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How available are frequent flyer award seats, really?

On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of frequent flyer programs, media coverage of the programs has been unusually intense. Among the story angles: the best programs, their history and milestones, their likely future. And woven throughout the stories has been the airline programs' failure to fully deliver on the promise of free tickets.

Typical is the following pointed accusation from "25 Years of the Frequent Frustration Club" on the ABC website: Airlines "magically render available seats unavailable when there [is] a possibility of filling them with revenue passengers. Never mind about the free and easy promises made to everyone who signed up at the beginning of the programs. The solution had become a clandestine search for ways to avoid fulfilling the promises the airlines had made, while appearing in public and in advertising to be cheerfully attracting new members with the very same promise of easily obtainable free flights."

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Frequent flyer program members complain that airlines have made free tickets unreasonably difficult to obtain. The airlines dismiss such complaints as the whining of a very few disgruntled customers. Who's right?

Most travel writers and industry watchers, myself included, give the benefit of the doubt to consumers. Complaints about limited award availability are at an all-time high, and consumers have no motive for overstating the problem while the airlines have an obvious interest in understating it.

It is within the airlines' ability to resolve the issue definitively by disclosing performance data for their programs. How many award requests were made at restricted levels for travel on various routes, at various times of the year? Of those, how many were successful on the first try? How many times did program members have to have to accept their second, third, or fourth choice of schedules? How many times did consumers give up completely? How often were they forced to redeem twice as many miles for an unrestricted award? (The data the airlines do divulge, typically the total number of awards issued during the past 12 months, is useless since the gross numbers give no indication of the difficulty program members faced in obtaining those awards.)

Until the airlines back up their claims with full disclosure, it's only natural to view them with skepticism. And it's hard not to wonder: What are they hiding?

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