The Award for Best Award-Seat Availability Goes to ...

IdeaWorks released results of its fourth annual survey of award seat availability from the world's top airline frequent-flyer programs.

As in their previous studies, the researchers attempted to make award bookings on the airlines' own websites, for two travelers, on 280 different dates, at the restricted award levels. Specifically, the results reflect 7,560 booking queries made by the IdeaWorks Company at the websites of 25 frequent flyer programs during March 2013. Travel dates spanned June through October 2013, with top routes for each carrier checked to assess reward seat availability.

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Looking exclusively at U.S. airlines, the researchers were able to successfully book award seats at the following rates:

  • 1. Southwest - 100 percent
  • 2. AirTran - 95.0 percent
  • 3. JetBlue - 88.6 percent
  • 4. United - 80.0 percent
  • 5. Alaska - 56.4 percent
  • 6. American - 48.6 percent
  • 7 (tie). Delta - 36.4 percent
  • 7 (tie). US Airways - 36.4 percent

Last-Minute Bookings

There is some good news, and actionable advice, for members of the worst-ranked programs.

The survey also looked at success rates for close-in award bookings, and found that some airlines indeed release more award seats within 15 days of a flight's departure date.

The success rate for booking Delta awards, for example, improved to 60.0 percent from a tied-for-worst 37.5 percent when bookings were attempted within 15 days of departure.  The US Airways rate improved from 37.5 percent to 57.5 percent. And American's rate improved from 48.6 percent to 57.5 percent.

'Outside the Cabin' Redemptions?

Commenting on the results, the survey sponsors acknowledged that reward seats were harder to come by, but were quick to suggest that there are plenty of non-flight award options available to program members.

Ongoing consolidation and capacity cuts continue to squeeze reward seat availability, and yet frequent flier programs find ways to grow their membership and drive redemption. While often viewed as a program's primary redemption benefit, reward seats need not be the final frontier. Travelers banking a percentage of the trillions of miles outstanding today have interesting options as more programs start to think 'outside the cabin' to include rewards through joint ventures and alliance partners, hotel nights, rental cars, other travel and retail purchases and even cash.

Such admonitions fly in the face of what all savvy frequent flyers know, namely that redeeming miles for non-flight awards results in sub-par value.  Miles cashed in for hotel stays, merchandise, and other alt awards tend to be worth around half as much as miles redeemed for flights.

Due to the underlying economics, airlines will always be able to deliver a significantly better return on members' miles for free flights—it's their own inventory, after all—than for products or services they must purchase from other companies.

The challenge for the airlines remains: Make more seats available for award booking. Muddying the waters by adding ever more non-flight awards that are of little interest to most program members isn't the answer.

Reader Reality Check

How do the study's findings align with your own experience booking award flights?

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