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Best/Worst Frequent Flyer Programs for Availability

The great majority of frequent flyer miles are redeemed for domestic coach tickets, at the saver level—25,000 miles in the programs of most legacy airlines.

So, for the average traveler, a key determinant of a mileage program's value is the availability of saver award seats.

And yet, there's no definitive data comparing the airlines' performance in this critical area.

Is a member of American's AAdvantage program more or less likely to be able to redeem miles for a free ticket to San Francisco, for instance, than a member of United's MileagePlus program?

How do award-booking success rates vary among different routes, different classes or service, different times of the year?

Which program best delivers what I want most?

In the absence of such comparative data, choosing a mileage program is more like a crap shoot than a considered decision.

The closest to such a frequent flyer program scorecard is last year's award availability survey conducted by IdeaWorks, discussed in detail here.

The company made 6,160 test bookings on the websites of 22 of the world's largest frequent flyer programs and issued a report showing its success rates in booking award flights, ranging from a high of 99.3 percent to a low of 10.7 percent.

This week, IdeaWorks issued a follow-up to that study, the 2011 Worldwide Report of Reward Availability, "based upon 6,720 booking queries made by IdeaWorks at the websites of 24 frequent flier programs during March and early April 2011. Travel dates spanned June through October 2011; with 20 top routes checked to assess reward seat availability."

The results, showing the percentage of successful award bookings for U.S./Canadian programs and the change from last year's results:

  1. Southwest - 99.3 percent (No change)
  2. Air Canada - 82.1 percent (-11.5 points)
  3. JetBlue - 79.3 percent (New for 2011)
  4. United - 71.4 percent (+2.8 points)
  5. Continental - 71.4 percent (No change)
  6. Alaska - 64.3 percent (-10.7 points)
  7. American - 62.9 percent (+5 points)
  8. AirTran - 47.1 percent (-20.8 points)
  9. Delta - 27.1 percent (+14.2 points)
  10. US Airways - 25.7 percent (+15 points)

As indicated, the test bookings were online-only, for a limited number of flights and routes, for a specific travel period. A different methodology and a larger sample would no doubt yield somewhat different results.

Such quibbles notwithstanding, there is considerable value in any legitimate attempt to measure the airlines' "generosity quotient" (as I like to call it), not least in reminding us that consumers are sorely lacking in hard data to inform their loyalty-program choices.

Reader Reality Check

How do IdeaWorks' results compare with your personal experience in booking airline awards?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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