If you’ve been around the block a time or two, you’ll have run into a situation where you just want to cry in frustration because even the best-laid plans can crumble at a moment’s notice.

I’ve calmed down but yesterday, I had my hands in the air screaming,

What Happened?

As part of my new life, I’ve been helping out with award bookings, and with award bookings sometimes you have good days and sometimes you have bad.  A good day is when your client wants to travel on a common route and there is award availability.  A bad day is when that award availability just isn’t there.

For about a week, I was trying to find a New York to Shanghai (JFK-PVG) flight for a client and nothing came up for a direct flight.  I had pitched getting to PVG with a connection but the client really wanted the direct flight.  Well, only China Eastern (MU) flies that direct flight so our options were quite limited.

After searching and searching within the SkyTeam Alliance (MU is part of SkyTeam), I finally came across the perfect option after expanding my search by a couple of days.  Unbelievably, MU had flight availability for both of their daily direct flights …and lots of it!

After some back and forth with the client, we settled on the 1:45 AM flight and we were ready to book.

The Result

When I went to book online, the transaction could not be completed so I called into the Delta Call Centre.  Truthfully, I thought I would be in for a VERY long wait time due to Hurricane Irma but I was pleasantly surprised to only wait on hold for about 5 minutes.

When I asked the agent about the award availability she told me that neither flight had any availability and was thus unbookable.

Why God Why?

If you are among the people that use Delta SkyMiles as a currency, you will know that their program, while having some bright spots, is generally terrible.  From dynamic pricing of awards on what seems like a whim to no official award chart, Delta is generally terrible.

In addition to these challenges, Delta displays phantom award availability all the time.  What do I mean by phantom?  I mean awards that appear to be bookable but actually aren’t.

When I spoke to the agent, I asked her why this happens.

She told me that Delta’s systems do not communicate well with their partner systems and thus there is often times a significant delay before true availability is reflected in their systems.  So while it may show up as available, it could be unbookable.

This is obviously a huge frustration and something that puts a serious kink in my workflow.  Now when I see availability with Delta, my first step is to actually confirm availability with an agent, which can take up valuable time.  It’s definitely frustrating that you cannot rely on information that is presented to you when you are looking for your awards.

Is It Just Delta?

Unfortunately not.  Here are some of the examples of phantom space that you should be aware of:

  • Cathay Pacific First Class awards when using British Airway to search
  • Swiss First Class awards … anywhere unless you have Senator status with the Swiss Miles & More program
  • Swiss Business Class awards when using United’s website to search
  • FinnAir award space using American Airlines to search

I’m sure I’m missing some in the examples above.  If I am, feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll update the list.

How To Avoid Disappointment

The best way around disappointment is to use some of the tools I have shown you and the knowledge that you have gained through experience.

One great tool you should verify award availability with is ExpertFlyer. I ran through some of the key features in a post about a week ago so check that out if you aren’t familiar with it.

As you can see below, ExpertFlyer shows no availability for the 1:45 AM flight when searching for 1 seat.

Does ExpertFlyer eliminate all phantom space results?  No.  I’m afraid not.

Here’s a possible scenario.  See how both Delta and ExpertFlyer showed availability for the 4:25 PM flight?  Does that mean that you would be able to book the flight on Delta?

It’s possible the answer is no.

Why?  Well, different airlines have different award allocations for their partners.  Remember, here the airline we are trying to fly is China Eastern (MU) and when we search ExpertFlyer, we are searching for what China Eastern is saying is available for award … or more specifically, what China Eastern is offering its own passengers.

To try to be more clear let me give you a hypothetical example.

Airline A is part of an Alliance with Airlines B, C, and D.   Airline A decides to make 2 award seats available for their flight but only makes one of those seats available to their partners, Airlines B, C and D.  Airline D (weird that Delta also starts with D), has an antiquated system and it doesn’t reflect real time availability of Airline A’s awards.

Now imagine the one award seat that was made available to Airlines B, C, and D was snatched up but the one that Airline A is reserving for its frequent fliers is still available.

In this particular example, Airline D would show availability because of their antiquated system, AND ExpertFlyer would still show 1 seat available because it reflects the one seat Airline A reserved for their own frequent fliers.

So what you have to do is confirm availability across 3 sources.  I would check ExpertFlyer and two of the Alliance partners to see if they all have availability.  If they all show availability, you should be good to go.

The other option is to call into the airline’s frequent flier program to inquire about whether the seat is bookable.


I’m not writing this to discourage you from looking for award availability because I’m not.  It’s just to say that finding awards comes with its fair share of challenges.  Phantom award availability is definitely one of those challenges that catch even the most seasoned veterans off guard at times.

Knowing that phantom award availability exists may simply temper your excitement until you actually have your PNR and ticket number in hand.

Good luck out there!

Jayce is the founder of PointsNerd, and avid traveller and a teacher by nature. He prides himself on flattening the learning curve through step-by-step guides because everyone needs to start somewhere.


  1. Has hoping to attend you next Points U but regrettably will be out of the country at the time.
    My question is…I am fairly new at the points game but slowly figuring things out.. I think. Have started collecting Alaska Miles and my husband and I have both signed up for their credit card bonuses.
    Noq with enough points in our bank I am in the throws of planning a trip to South America utilizing Alaska’s free layover in both directions. Hoping for YYC – SCL- EZE one way then EZE – LIM- YYC for November 2018 and like i said, utilizing layovers in Santiago and Lima. Alaska partner LAN seems the best option but been reading about how little reward they have and difficult to find online. When would you suggest I start attempting to book or search for beginning of November 2018 travel?
    Thanks for your input.

    • Hi Gwen,

      Thank you for your question.

      I have never personally looked for LAN award availability but I have heard anecdotally that it is difficult to find award availability with partner airlines, Alaska included. Apparently, LAN provides more availability to their own frequent fliers before they make them available for partners.

      If it were me, I would set up an award search using Award.Flights and save it so that I could run the search each day. The one problem that you will have is that you can only search 330 days from the date of travel, so in December you can start searching. This might be a case where you have to search as far out as possible and hope that you find something. Also, don’t forget that American Airlines (another AS partner) flies from DFW and MIA direct to SCL but that doesn’t get you to EZE.

      Hope that helps. Cheers



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