Your Aeroplan miles allow you to redeem for travel on Air Canada and any of Star Alliance's 27 other member airlines. Unfortunately, recently Aeroplan has been blocking award space on some airlines, including Avianca, Copa, Swiss, and Air China. (Swiss came back online a few weeks ago.)
In the past few years, Air China has had a few "issues" with its Star Alliance partners – and not just minor issues either. Basically, when tickets were issued (for both revenue or award bookings) on other airlines' ticket stock and included travel on Air China, the Chinese national airline would occasionally fail to receive this information and refuse to honour the booking.
Some have labelled this as Air China intentionally and unilaterally cancelling tickets, though I don't believe that to be the case – rather, I suspect it was a genuine communication issue between Air China's and other airlines' systems.
There are stories on FlyerTalk of people's award tickets, booked with both Aeroplan and United MileagePlus, getting botched as a result of these issues, with several passengers having been stranded at Beijing Airport.
As a result, Aeroplan removed all Air China award space from its search engine, and blocked all of its members from redeeming miles for travel on the Chinese flag carrier.
At the time, Aeroplan had communicated that Air China would continue to be blocked until a solution to the issue was reached. Well, as of 12pm Tuesday, Air China availability seems to be back online.
The Good News
The best part about being able to redeem for travel on Air China again is the vast amount of surcharge-free options that are now unlocked. Air China has a massive route network and flies to all six inhabited continents, with two Canadian gateways of Vancouver and Montreal offering non-stop flights.
They also offer convenient non-stop flights from Beijing to many cities in the US and Europe, plus major cities around the world like Johannesburg, Sydney, and São Paulo (with a stop in Madrid). Needless to say, this news opens many opportunities for any Aeroplan Mini-RTW trips you might be planning.
However, when Air China was blocked by Aeroplan, travelling to China became such a huge headache. Even for a simple, logical flight like Hong Kong to Beijing (which could very reasonably be a part of a Mini-RTW trip), you'd have to take a circuitous routing, such as going via Seoul with Asiana or via Taipei with EVA Air. I got so annoyed when planning my recent round-the-world trip that I just went ahead and paid for a cash ticket on Air China.
Now imagine if you wanted to visit some amazing destinations in China that are further afield. Now that Air China is back online, you have many more options.
Lastly, Air China has quite a few fifth freedom flights (flights between two foreign countries) that look pretty intriguing to me. The São Paulo–Madrid route would be an interesting way to cross the Atlantic, while the once-weekly Montreal–Havana service no doubt appeals to vacationing Canadians.
Meanwhile, the two intra-Europe flights (Barcelona–Vienna and Munich–Athens) are a great way to try out a new lie-flat business class product for a couple of hours on a tour of Europe, rather than sitting in intra-Europe "business class" which is really no more than a glorified economy seat. Keep in mind there's no fuel surcharges on Air China if booked with Aeroplan!
More on the "Issues"
I gave Aeroplan a call to ask whether the overarching "issues" with Air China have been resolved. Also, around last October, Air China availability had actually returned to Aeroplan for a few days only to disappear again, so I asked whether this might reoccur this time around.
I received some clarification on the nature of these issues. The Aeroplan supervisor referred to it as a "D-sync problem" between Air Canada and Air China's systems – in plain speak, there were communication issues between the systems that were first noticed about two years ago, which meant that a very small minority of bookings involving Air China were never received on their end.
Naturally, Air China wasn't able to honour these reservations as they had no record of the booking in their systems. This resulted in a few high-profile incidents involving stranded passengers, so Aeroplan pulled the plug on Air China availability across the board.
The supervisor said that they've tested the system "three times in the past two weeks" and feel comfortable that everything is working smoothly. He acknowledged that Air China availability had come back online sporadically over the past two years, but that this time they were confident that the issue is resolved and that Air China availability is here to stay.
Nevertheless, if you do book an award flight with Air China, I'd definitely recommend monitoring your booking closely in the lead-up to your travel date to make sure nothing has gone awry.
Air China is one of the key players in Star Alliance, and the ability to book award flights with them via Aeroplan unlocks many travel possibilities across Asia and the rest of the world for Canadian travellers. While past incidents have left a sour taste – especially for affected passengers who got stranded in Beijing and had to make their way home on their own dime – we can only hope that the situation has been resolved for good.
This is another step in the right direction for Aeroplan, after Swiss availability returned to the system last week. Here's hoping that Copa and Avianca are next to rejoin the group, and that we'll soon be able to redeem miles for travel with all Star Alliance partners.