A few weeks ago, we set out to reality-check the expectation that, because demand for air travel has plummeted, the airlines are making more of their empty seats available to frequent flyers redeeming their miles.
The data available from the airlines—the number of free tickets awarded annually and the percentage of their seats allocated to award travelers—are useless when it comes to evaluating their real-world generosity because it doesn't put the numbers in perspective. How many frequent flyer program members were stymied completely when they tried to use miles to book an award flight? How many were forced to make drastic compromises in their travel plans? How many were forced to pay twice as many miles, to book an unrestricted award? The airlines don't tell us, and won't.
So to find out whether award travel is easier today, more difficult, or the same, we went directly to readers of SmarterTravel and FrequentFlier.com and invited them to participate in our Frequent Flyer Award Availability Survey. We had 548 responses.
In order to provide a nuanced picture, we asked survey respondents to describe their award booking experiences in three different areas: domestic flights, flights to Europe, and flights to Asia. Following are the results.
The overriding majority of frequent flyer miles are used for domestic trips, so this category has a disproportionate effect on consumers' experience of loyalty programs. And according to our readers, that experience hasn't changed much: 42 percent reported no change; 31 percent reported that redeeming miles was more difficult; and only 28 percent found that awards were more readily available.
In other words, the great majority of respondents found no improvement in the situation. And those who took time to comment mostly expressed frustration. Some examples:
United, San Francisco-Hawaii (several destinations checked)—Only red-eye flights were available for flights nine months out (booking flights in September, which is low-season). Last year, I was able to book this with several options at the same time at about the same advanced planning.
Northwest miles. Easy to book but took more miles to redeem for the flight.
Northwest WorldPerks, Indianapolis-Las Vegas. No matter where or when I want to use my WorldPerks miles, Northwest never, never has seats available for less than 50,000 round-trip. And they advertise a free round trip for 25,000 miles?
Delta was good. I tried to get a reward ticket on US Airways, but it was impossible unless I left at 5 or 6 a.m. both ways.
American Airlines Los Angeles to Kona. I spent two hours on the telephone. Last time it took 20 minutes.
United from Tucson to DC. About the same as last year. However, I also had enough miles to book on US Airways and was completely unable to find any seats coming or going... this was five months ahead of departure. No problem with United.
With Delta SkyMiles, each year it has been harder to use the miles. I started using miles 15 or more years ago for upgrades and free tickets. Upgrades can't be had now and free tickets are like they play a game with you on dates.
United, Washington, DC to Los Angeles—It was not only WORSE, or MUCH WORSE, it was virtually IMPOSSIBLE.
Of those cashing in their miles for flights to Europe, a plurality—37 percent—found it easier to obtain award seats.
In fact, this was the only one of the three travel regions where award access was deemed to have improved. And it wasn't by that much—the rest of those responding were equally divided between finding it more difficult and the same.
For award travel to Asia, the largest number of our survey takers, 37 percent, said that award availability was about the same as last year, with 32 percent reporting more difficulty, and 31 percent finding it easier.
Conclusion: An Opportunity Squandered
The feedback from our readers conclusively disproves the hypothesis that award travel has improved. For domestic and Asia trips, award availability is slightly worse; for Europe travel, it's slightly better. Overall, the airlines have clearly made no overall progress in meeting the award needs of their frequent flyer program members, even though this would seem to be the ideal time to do so.
The question, for course, is why?
My theory: The airlines are engaging in expectations management. They fear that releasing more seats for award use now will ratchet up expectations that they'll be unwilling to meet once the economy recovers and travel demand rebounds. So generosity today will cause more dissatisfaction later.
That's a reasonable business consideration. But it's easily enough dealt with, too, by offering more awards on a limited-term basis, clearly communicating that it's a temporary situation. Qantas, for instance, has freed up an additional one million award seats for use by members of its frequent flyer program on intra-Australia flights. Consumers understand that the windfall isn't permanent, and won't be surprised when award availability returns to previous levels.
Or take the example of United. Faced with a surplus of empty seats on its Europe flights, the airline is offering a limited-time discount on Europe awards. By promoting award travel to Europe, United gets more mileage liability off its books and generates extra goodwill among Mileage Plus members. Consumers get a deal. And expectations are managed.
But those examples are the exceptions to what should have been the rule. As a result, what could have been a win-win for the airlines and their best customers has turned out to be a lose-lose, at least so far.
Speaking of the need for bold action in the economic sphere, President Obama recently warned that the current crisis is an opportunity not to be missed. The airlines seem intent on doing exactly that.