Travel Troubleshooter: Hurricane leaves pair of award-points flyers in limbo

  • October 12, 2013 - 2:00 PM

Q: My parents, who are visiting me from Hong Kong, are scheduled to travel on Cathay Pacific later this week from New York to Hong Kong. But their flights were canceled because of a hurricane. Here’s the problem: Both of their tickets were redeemed using my British Airways points. And those tickets follow a different set of rules.

A Cathay Pacific representative told me that since this was an award ticket issued by British Airways, there was nothing Cathay Pacific could do and that I should work with British Airways, which issued the tickets.

I then proceeded to contact British Airways by phone, where the representative told me that all they could do was search through the Cathay Pacific “award inventory”; they did not see anything for another month. I asked if they could try to rebook my parents on British Airways or another airline, but they were turned down.

Using rational common sense, I feel one of these airlines should offer assistance to my parents, and not just leave us out in the cold.

A: You’re right; one of the airlines should have promptly rebooked your parents on the next available flight — not the next flight with available seat inventory.

It helps to know a little about how award tickets work. A computer algorithm determines how many seats per flight become award seats. But what the system is actually calculating is the number of seats that would go unsold.

When your parents’ flight was canceled, the system gave you two choices: either refund the miles for the unused tickets or book your parents on the next flight with leftover seats.

This seems perfectly rational to the airline: After all, it’s giving you something for nothing. But you worked hard and spent lots of money to accrue those miles, and to ask you to wait a month is unacceptable.

I notice that you spent a fair amount of time on the phone with British Airways and Cathay Pacific after the storm (this incident happened several months ago, but I am just now writing about it). You also want to put your grievance in writing. At some point down the line, British Airways will realize that it ticked off one of its best customers, and a written record tends to help everyone reach that point sooner.

I contacted British Airways, and it worked with Cathay Pacific to find your parents two seats on an acceptable flight.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Read more tips on his blog, or e-mail him at

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