J.D. Power Says the Best Frequent-Flyer Program Is...

I'm not always a buyer when it comes to the results of J.D. Power consumer studies. The influential consumer-survey company's recent airline customer-satisfaction study, for example, struck me as overly focused on the industry's negligible improvements rather than the persistently low levels of traveler satisfaction with the country's carriers.

Still, the company's deep resources, extensive experience, and data-based approach make its findings always worth considering, even if it's solely as a counterbalance to the anecdotal.

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So the company's first attempt to rate and rank frequent-flyer programs is a welcome addition to the ongoing discussion regarding the benefits and drawbacks of various loyalty schemes.

The J.D. Power 2014 Airline Loyalty/Rewards Program Satisfaction Report is based on responses from more than 3,800 airline loyalty program members. The report rates programs according to the following six factors (in order, from most to least important):

  • Ease of redeeming points and miles
  • Reward program terms
  • Account maintenance and management
  • Ease of earning points and miles
  • Variety of benefits available
  • Customer service

Already, there's reason to pause. Is account maintenance more important than ease of earning miles? Many, if not most, of the frequent flyers I know would take issue with that premise. But at least the assumptions are laid out for all to see.

And based on those assumptions, here's how the largest U.S. airline programs scored on a 1,000-point scale:

  • Alaska Air Mileage Plan - 757 points
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards - 731 points
  • JetBlue TrueBlue - 707 points
  • United MileagePlus - 691 points
  • Delta SkyMiles - 686 points
  • American AAdvantage - 685 points
  • US Air Dividend Miles - 642 points

Why is Alaska's program at the top of the heap? According to J.D. Power: "A key strength for Alaska Airlines is its partners program, which allows its members to earn points when flying one of its partner airlines or staying at one of its partner hotels. While partner programs are not unique to Alaska Airlines, the carrier's vast partner networks allow its members to earn points through a number of airlines and hotels."

True enough: Alaska's program boasts an outsized partner lineup, especially considering the relatively small size of the airline itself. But the programs of United, Delta, and American have even more partners, as well as the deeper marketing relationships that come with global airline alliance participation.

And the partner rosters of the second- and third-ranked programs, of Southwest and JetBlue, are the least robust of the group's.

Let's just say I find the study's results more intriguing than definitive.

Other findings:

  • When deciding which airline program to participate in, respondents were most frequently influenced by the airline website (36 percent), followed by promotional material received directly from the airline (22 percent) and airline employees during check-in/post flight (17 percent). (The fact that a program's fit with a consumer's traveler behavior isn't even mentioned is a red flag here. Who participated in this survey?)
  • Survey participants reported earning miles via flights (85 percent), traveling with program partners (55 percent), through co-branded credit card spend (46 percent), for car rentals (34 percent), and for hotel stays (32 percent).
  • And the obvious: "High satisfaction equates to positive recommendations for airline rewards programs. Customers who indicate their rewards program is outstanding (overall satisfaction rating of 10 on a 10-point scale) recommend their rewards program to family and friends an average of 5.1 times per year, compared with 3.4 times among those who rate their program lower than 10."

Reader Reality Check

How do J.D. Power's findings compare to your own?

This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.

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