Resolving the Aeroplan Swiss First Class Debacle

On November 30, there was a brief period when Swiss First Class was bookable with Aeroplan miles, which is usually impossible, as Swiss has strictly limited First Class award space to the top-tier members of its own frequent flyer program since 2013.

Naturally, the blogs and forums were abuzz with this news, with multiple outlets (myself included) urging readers to book sooner rather than later, since it’s super rare these days to get an opportunity to affordably fly Swiss First Class.

Many individuals completed such bookings – the vast majority of which, it appears, were made through Aeroplan, although select bookings were made with United MileagePlus and Swiss’s own Miles&More program as well. These bookings were confirmed (i.e., a PNR was issued by the booking agent) and ticketed (i.e., an e-ticket number was issued by the issuing carrier), and passengers were able to select seats on the Swiss website. Then the drama started...

 Swiss First Class

Swiss First Class


Swiss Cancels the Tickets

A day later, on December 1, the first reports came trickling in on FlyerTalk that something fishy was up. Indeed, passengers who previously were able to select seats on the Swiss website were now being confronted with a message that their reservations had been cancelled.

There was initially quite a bit of confusion as to who was cancelling the tickets. Phone calls to both Aeroplan and Swiss resulted in blame being passed on to the other party.

Nevertheless, over the coming few days, most people who had booked these tickets began experiencing cancellations, and in many cases, the Swiss First segments were deleted from reservations on Aeroplan.com as well.

Aeroplan indicated that it was working with Air Canada and Swiss to “resolve the issue”, but by the middle of the following week, it started to become clear that these tickets were not going to be honoured. Indeed, on Wednesday, Aeroplan released a statement to the blogs that read as follows:

A small number of first class bookings were made using Aeroplan miles on SWISS; those bookings should not have been possible, as we know SWISS policy does not make its first class seats available to Star Alliance partners.

Those bookings were subsequently cancelled, though not by Aeroplan. However, we and our partner Air Canada are working to quickly assist our affected members in line with our regular process.

Over the next few days, our agents will be contacting each member to personally arrange first or business class redemptions on another Star Alliance carrier or to reinstate miles free of charge.

We apologize for the inconvenience that this has caused, and will work with Air Canada and SWISS to ensure that our members do not encounter similar issues in the future.
— Aeroplan

It was obvious to anyone who had been following the drama that Swiss was being the bad guy here. The First Class inventory had been mistakenly made available to Star Alliance partners. Bookings were confirmed and ticketed, by both Swiss’s partners and non-elites within their own frequent flyer program. To unilaterally cancel these tickets is extremely poor form at best, and unlawful at worst.

To make matters worse, as far as recent data points have indicated, only bookings made with Aeroplan were targeted for cancellation, since Aeroplan accounted for the majority of these bookings. Bookings made with United MileagePlus or Miles&More were untouched.

Apparently some people have heard from Swiss that this was because Aeroplan’s bookings were subject to a “technical glitch” and were not completed successfully, though I personally don’t buy that explanation. To me, this episode reeks of Swiss being Swiss, and doing whatever they want with little regard for their partners and affected passengers (I’ll comment more on this later).


Aeroplan’s Response

First let’s talk about how Aeroplan is responding to the situation with regards to its customers who made bookings. Remember that the contract for travel was not made between the passenger and Swiss; instead, the contract is between the passenger and Aeroplan, for travel on Aeroplan’s partner airline. When Swiss cancelled the tickets, they essentially washed their hands of the problem and left it to Aeroplan to clean up the mess.

(To further complicate matters, Aeroplan doesn’t have authority to issue tickets themselves, but instead does so via their airline partner and Star Alliance member, Air Canada. In this regard, Aeroplan is basically acting like a regular travel agent, except they are in the business of exchanging flights for miles rather than cash. That’s why Air Canada was involved in the conversation with Swiss as well, which ultimately led nowhere.)

Now, historically, whenever there’s been glitches related to Star Alliance partners on award bookings, Aeroplan has been very good about siding with the customer. When bookings are ticketed and confirmed but for whatever reason can’t be honoured by the partner, it’s not uncommon to hear about Aeroplan going out and purchasing revenue flights, even in business class, to make sure that the passenger can fly on their original preferred itinerary.

There was no such gesture this time around – Aeroplan is offering affected passengers either an alternative routing or a full refund of the miles and taxes associated with the booking.

It's clearly unrealistic to expect Aeroplan to rebook everyone on revenue flights in Swiss First Class, because those flights retail for between $10,000 and $20,000. Moreover, remember that this interaction with Aeroplan isn't taking place in a vacuum. We still want Aeroplan to do well, at least for the next few years before the Air Canada divorce, so that we can continue to book the good stuff like mini-round-the-world trips. We shouldn't be calling for Aeroplan to essentially put itself on a fast track to bankruptcy by paying out millions of dollars on Swiss First Class tickets, just because an alliance partner screwed them over.

Importantly, Aeroplan knows that most passengers were aware this was likely a glitch. As many observers of the situation point out, “you win some and you lose some” in this game we play.

Even though, as Avery from DCTA contends, Aeroplan’s actions may well be challenged and toppled in a court of law, they are fully aware that in reality, few passengers would actually be bothered enough to pursue litigation. Therefore, it makes sense for them to “disappoint” most customers and just deal with the few lawsuits that do arrive.

So ultimately, it makes sense why Aeroplan have responded the way they have, and I can’t fault them too much because I would absolutely do the same in their shoes. It’s the way they’ve gone about it that’s slightly disappointing, but before we talk about that, let's first examine what options remain for affected passengers.


What Should You Do with Your Ticket?

Before we begin, keep in mind that you always have the option of getting a full refund of your miles and taxes. This is useful to retain a bit of perspective – you'll always be as well-off as you were before the Swiss First award space showed up, and there's no way you'll end up worse off, so there's no need to get too worked up about this.

Alternatively, you can look for other available award space and rebook your trip. Now, if you choose to rebook everything in business class, you’ll of course get a refund of the difference in mileage between business and first. If you want to remain in First Class, though, things get a little tricky, because there isn’t all that wide a selection when it comes to First Class within Star Alliance.

You could look for award space on, say, Thai, ANA, or Asiana First Class, and ask to be rebooked there if your routing allows it (or even if it doesn’t, there’s been data points of Aeroplan waiving the MPM rule in order to accommodate passengers in First Class). I wouldn’t bother with Air China or United, since I don’t think those products are quite worth the mileage premium that First Class redemptions command.

For many First Class enthusiasts, though, what comes closest is Lufthansa First Class. The trouble is of course that Lufthansa only opens up First Class award space at most 15 days in advance of the date of travel. The upside is that by rebooking yourself into Lufthansa First Class as a result of a schedule change (like this one), you can avoid the hefty fuel surcharges, which typically cost $500 per person for a one-way flight!

 Lufthansa First Class

Lufthansa First Class

In fact, this is what I had originally intended to do. However, since I had booked an entire mini-round-the-world trip in First Class (splashing 215,000 miles per person on it), it was getting really hard to convince the supervisor to allow me to make a free rebooking, on the basis of this schedule change, twice – first for my flight from North America to Europe, and then for my flight from Europe to Asia several weeks later.

Throw in the fact that 215,000 miles per person is a lot of miles, and so I eventually opted to cut my losses and refund the whole thing. I’ll find some other way to get to Russia next year, and in the meantime I won’t have to spend hours of my time on the phone with Aeroplan over the course of the next few months.

However, if you booked a simpler itinerary (say, a one-way award between North America and Europe), then I think you have a great chance of getting yourself rebooked into Lufthansa First Class, for no change fees or fuel surcharges, when award space becomes available.

In fact, I think this would be the best outcome that you could expect from this debacle. You’d still get to fly an amazing First Class product (arguably even better than Swiss), and you’d still get to access the tremendous Swiss First Class Lounge if Zurich remains on your itinerary. This resolution is something that is absolutely within Aeroplan’s power to grant, so I’d advise you to push for it if you haven’t already made a decision otherwise.


Taking Further Action

There is, of course, always the option to pursue your original Swiss First Class itinerary, but it’s looking overwhelmingly likely that your only avenue of doing so would be to sue Aeroplan and convince a court of law to impose on Aeroplan the requirement to get you on your original Swiss First Class flight.

I, for one, do not have the time or patience to go down this path, but at least one of my contemporaries in the points blogging space has resolved to do so, so I’m eager to see how the case plays out if he follows through.

If your travel originates or terminates in the US, one thing you should do is to file a complaint with the DOT on this matter, which only takes a few minutes' time. In my opinion, it's quite likely that the DOT will side with the consumers on this one, not least because it sets a dangerous precedent to allow airlines to unilaterally cancel confirmed award tickets that are deemed, in their sole discretion, as "mistakes".

If the DOT were to rule this way, there's a small hope that they'd take enforcement action against Swiss if they continued to steadfastly refuse to honour the bookings. While this remains an unlikely outcome, the only chance it can happen is if we all take collective action by filing an air passenger complaint.


What Do I Make of This?

Well, where to begin?

Let's talk about Aeroplan's response first, as there are quite a few things to say. I did challenge them on why they aren’t rebooking people in revenue flights as they historically have done, and to be honest, I would have been happy with an honest answer – that doing so would be financially irresponsible for the company and its shareholders.

Instead, Aeroplan hid behind excuses along the lines of “Swiss First Class has always been an ineligible booking and we have never honoured tickets on it”, which is patently false.

Sure, there is a footnote on the Aeroplan reward chart indicating that “Swiss First Class is not available for reward travel.” However, there have been similar occasions in the past when award space was made available and bookings were honoured.

Given that the glitch lasted for much longer this time around (about 12 hours by my count), it's not exactly surprising that this round of bookings might get cancelled. But I take issue with Aeroplan misrepresenting the situation to affected passengers in this way – if you’re going to back out of a contract, at least be forthright about your justifications for doing so.

The other thing that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth is how Aeroplan has carried out its response in practice. Let’s not get sidetracked here; remember that Swiss was the ultimate initiator of this whole debacle – they screwed over Aeroplan by unilaterally cancelling the tickets. However, Aeroplan’s response to customers has really been nothing short of an embarrassment.

There were no emails to inform affected passengers – a statement via bloggers can hardly be considered adequate when it comes to sweeping cancellations like this. Aeroplan contacted some passengers to work out alternative flights, while in other instances, they just straight up rebooked passengers in inferior cabins and routings. In a few cases (including my own), bookings were refunded and miles redeposited without any kind of notice.

Even worse is the inconsistent responses by the Aeroplan call centre agents and supervisors as to what form of recourse might be available to affected passengers. Some have reported being allowed to make unlimited free changes to their tickets up until the date of departure, while others report being met with steadfast refusal.

The same is true for working with Air Canada to open up business class award space – this is something that is within Aeroplan and Air Canada’s power, and a few have reported success in demanding it, while most have not. There seems to have been no clear directive from the top as to how to accommodate passengers, which only fuels the frustration.

Overall, Aeroplan's response is understandable and even expected. But to put it briefly, the way they've gone about it betrays many of the operational and customer service issues that make Aeroplan the Aeroplan that we love to hate.


As for Swiss...

Look, Swiss, we get it. You want to cultivate and maintain an image of being a cut above the rest, and that’s why you’d rather let your First Class cabins go out empty than open them up to award bookings for non-elites in your own program, let alone partner awards.

You’d hate for the wealthy individuals that pay for your First Class tickets to have to rub shoulders with the unwashed masses of deal hunters who rack up points on credit cards, who might – god forbid – dilute the class and elegance of the forward cabin.

And hey, let’s not kid ourselves here. If I were a wealthy individual who could afford to drop tens of thousands of dollars on a First Class ticket, there’s every chance I’ll feel ticked off about having a photo-blogging pretender occupying the same coveted space as myself. And if an airline’s First Class cabin were routinely filled with such rabble, there’s every chance I’d be tempted to take my business elsewhere.

But alas, I’m not filthy rich. I hunt deals, I maximize points, and I am fortunate to travel the world in luxury thanks to this game we play. And as long as that’s the case, I’ll continue to hold the position that travelling on points is a wonderful thing, and I’ll continue to advocate for others to do the same.

What does this mean in terms of how I feel about Swiss? Well, it’s sort of been a “don’t meet your heroes” moment for me. Swiss has made it abundantly clear what kind of airline it considers itself, and its philosophy and values are clearly diametrically opposed to my own when it comes to my travel style.

And while the relative merits of these opposing attitudes is certainly a subjective matter, what remains categorically true is that Swiss is at fault for unilaterally cancelling tickets and screwing over their alliance partner.

I used to hold Swiss in a very high regard, given my positive flight experiences with them and their general image of an airline that oozes class. But this ordeal has shown me that there's very little to back up that image besides a more-than-healthy dose of grandiosity and self-importance. 


Conclusion

There's so many factors at play here that it's rather difficult to offer a final word on the issue.

First of all, knowing both Swiss and Aeroplan, one can understand why they did what they did. While Swiss's actions are undoubtedly in the wrong, and Aeroplan's response was disappointing in many regards, it's clear that very few affected passengers will be taking legal action over this, so for the most part Swiss and Aeroplan might "get away with it".

Now that I no longer have skin in the game, I'll be following the remainder of this story with avid interest. I hope that the multitude of DOT complaints filed on this matter can push the DOT to at least clarify, if not provide a ruling, on the extent of airlines' powers when it comes to changing or cancelling confirmed bookings. I also hope that Star Alliance treats this as a wake-up call in terms of addressing the uncooperative behaviour of some of its members.

And I'll be eagerly anticipating the outcome of any litigation that does emerge on this matter. Over to you, Matthew from Live and Let's Fly, to fulfill your promise...