Frequent Flyer Seats, Still a Mixed Bag

"Shower them with miles; starve them for seats." Although I first ascribed that mantra to the big airlines last year, it has actually improved a bit—at least for some airlines, in some cases. IdeaWorks recently released its third annual report on the availability of frequent-flyer seats, and a few lines made some marked improvements over last year.

As before, IdeaWorks studied seat availability at the lower or "saver" award level on 23 airlines. They made 6,680 test bookings in March 2012 for two seats on popular routes in June through October, and the results showed a substantial spread among the individual lines.

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  • Overall, what IdeaWorks describes as "value oriented" airlines (a term I like better than "low fare" or "low cost," neither of which is completely accurate, and "discount" which is outright wrong) did best, with success rates of 100 percent on Southwest, 87 percent on AirTran, and 86 percent on JetBlue. These lines, however, base reward seats on ticket prices for individual flights rather than broad mileage categories, and you'd expect high success rates.
  • Among the larger "legacy" lines based in North America, success rates were better than 50 percent on three: an impressive 87 percent on United, 79 percent on Air Canada, and 59 percent on Alaska.
  • But the other legacies didn't do well, with success rates of 46 percent on American, 34 percent on US Airways, and a dismal bottom-of-the-list Delta at 27 percent—a repeat of that line's sad performance in 2011.

Among the big foreign lines, best success rates were also on several small "value oriented" lines, but Lufthansa at 92 percent, Singapore at 91 percent, British Airways at 79 percent, LAN and Qantas at 79 percent, Cathay Pacific at 71 percent, Iberia at 64 percent, SAS at 58 percent, and Air France/KLM at 56 percent all did reasonably well. Comparison with North American lines isn't quite accurate, however, because most foreign lines add exorbitant "fuel surcharges" to supposedly "free" award trips.

Industry wisdom holds that airlines become more generous with seats at the last minute, and the study tends to confirm that premise. United's success rates for 5- to 15-day advance bookings were high, but its advance rate was already high. Success rates improved to 65 percent on American and 43 percent on US Airways, but remained a dismal 25 percent on low-scoring Delta.

In general, study results pretty well conform to my personal experiences, but I would add two observations that the study didn't cover:

  • Award trips requiring connections are extremely difficult to book, often available only with inconvenient schedules and long layovers at hub airports. Low-level award connecting flights involving regional partners are especially tough on most lines and impossible on Delta.
  • Award trips in domestic first class and international business class are harder to score than trips in economy.

These days, airlines often tout some promotions with "You'll get 25,000 miles—that's enough for a free domestic trip." These survey results suggest that such a claim from Delta and US Airways crosses the line into the realm of bait and switch.

Overall, the study tends to support my ongoing recommendations regarding frequent-flyer programs:

  • Often, you won't have a choice—just go with the line you usually fly.
  • When you have a choice, your best bets are Air Canada, JetBlue, Southwest, and United.
  • If you earn most of your miles through your credit card(s), don't fly enough to qualify for elite status, and are willing to fly economy class, you're better off with one of the many "bank buys" credit card programs where you don't have to worry about frequent-flyer seat allocations and get close to a 2 percent payout on your purchases.
  • But if you like to use miles for first- or business-class travel, you have to stick with cards that earn miles in an airline program, as those fares are far too high to consider using a bank-buys program.

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Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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