-AKL so as to not lose out on the United space, figuring I'd call the next day to add on the other part of the itinerary. (Despite being a program that issues tickets all over the world, Aeroplan's call center is closed for 7 hours a day. Hope you never need to reach them during irrops overseas!)
So I called in today, and to their credit, I got someone on the first ring. At first she was pretty helpful, and we had some banter about how lucky I was to find round-trip business class space on this route. She happily said she could add the NPL connection, but that it would be a $200 change fee to do so. This is when I got annoyed, since it was their shitty website that wouldn't let me book it in advance. I explained this, and she said, "I'm sorry, but as soon as you book the ticket, you're responsible for any changes."
I thought my response that I would have booked all the way to NPL if the website hadn't thrown errors at me was pretty reasonable, but then she really made my blood boil when she pointedly said, "WELL THEN YOU SHOULD HAVE CALLED US WHEN YOU WERE TRYING TO BOOK."
"I DID BUT YOUR CALL CENTER IS CLOSED FOR 1/3 OF THE DAY!!!!!!!"
I didn't actually yell, since I'm pretty good at keeping my cool with customer service people. (It's not like yelling at anyone ever accomplished anything.) But in my mind, I was screaming at the top of my lungs. She cut me off at that point, telling me that she had tried booking all three daily flights between AKL and NPL in both directions and all of them had no space. Yes, in the span of 10 seconds, she was able to try all six flights, and none of them had space. Fastest. agent. ever. (Although she was probably telling the truth, as I would soon find out.)
"Then why is the space still showing up on Aeroplan?" She said it was because there's usually a lag between Air New Zealand's system and Aeroplan's, so sometimes space shows up after it has already been booked through other channels. End of call, which was frustrating, but not too bad, since paid flights between AKL and NPL are really inexpensive. Despite NPL being tiny, you even get a choice between Air New Zealand and Jetstar, and the competition keeps prices way down.
Here's the thing: despite Aeroplan being annoying to deal with between the phantom award space and the irritating experience with their call center, this does seem to be an Air New Zealand issue. However, it looks like a systemic problem that has nothing to do with "real time availability" or whatever. Searching the calendar between AKL and NPL shows multiple saver seats every day:
However, trying to book the flight through United yields the same result. (Yes, I transferred points from my Chase account in order to test this, because I care SO MUCH about providing useful information on this blog.)
It definitely isn't a day-to-day thing, with space on specific dates dropping off the calendar and not updating right away on other Star Alliance booking engines. You can't book the flight on any day - I tried various dates out into mid-February, and every one led to the same error. Something fishy is going on with Air NZ, and I don't know how widespread it is. I thought maybe it had something to do with the regional subsidiary that Air NZ contracts with on that route, but I also tried AKL-Christchurch (which is an actual Air New Zealand mainline flight), and I got the same error.
While I don't mind transferring in 1000 points to top up my United account enough to try to make 8000-mile dummy bookings, I don't really want to transfer over 40,000 points to experiment with booking transpacific flights (not that Air NZ releases much award space anyway). But something is going on at least with domestic NZ flights, and it's causing other Star Alliance booking engines to show gobs of availability in multiple cabins, none of which is actually bookable.
Well, this started as a gripe about Aeroplan, but I guess my beef is more with Air New Zealand than anyone else. Aeroplan just needs to open their call center for 24-hours and I'd leave them alone. Oh, and honor those SWISS tickets, you dicks.