By Christopher Elliott Travel columnist
Tribune Media Services
updated 7/8/2008 11:15:02 AM ET 2008-07-08T15:15:02
travel troubleshooter

Q: I need your help fixing an award ticket problem. My husband and I recently booked a flight to Europe through Alaska Airlines using our frequent flier miles. We’re going to Zurich via London on British Airways, which is one of Alaska’s partner airlines.

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Three weeks before we were supposed to leave, I went to British Airways’ Web site to check our reservations, but I could not find any information regarding our booking. I also checked the Alaska Airlines site and there was no record of any reservation there, either.

I called British Airways, and was told to talk with Alaska Airlines, since we booked through its loyalty program. Alaska Airlines told me British Airways had messed up and canceled our flights. Our reservations were supposed to be in business class. But now there’s no more availability in business class, and I’m being told we won’t hear anything for about a week, since our request must go directly to London.

At this point, we have no tickets. Frustrated, I called British Airways again and after talking with several agents. I was told British Airways had notified Alaska Airlines that there was a problem with our booking.

Alaska Airlines was supposed to check into it. Finally, an agent for Alaska admitted to me that our reservation simply “fell through the cracks.”

The way I see it, I had a contract for confirmed tickets to Europe. Alaska breached that contract and owes us a flight to Europe in business class, as originally promised. Any ideas? — Susan Null, Kingston, Wash.

A: I see it the same way. You booked award tickets through Alaska Airlines using your Alaska Airlines award miles. The proverbial buck stops with Alaska.

So why did you go after British Airways instead?

I would have applied more pressure to Alaska, and here’s why. As a loyal frequent flier, Alaska has a vested interest in keeping you happy. The airline is in a position to use its clout to push your business-class tickets through without having to “go directly to London.”

At the same time — and here’s where I think you got it right — you should have let British Airways know of your unhappiness. That includes sharing your disappointment with executives who are in a position to help. I list contact information for British Airways’ customer service managers on my Web site.

Frequent flier programs are the culinary equivalent of an ice cream sundae. They’re a dessert with lots of empty calories. Miles are seductive, but of questionable benefit — except, perhaps, to the airline getting your business as a result of your unquestioning loyalty. In the end, trying to collect and redeem awards can be a frustrating experience — not unlike trying to lose weight while on a diet of sundaes.

I contacted Alaska Airlines on your behalf, and it assured me that its records indicate the situation “had been resolved.” A company representative promised she would get in touch with you to be sure. A happy ending, right?


Strangely, when you contacted British Airways to check in before your flight, you found that your reservation wasn’t in the system, despite assurances from Alaska Airlines. You had to cancel your trip to Europe.

This might be a good time to consider switching to another airline’s frequent flier program.

Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine and the host of “What You Get For The Money: Vacations” on the Fine Living Network. E-mail him at


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