The Trouble With Miles Is…

EC 261 Regulation EU Passenger Rights

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The most basic premise of “air miles” is simple – fly on a certain airline, earn miles with that airline’s loyalty programme and then spend those miles on a free flight with that airline.  Many mileage collectors have never gone beyond that basic premise and it probably works just fine for the infrequent leisure traveller (if they don’t give up before ever accumulating enough miles…).

But more informed travellers know that the airline industry has grouped itself into three major alliances – Oneworld, Star Alliance and Skyteam – along with ad hoc partnerships. As a result, you are no longer required to earn and redeem your miles with a single airline. You can earn miles by flying on one airline (which may or may not be the airline running your favourite loyalty programme), yet you can spend them to fly on another (again, not necessarily the airline running your chosen loyalty programme). At that point, we lose touch with those mileage collectors who ask “I earned some Avios on a recent flight, how can I convert those into Alaska miles?” (at least until they learn a bit more)

Eventually we are left with those who know that you can use your miles to book reward flights on partner airlines. Often this can be booked online, but sometimes this requires calling in. And a small subset of that population – InsideFlyer readers for sure – become aware of what we call “reward chart sweetspots”. Often these opportunities are rather obscure – such as using American Airlines miles to fly with Etihad or spending your Avios to fly on Alaska Airlines – but the value can be substantial, precisely because relatively few people are aware of them.

Which leads me to… “the trouble with miles”.

You’ve done your research, found reward space on the partner airline, called your loyalty programme and booked that amazing reward flight. It’s a pretty good feeling! Then something happens!!  That might be…

  • Your e-ticket isn’t issued correctly
  • You and your partner have a newborn baby and want to add a lap infant to the booking
  • There is an airline schedule change

The list could go on…

Your first instinct will be to call the operating airline. And nine times out of ten they will reply – rudely or politely – with a version of “we don’t care, call whoever issued (or screwed up) your ticket.”

You will then call your mileage programme and they might well say “sorry, nothing we can do about it. Have you called the operating airline?” because, as we all know, sometimes customer service agents reply with whatever will get the caller to hang up, rather than putting in the effort to solve a difficult problem.

Your fantastic reward ticket has turned into a infinite loop of nobody wanting to fix the problem.

A Case Study

I find myself in this situation right now. A few months ago I booked a reward flight in Business Class from Barcelona to Cape Town via Addis Ababa. This reward took advantage of a great sweetspot – 68,000 ANA miles for a return in Business Class, with no surcharges on Ethiopian Airlines.

Then I received an email showing a schedule change. Instead of departing from Barcelona I would now be departing from Madrid.  Huh?!?!  A bit of research showed that Ethiopian had launched, then dropped, a route running from Addis Ababa to Barcelona via Madrid and decided to run a more straightforward ADD-MAD-ADD service.

Now… since I am departing from the EU, EC261 should have me covered with:

The airline must offer you, on a one off basis, a choice between:

  1. the reimbursement of your ticket and, if you have a connecting flight, a return flight to the airport of departure at the earliest opportunity

  2. re-routing to your final destination at the earliest opportunity or,

  3. re-routing at a later date at your convenience under comparable transport conditions, subject to the availability of seats.

and the subsequent clarification of:

  • If the airline does not comply with its obligation to offer re-routing or return under comparable transport conditions at the earliest opportunity, it has to reimburse your flight costs.

  • If the airline does not offer you the choice between reimbursement and re-routing but decides unilaterally to reimburse your original ticket, you are entitled to an additional reimbursement of the price difference with the new ticket (under comparable transport conditions).

Unfortunately, case law hasn’t provided a definitive answer to whether the airline is obliged to re-route you on an alternative carrier. Ryanair certainly takes advantage of this loophole to jump straight to reimbursement, even though that £50-fare-booked-months-ago refund doesn’t come close to covering the costs of alternative last-minute flights.

As tempting as it may be to turn an award ticket into a revenue ticket, I don’t particularly fancy buying an alternative Business Class ticket and suing Ethiopian Airlines for reimbursement. And I couldn’t find any alternative routing using miles to fly in Business Class between Barcelona and Cape Town, so I didn’t call ANA. And since it is no great hardship for me to position to Madrid, I decided that this would be preferable to cancelling my reward ticket. But, to keep my options open, I didn’t approve the new flights either.

Fast forward a few weeks and I received a second e-mail. Ethiopian Airlines has rescheduled their flights between Madrid and Addis Ababa, meaning that I cannot possibly make my connection in Addis Ababa on my return from Cape Town. Since I was forced into action, I called ANA Mileage Club. I’ll save readers the gory details of that frustrating conversation. But my options now seem to be:

  1. Cancel my trip and accept the full refund
  2. Call Ethiopian Airlines repeatedly until they fulfill their EC261 commitments to re-route me. (Egyptair anybody?)
  3. Ignore the email and hope that Ethiopian sorts out alternative flights in Cape Town or Addis Ababa. (Risky! Would be happy to try it in Europe or North America, but Ethiopia!!)
  4. With an eye on the cancellation deadlines for my hotels in South Africa, keep an eye out for reward space opening up on another Star Alliance carrier

And of course there is a fifth option…  Write a blog post and see whether any readers have a better idea.  🙂


  1. Ian Macky says

    It is always a risk when you pick a route that involves a “hub” that is off the beaten track. If something goes wrong, your options are limited.

    Turkish flies MAD – CAPE via IST and is also a star alliance member, so there may be some options there for a redemption.

  2. Richard says

    The second email from Ethiopian, saying that you will mis connect on the return, does it give you any alternatives? or just say you are misconnecting, tough luck you now have to spend 24hrs in Addis Ababa?

    personally I would use the layover in ADD on the outbound to find someone in the lounge who does tickety things and strongly attempt to get them to move your return flight onto one of the London flights ideally, or if not then Paris, Frankfurt or Milan depending on the connection times. Then you have an easy avios home.

    • Craig Sowerby says

      Thanks. The email doesn’t say anything. It’s just a random “your flight times have changed email” – it’s only because I checked that I know that my itinerary is well below minimum connecting time in ADD. I’ve already spent ages on the phone with ANA offering to connect to (or via) anywhere else in Europe, but apparently that’s not allowed (although it could be a HUACA situation since a BA or AA would already have agreed to fly me to an alternative airport).

      • Richard says

        Interesting. And worrying that Ethiopian’s I.T hasn’t picked up on the problem automatically. I would still leave it and attempt to get it changed at Addis on the outbound. and If you end up misconnecting they still surely have to stick you on the next flight like if you misconnect for any other reasons.

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