Beware of phantom award availability on United

United’s merger with Continental led to about a year-long upheaval in its back-end IT systems, causing numerous problems for passengers in the first few months after implementation.  But for frequent flyers there was at least one upside: Continental’s excellent partner award search tool.  The award search feature on the new provides one of the most comprehensive Star Alliance award searches in existence.

Lately, however, there have been some hiccups.

When booking for clients recently, I encountered several instances of phantom award availability.  That is to say, returned partner results (Lufthansa in this case) that would hold up all the way until the booking process completed, and then give an error after the last step.  Calls to the 1K desk were met with the usual hostile response: “There’s no availability for those flights.”

While technical errors do happen, I saw this particular problem persist over about a week long period.  There’s no valid excuse for this, as it borders on false advertising to show flights as available for award tickets, when in reality they are not.  United has never given great priority to its information technology, but in this case the cost cutting is creating angry frequent flyers.  Figure it out, United.  And beware, savvy travelers.

The great tease: Is that award actually available?

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