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Study Tests Availability of Frequent Flyer Reward Seats

AskEd & AnswerEd
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on June 5, 2011. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: AskEd & AnswerEd, Ed Perkins.

"Shower them with miles; starve them for seats." That seems to be the mantra of most big-airline frequent flyer programs. Readers are curious.

"Some experts say that base-level frequent flyer seats are almost impossible to get, but others say that's not the case. Does anybody know the true situation?"

The short answer is, "Yes. IdeaWorks just released its second annual survey of seat availability." And it turns out, as you might expect, that some airlines are a lot stingier than others with their award seats.

The Study

This year, as last, IdeaWorks sponsored its "ezReward Seat Availability Survey," where researchers tried to book award seats at the lowest award level through 24 frequent flyer programs during March and April of 2011. The survey reported on 6,720 booking inquiries, mostly for trips well in advance but a few also for last-minute travel. Here are the details, as noted by IdeaWorks:

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Booking queries for a party of two travelers were made at frequent flyer program websites during March, 2011, with minor follow-up work conducted during the first week of April, 2011. Some airlines require a Saturday night stay for reward travel; all of the queries used date pairings that included a Saturday night stay. While the city pairs varied for each frequent flyer program, the travel dates did not. Specific dates were selected for queries and only reward seat availability for travel on the date specified was recorded; any departure time was acceptable. Furthermore, reward travel had to be available on the outbound and return dates queried. Overly circuitous routings were not accepted. The top 10 routes longer than 2,500 miles and the top 10 shorter routes were selected for each airline. Due to a lack of long-haul routes, the top 20 overall routes were queried for these airlines: Air Berlin, AirTran, Alaska, GOL, JetBlue, Southwest, and Virgin Australia. When offered, online reward availability for partner airlines was always requested.

The Winners

Overall, low-fare airlines generally did better than the large legacy network lines, and foreign airlines did a bit better than North American lines

For the most part, these results speak for themselves, and a score of 75 percent or better indicates, at least to me, a reasonable level of availability at the lowest award level. JetBlue and Southwest are a bit of an exception, however, in that you'd expect the way they present and charge for award travel – with different flights priced at different mileage levels – to generate higher success rates than the straight mileage-table systems the other lines use.

The Middle Ground

Eight lines, including three of the "big five" domestic legacy/network lines, scored closely bunched in a middling zone of 61 percent to 71 percent: United, Continental (still separate at the time of the survey but with almost identical scores), Iberia, Cathay Pacific, Air France, Alaska, American, and British Airways. To me, that level of success represents only marginally acceptable performance,

The Losers

The five lines with bottom success rates earned scores that I would class as below minimum acceptable levels:

  • SAS, Turkish, and AirTran scored between 53 percent and 47 percent. AirTran, however, will shortly disappear in its merger with Southwest, and, presumably, Southwest's superior program will prevail.
  • Emirates scored an unenviable 36 percent.
  • And as you might expect, Delta (at 27 percent) and US Airways (at 26 percent) came in last. Both lines can claim big improvements. Their 2010 scores were below 15 percent. But that's an "improvement" from really awful to just awful, and still far below any reasonable level of success.

This finding, incidentally, confirms my own Delta experiences. I looked at three Delta trips earlier this year, and found absolutely no lowest-level seats over a period of many weeks from Sacramento to Minneapolis, Dallas to Baltimore, and San Francisco to Honolulu. I was able to book the two mainland trips at the intermediate mileage level with plenty of itinerary options. For the Hawaiian trip I went to another line.

Last-Minute Doesn't Help Much

The researchers checked last-minute availability on four of these domestic lines. The 25 percent success rate on US Airways was a tad lower than its long-term rate. The 65 percent rate on United was about 5 percent below its long-term rate. And American's 48 percent last-minute rate was significantly lower. Only Delta, at 43 percent, showed a marked improvement for last-minute bookings. Frankly, I'm not sure what to make of these counter-intuitive results.

The Caveats

As usual with such surveys, the researchers are careful to note the caveats. The results show a snapshot of one short period, and may not be indicative of a full year. The itinerary requirements for "success" were pretty tight. Perhaps researchers could have found more seats for trips plus or minus a day or two from the specification. On the other hand, presumably some of the "success" rates were on routes nobody really wants to fly. Also, the results covered only economy class and, in my experience, business and first class seats are much harder to score than seats in the cattle car.

What Should Frequent Flyers Do?

Overall, the results of this survey confirm much of the conventional wisdom of frequent flyer programs but contradict a bit:

  • Really frequent flyers are stuck with the programs of the lines they fly the most – even when they can't easily score seats, the miles they rack up count toward coveted elite program status, and elite status brings some real advantages. Also, although the survey couldn't approach this question, it's my guess that high-ranking frequent flyers have better access to award seats.
  • If you want to use your miles for premium class seats or upgrades, you have no other choice, either. Those "bank buys" programs are worthless for premium travel.
  • Even if you're only an occasional traveler and have a choice of airlines, the programs on Air Canada, JetBlue, and Southwest are probably worth continuing. Where you have a choice among other network lines, Alaska, American, and United are far more generous with low-level seats than Delta or US Airways.
  • But if (1) you earn most of your miles through your credit card, (2) you don't fly enough to qualify for elite status, and (3) you're willing to fly economy class, you're really better off in one of those "bank buys' programs where you don't have to worry about frequent flyer seat allocations.
  • The apparent slight success rate advantage might lead you to lean toward a foreign airline, but if you use a foreign line's miles for its own flights, you'll get hit with an unexpected and very heavy fuel surcharge: On those lines, that "free" flight really isn't.
  • The study findings would indicate that the conventional wisdom about scoring seats more easily if you wait until the last minute works only on Delta.

For more information, download the study results from IdeaWorks

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