United's new ad campaign features the following headline: "We're #1 in award seat availability among U.S. global carriers."
It's a gutsy claim, raising as it does what is for many consumers the single most important issue affecting the value of airline loyalty programs and one that most airlines would rather duck than address head on.
The headline is asterisked, referring to the fine print which explains that the ranking is based on findings from IdeaWorks' "2012 Reward Seat Availability Survey."
According to that report, the award-booking success rates for the nine largest North America carriers were as follows:
1. Southwest - 100 percent
2. (tie) AirTran - 87.1 percent
2. (tie) United - 87.1 percent
3. JetBlue - 86.4 percent
4. Air Canada - 78.6 percent
5. Alaska - 59.3 percent
6. American - 45.7 percent
7. US Airways - 33.6 percent
8. Delta - 27.1 percent
So United's claim at least has as its basis a study grounded in real-world research.
As I've said many times, complete transparency in the area of travel loyalty programs, including a rigorous accounting of each program's award availability, is much needed and sorely lacking.
If on-time performance is important to you, you can easily refer to DOT data to determine which airlines do best and worst on that performance metric. If legroom is your main decision-driver, the seat pitches of most airlines can be readily viewed and compared on SeatGuru. If price is your primary concern, a quick search on any of the online travel agency sites will generate a list of airlines and prices for your itinerary. And so on.
But no such comprehensive head-to-head comparison of frequent flyer programs' award availability is possible. No company or organization has taken it upon itself to collect, collate, and analyze the data.
Certainly the IdeaWorks study cited by United is a step in the right direction. But it's hardly definitive in scale or scope. Both its methodology and its findings have been subject to debate.
To their credit, United's new ads at least raise the question.
Reader Reality Check
Some travelers will take United's ad claim at face value and modify their behavior accordingly.
Others, however, will find the claim at odds with their own experience and reject it as yet another example of Big Business puffery.
Still others will dismiss the award claim, true or false, as a non-factor in their travel loyalty decisions. Their priorities lie elsewhere.
What's your take on United's claim?
How important to you is frequent flyer award availability?
This article originally appeared on FrequentFlier.com.