The airlines' mileage schemes are routinely referred to as rewards programs. But how rewarding are they? And how do they compare, rewards-wise?
We know a lot about the airlines and the details of their business. How much revenue they generate, and how much they spend in the process. How many bags they mishandle. How many passengers they fly, and how many miles they fly them. The average cents per mile made on every ticket. The percentage of their seats sold and unsold.
What we don't know is how they deliver on the promise implicit in their mileage programs. What are the odds that an airline's frequent flyer program member will be successful in redeeming miles for an award flight?
It's not in the airlines' annual reports. And if you ask the airlines directly—as I have on many occasions—they will claim that they don't have the data.
There are around 100 million Americans who participate in one or more airline programs. All of them would like to know how their program performs, and how that compares with the performance of other programs.
Such transparency is at the very heart of what makes capitalism benefit consumers. Give us all the information we need to make informed buying decisions, and let companies compete for our business.
With frequent flyer programs, however, all consumers have to go on is their own experience, and whatever anecdotal evidence they can gather through water-cooler reports.
That's hardly a solid basis for choosing to focus one's mileage-earning in one program rather than another.
There is, however, a new study by ezRez Software and IdeaWorks that shines some light on the airlines' relative generosity in making seats available to award travelers.
Over a two-month period, the companies made 6,160 test bookings on the websites of 22 of the world's largest frequent flyer programs. Their success rates in booking award flights varied enormously, from a high of 99.3 percent to a low of 10.7 percent.
If it were widely known, such a pronounced disparity would clearly affect the value that consumers expect from participating in these programs, and should push travelers away from the underperforming programs and toward programs that offer a better return on their loyalty.
Following are the report's results for the nine largest North America programs, ranked from most generous—Southwest, which had award seats available for 99.3 percent of the award trips—to the least:
- Southwest (99.3 percent)
- Air Canada (93.6 percent)
- Alaska (75.0 percent)
- Continental (71.4 percent)
- United (68.6 percent)
- AirTran (67.9 percent)
- American (57.9 percent)
- Delta (12.9 percent)
- US Airways (10.7 percent)
Is this the final word on award availability? Hardly. As such studies must be, this is just a sampling of routes, during one particular slice of time. Choose different routes, at different times, and the results might be different. The picture would also change if test bookings by phone were added to the online bookings. And important players like JetBlue, Spirit, and Virgin America weren't included.
But this is a down payment on the kind of information travel consumers need and deserve.
Long term, I've called for the government to require the airlines to collect and report data on their programs' award availability. That's the only way full transparency will be achieved.
Without it, airline passengers' loyalty is just a leap of faith.
Reader Reality Check
How do the report's findings compare to your own experience?
Should the government force the airlines to fully disclose the success rates of their program members in redeeming their miles for free flights?
What information would be helpful in assessing your mileage program's value?