Not so fast, Australia…American cancelled my hold (and it might have been my fault)

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Last week, I wrote about finding seats in Cathay Pacific business class from New York to Hong Kong on the British Airways site, only to have a US-based American Airlines agent tell me that there were no available seats on the flight (See: No availability? Australia to the rescue). After several attempts with that US-based agent telling me there were 0 seats, I called the Australian call center for American Airlines AAdvantage, where the agent who answered immediately saw the space I was seeing and put my itinerary on hold. I asked her if that guaranteed that the reservation would be held for me as long as I called back within 24 hours to ticket it and she said yes. She was wrong. American doesn’t guarantee award holds. I found that out the hard way.

Holding an award

If you see Cathay Pacific first class availability, you probably want to put it on hold rather than hope it’s still there after you get your ducks in a row.

American Airlines allows award tickets to be placed on hold. The length of the hold depends on how far in advance you are requesting it. Generally speaking:

  • If you’re booking 15 days or more in advance, you can put a ticket on hold for 5 days
  • If you’re booking 14 days or fewer in advance, you can put a ticket on hold for 24 hours
  • If you’re booking 24 hours or less in advance, you can put a ticket on hold for up to 2 hours

In the past, I’ve put award tickets on hold when I’ve seen award space available so that I could confirm other necessary details (hotel availability, time off, availability on another flight leg, etc). It’s a really useful tool to have.

You can not book or hold Cathay Pacific flights through AA.com, so you’ll have to call in to get this done. When I saw two award seats in Cathay Pacific business class on the date I needed, I knew they likely wouldn’t last long. I asked the Australian AA agent to put a hold on two award tickets.

I could have booked first and changed later

American Airlines has a pretty generous change policy on award tickets. As long as you don’t change the origin or destination, American will let you change the dates, routing, or carrier free of charge. Therefore, the risk of booking was relatively low as long as I knew I would be traveling from Point A to Point B at some point in time since I could always adjust the dates as need be.

I was 90% certain of my dates and times; in hindsight, I should have just booked it. But on the other hand, I figured that if I put the award on hold rather than ticketing it, I wouldn’t have to worry about changing/cancelling in the 10% chance that plans changed. I expected to be 100% sure within the next 24 hours — so why risk having to cancel or plan another trip to Point B at some point in the future if this trip didn’t work out? I thought I had nothing to lose by putting the award ticket on hold. In hindsight, I had nothing to lose by ticketing it as I could have cancelled within 24 hours if plans changed.

However, I thought a hold was guaranteed. I wanted to be sure I understood correctly, so I asked the agent to be sure: “If I put this on hold, as long as I call to ticket it within 24 hours it’s guaranteed that it will be held, right?”. “Yes, sir” was the response I was given.

Award holds aren’t guaranteed

I had called the American Airlines Australian call center at about 12:40am on Thursday to put my itinerary on hold. After I got off the phone at about 1am on Thursday, I pulled up my reservation on AA.com. It said that the status was “on hold” and that I would need to call in to pay for it. In red letters, it said that it would be held until 11:59pm Eastern time on Thursday. I thought that was a little odd rather than giving me until ~12:40am on Friday — in other words, I was only getting about 23 hours to ticket (I was booking fewer than 14 days in advance, hence the 24-hour hold limit). No biggie there, but it struck me as odd.

Around 10pm on Thursday, two hours ahead of my 23-hour deadline, I called AAdvantage to ticket my award since plans had firmed up. The agent told me that the itinerary was cancelled – something I later confirmed on AA.com.

I asked how that would happen since I was supposed to have until 11:59pm to ticket it. The agent told me she wasn’t sure how it happened — she could see that my ticketing deadline was 11:59pm Eastern on Thursday, but the computer system said the ticket had been cancelled at 10:40am — about 10 hours after I booked it. She said it must have been a glitch on American’s end.

Of course, the seats were no longer available. The agent looked for other itineraries, but the only other options wouldn’t work for various reasons (leaving too early, arriving too late, etc). There was one available itinerary that would have put me there within 30 minutes of my original arrival, but it involved Japan Airlines first class from New York to Japan, connecting to a business class flight. My Cathay Pacific itinerary was in business class (and indeed I didn’t want to spend 110K AA miles on this flight). Since the agent had told me that this was a glitch on American’s end and I had already made plans around my arrival based on the award ticket I had on hold (true), I asked if American could re-acommodate me on the Japan Airlines itinerary even though the long-haul was in first class. No dice there.

On to the supervisor

They offered me some itineraries on AA, and I’d have taken this if the times lined up.

The agent helping me ended up getting a supervisor on the line. The supervisor explained to me that partner award holds are not guaranteed and that in this case, Cathay Pacific had pulled the seats out of inventory, so there was nothing American Airlines could do. She told me that she sees this happen a lot and that she always tells people to ticket right away because a hold can be cancelled at any time.

That seemed a little crazy to me — what does “hold” mean if it can be cancelled at any time? She said it means that they are holding the ticket, but they can’t stop the partner from pulling it away. That sounded like an awfully weak grip to me. Though the supervisor didn’t think to explain it this way, I eventually came to the conclusion that an award prevents other customers from seeing that award space or ticketing/holding it. An award hold does not guarantee that you have until the deadline to ticket it — just that you can ticket it as late as the deadline if it’s still available.

That said, I’ve put award tickets on hold before and I have not had them pulled early – even when leaving them on hold for a couple of days before ticketing (when booking farther in advance). I don’t think what happened in my case is common, but rather it might have been my own fault for trying to beat the system.

Why this might have happened

I have to wonder if the Australia call center played into the problem. I had originally called the Australian call center at about 12:40am Eastern time on Thursday, which would be about 3pm on Thursday in Australia. The computer said I had until 11:59pm on Thursday to ticket.

Interestingly enough, when I called in late on Thursday night and found out my hold was cancelled, the (US-based) agent told me the hold had cancelled a bit past 10am on Thursday morning Eastern time. Coincidentally, 9:59am in New York is 11:59pm in Australia. I suspect that somehow the system ended up giving me until 11:59pm Australia time on Thursday to ticket — and when it wasn’t yet ticketed at that time, it cancelled shortly thereafter. In speaking with someone who knows the system better than I do, I learned that the hold deadline is supposed to be based on the city of origin on the itinerary, but it’s possible that the agent could have mistakenly set the hold to expire based on her local time in Australia.

That’s the best guess I’ve got. Maybe it’s just a coincidence and Cathay just pulled the seats back out of inventory like the supervisor told me. But that doesn’t seem as likely as my theory because….

The Cathay award seats returned to inventory about 24 hours after I put them on hold

At about 12:40am Eastern on Friday, I pulled up the British Airways tool and searched one more time (I had been searching on and off since I found out the itinerary was cancelled). Almost exactly 24 hours after initially putting those 2 business class seats on hold, guess what magically happened? They returned to inventory and showed up on a British Airways search.

I rolled my eyes and called American Airlines. This time, I tried the US number. An agent picked up quickly and had no trouble seeing the space and booking my 2 award tickets as I had originally intended. Score!

In the end, I got exactly what I wanted….though not without time wasted and some stress as I had spent about an hour and a half on the phone with the agent and supervisor over the cancelled hold without much to show for it than a lower cell phone battery.

Bottom line

That Australian call center trick could definitely be useful; when I called the Australian line, I had no wait time for an agent and the agent saw seats that a US-based agent insisted she couldn’t see. However, I made a mistake in putting my itinerary on hold rather than ticketing it right away. Trying to beat the system both by calling the Australian call center and putting the award tickets on hold backfired on me when my tickets cancelled around midnight in Australia rather than midnight in New York. Luckily, the seats came back into inventory and I booked them anew (this time ticketing it immediately).

More importantly, I learned a good lesson. While my experience has always been that American honors holds as you would expect, they do not guarantee your seats will be held on a partner flight. Next time, if my plans were similarly 90% firm, I would ticket the itinerary in question right away knowing that I could cancel within 24 hours or change it with a good deal of flexibility.

My takeaway is that the Australian call center can still be very useful for avoiding a long hold time or booking space that US agents can’t see, but be aware that American doesn’t guarantee an award ticket hold and that the time difference when calling a foreign call center might lead to some confusion. In the future, I’d call the Australian line to ticket an itinerary, but I might stick with the US-based phone number to put an award on hold — and I’ll keep in mind that holds aren’t guaranteed.

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