United search tool doesn’t include “all airports” (even when it says it does)

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In our week in review around the web this past weekend, I highlighted a post from Running with Miles about a couple of quirks with the United.com award search tool. Over the weekend, I ran up against another problem I can’t believe I hadn’t noticed before. The key takeaway from this post is this: don’t use an airport code meant to search all of a city’s airports (like NYC for New York or TYO for Tokyo, etc). Search the individual airport codes separately. Here’s why.

Searching for business class flights to Europe

I live in Upstate New York. Little-known trivia fact about New York State: it’s not one big skyscraper after all. I live in the mountains about 3 hours from New York City. When flying internationally, I almost always fly out of one of the New York City airports. Since it’s a long ride for me any way you slice it, I don’t really care which NYC airport — Newark, JFK, or La Guardia are all more or less the same for me.

Because of that, I usually search flights from airport code NYC, which brings up all of the major New York airports on most airline websites. In fact, through American Airlines, it even brings up White Plains (HPN). You can do the same with other major cities like London (LON), Washington, DC (WAS), Chicago (CHI), and Tokyo (TYO). It’s a shortcut that normally auto-populates when you begin to search a city name that has multiple airports.

So I’ve recently been searching for business class flights to Europe. In searching from NYC to Zurich, Switzerland, availability has looked relatively poor for 2 passengers in business class:

Of course, Charlie at Running with Miles accurately pointed out that the availability calendar often isn’t accurate — that is to say that sometimes, you click on a day that is labeled with economy-class only (a solid blue bar) and it may actually have business class availability (which should be signified by blue dots). However, this post isn’t about that issue.

Let’s take a date up there with no business class availability as an example — May 28th. When I searched for NYC to Zurich for 2 passengers in May, I got the calendar above. Clicking on the 28th, it checks out — no business class saver awards.

I’d actually been checking that route for a similar date quite a bit lately, getting similarly drab results. I had actually gotten to the point where I thought my best option was going to be to take an 8-hour train to Montreal to catch a flight from there. I booked a hotel since the 8-hour ride meant we’d have to overnight in Montreal before the flight.

Then, over the weekend, I pulled up Juicy Miles so I could see if SkyTeam or Oneworld were offering a better option. This post is not an advertisement for Juicy Miles. I’m personally still not sold on Juicy Miles for a number of reasons, but in this case, but I’ll give credit where credit is due: Juicy Miles blew this open for me. I suddenly saw a bunch of Star Alliance availability out of NYC — many options on Lufthansa and Swiss that I would have otherwise expected to see but had not at United.com when I was searching from NYC. (Link to our post on Juicy Miles if you want to read more about it).

Notice a pattern on those flights? They’re all out of JFK. United’s New York City hub is Newark.

Wouldn’t ya know it, I went back to that United.com search tool and noticed that even after I entered NYC and clicked on “NYC – All Airports” on United.com, they went and pulled a switcheroo and defaulted the search tool to only show availability out of Newark.

I went back to United.com and searched from JFK to Zurich. That painted an ever-so-slightly different picture.

And no, that’s neither phantom space nor all mixed-cabin. Remember how there was no availability from NYC-All Airports to Zurich on May 28th? Yeah, turns out that’s not true at all.

Excuse my poorly-pieced together screen shots, but there was plenty of all-business 1-stop availability from New York….just not from Newark.

So that’s more than kind of annoying. I’ve likely missed a bunch of award availability to and from New York lately. Not just lately…I’ve been searching to/from NYC for years. At some point in the past, this did return JFK availability. I’m not sure how long this has been an issue, but it is most certainly an issue now.

But if it’s an issue out of New York, what about other cities with more than one airport? What happens with Washington, DC? Or London? Or Tokyo?

Sadly, more of the same. United’s search tool can’t be trusted for cities with multiple airports.

For example, London (LON) should give me all London airports. United’s site isn’t ambiguous about that.

If we search LON to NYC, there is decent availability – except for that last week of May. Note again that NYC defaulted to Newark. That’s only half the story here.

Again, if you click on May 28th, it will confirm that there is indeed no business class availability.

Except, of course, there is. You just have to search LCY to actually get the London City airport results to populate.

To be clear, the available itineraries that day aren’t wonderful options. Two stops and 15+ hours is far from ideal, but the point is that London City Airport doesn’t show up under LON for all London Airports (for those keeping score from home, both Heathrow and Gatwick do show up under LON – I didn’t go hunting for Luton or Stanstead).

And of course, all of the London-to-New York results above thus far only show flights to Newark. If I instead search London to JFK, I’ll find that even that last week of May is available.

And again May 28th has plenty of 1-stop business class availability on Swiss or Lufthansa. Many days have 4 available seats.

Lest you think this is a New York issue or a Europe issue, I assure you it isn’t that limited. Here’s a look at WAS (Washington, DC – All Airports) to TYO (Tokyo, Japan – All Airports) in April and May 2019.

There’s some availability above, but not on April 23rd. However, there is availability on the 23rd, just not if you search to TYO. While that should populate all Tokyo airports, it is only returning Tokyo’s Narita airport. If you search WAS to HND for Tokyo Haneda airport (which is actually closer to the Tokyo city center than Narita airport), you’ll see that there is in fact availability on April 23rd and 24th.

Of course, you’re still only looking at part of the picture since you’re searching from WAS — which, despite saying “Washington DC – All Airports”, defaults to just Washington Dulles. You’d therefore miss the chance to connect to a first class flight to Asia if you originate at BWI. What’s the W stand for again?

You’re also missing the results for Washington Reagan (DCA) when you search WAS – All Airports (which really means “WAS – all the airports named Dulles”). The list goes on.

Bottom line

As anyone who doesn’t live in a major city knows, the best way to find an award ticket is to search the long-haul flights first. If you don’t live in a major city with a strong preference for one airport over another, that means you may be searching from several city combinations, willing to position to New York or Washington or Chicago or Houston for your flight. By the same token, your exact arrival airport may not matter — perhaps you are equally willing to arrive at Paris – Charles De Gaulle or Paris – Orly as long as you get to munch a macaron on the Champ de Mars, who cares? When typing in one of those city names on United.com, you might have thought you could save yourself a few extra minutes of searching by selecting the “all airports” option for one city or another. But instead of saving yourself time, you’re missing out on potentially available awards. And for someone who isn’t from New York and/or doesn’t care about United’s flights, it might have seemed reasonable to assume that searching to/from NYC would return an airport that, ya know, is actually in New York.

Newark happens to be the most convenient New York City-area airport for me, but I’ll take a 3 hour drive to JFK over that 8-hour train to Montreal. Thanks for nothing, United.

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