Will Cathay Pacific Restrict First-Class Awards Using Partner Miles?

May 11, 2015

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According to an article in yesterday’s South China Morning Post, Cathay Pacific is considering an overhaul of its loyalty program, including the possible restriction of first class awards using partner miles.

While this is probably not a huge blow to the vast majority of flyers, Cathay Pacific first class is one of the feathers in any points or miles enthusiast’s cap, and one of TPG’s all-time favorite first class cabins thanks to enormous, semi-private seats, some fantastic amenities, and phenomenal service. I won’t go into the details on it here, but you can check out TPG’s review of his experience flying Cathay first class here.

Cathay has actually been cutting back on its first class cabins lately, installing them on only some of its fleet of 777-300ERs, and then only six seats per plane. Cathay actually offers first class on its 747-400s as well, but the airline no longer flies those aircraft to the US.

Cathay's 777's only have 6 first class seats to begin with.
Cathay’s 777s only have six first class seats to begin with.

In terms of using partner miles to book first-class awards on Cathay, availability tends to be very tight but not impossible to come by. And if you can play your plans by ear, seats often open up at the last minute. For instance, I found this first-class award for later this week from LAX-HKG using Qantas’s award search engine (you would just have to call the AAdvantage desk to book it).

CX Asia miles oneway

These seats also represent some tremendous value for using award miles from partners American Airlines (which is in Oneworld with Cathay) and Alaska (a non-alliance partner). American requires just 67,500 miles each way, while Alaska will charge you 70,000 miles. That’s a pretty great bargain considering these seats usually go for well over $10,000, and that other US airlines like Delta and United will charge you comparable numbers just to fly business class (and not even on partners in the case of United) to Asia. By contrast, Cathay’s own Asia Miles program would charge you 105,000 miles each way.

No More First Class Awards?

Now, according to the SCMP (bolding mine): “Cathay Pacific is to set aside more free seats for its seasoned frequent fliers, under the latest proposal to revamp the award- winning airline’s loyalty scheme. The plan is to slash the number of free air tickets available for partner airlines and to reallocate those to Cathay’s own Marco Polo Club members, sources close to the ongoing review say.”

Not only that, but even if you want to use Cathay’s own miles to book an award, according to the article, “it is understood the number of points needed to redeem a flight will at the same time go up incrementally.“ So you’ll end up paying more miles anyway – since who knows how big that “increment” will be.

Apparently this has been part of an ongoing review of Cathay’s mileage partnerships, since, as the SCMP puts it: “At present, Cathay lets clients of partner airlines book flights using air miles accrued through their own flier programmes. But these passengers can redeem Cathay flights at much cheaper rates than Marco Polo Club members, putting its own privileged customers at a disadvantage.” The article also notes that Cathay’s airline partners give away tens of millions of miles (though I’d say that’s a conservative number) each year to fliers via credit cards, making it even easier for them to book these awards.

So the thought is, that by restricting the number of first-class awards available to partners while increasing the number available to its own Marco Polo and Asia Miles members, albeit at higher redemption levels, Cathay will be looking out for its own flyers first.

Perhaps the final nail in the coffin? “The sources say Cathay believes it is time to stop allowing external redemptions when the airline is capable of filling aircraft with paid passengers – boosting long-term profitability.”

There will still be ways to use points to book first class...if this even happens.
There will still be ways to use points to book first class…if this even happens.

Will It Happen?

Granted, this is all from one article in the SCMP, and the author does not quote any sources from Cathay by name, so it is unlikely that we will see any changes in the near-term.

However, it does point to the twin possibilities of partner award restrictions and a mileage devaluation. In that sense, this is a good reminder that airlines change their frequent-flyer programs all the time, often with little or no advanced notice. So it pays to be prepared and to diversify your points portfolio to insulate you against a volatile award landscape.

The good news is, even if Cathay does decide to follow through on these prospective changes, consumers still have some great options for using points/miles to book first-class awards.

If you want to use your American AAdvantage miles to book an award but need to top up your account, the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard is currently offering a sign-up bonus of 60,000 miles when you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months.

Cathay’s Asia Miles program is also a 1:1 transfer program of both American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou Rewards (since last July), so you have more transferable points options than ever.

Amex’s Membership Rewards is the points program of cards including the The Amex EveryDay® Preferred Credit Card from American Express, and Platinum Card® from American Express cards, while Citi cardholders with the Prestige or Citi Premier Card can transfer their ThankYou Points to Cathay.

That said, we will likely see more and more airlines restricting first-class availability to members of their own loyalty programs (as Singapore has done for years) as well as further award chart devaluations, all of which make it imperative to have a strong points-earning strategy in place so that you can book the awards you want when you need to.

For more information on Cathay Pacific first class and how to book it using points and miles, check out these posts:

Hat tip: One Mile at a Time.

Update: A Cathay Pacific spokesperson responded to our request for comment, suggesting that a change to the Marco Polo program and award seat availability may be in the works:

We are conducting a review of our Club’s benefits and operations in order to ensure that our program continues to meet the changing needs of our members and that it is competitive with the loyalty clubs of other major global airlines.

That review is very comprehensive and it includes, among other things, meeting directly with many Marco Polo Club members and soliciting the views of many more through surveys and other channels.

We are pleased that the Marco Polo Club is seen as one of the world’s leading airline loyalty programs, but we believe that there are actions we can take to ensure that it continues to be part of a rewarding travel experience for our members. Our review is ongoing and no decisions have been made regarding specific enhancements that we may introduce to our program.

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