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Free Tickets: Get ‘Em While You Can

Dear Tim,

I participated in one of the free-ticket promotions in early 2004. Will I have trouble redeeming my free ticket if everyone who participated in those promotions is also trying to redeem tickets at the same time?

In a slight departure from past procedure, this month’s Q&A is occasioned not by a question that has actually been asked, but by a question that I think should be asked. And it’s not so much a question as a question mark—specifically the uncertainty hanging over the availability of the slew of free tickets doled out by the airlines earlier this year.

For background, during the first half of 2004, the major airlines unleashed an unprecedented barrage of free-ticket offers. It began with American’s “Fly Two to the Sun”—a fly-two/get-one-free offer for flights between New York or Boston and select cities in Florida or California. That promotion was very specifically directed at JetBlue, which had the temerity to encroach upon markets that American considered its own.

But, as the law of unintended consequences would have it, it wasn’t JetBlue that hit back with a competitive response, it was Delta and United, both of which also have many flights on the affected routes. Suddenly, we had a full-out war among the airline super powers.

That was just round one. Next up: fly-one/get-one free offers for international trips from United, Delta, and Northwest. And those in turn were followed by fly-three/get-one-free domestic promotions from American, Continental, Northwest, United, and US Airways.

Count ’em…that’s no fewer than six carriers and three free-ticket offers.

While the promotions and participating airlines differ, the free tickets on offer are cut from the same cloth: they are capacity-controlled, and they must be used for travel within a defined period of time. And since those free tickets will be coming from the same limited inventory as mileage awards, it stands to reason that both free tickets and frequent flyer program awards will be more difficult to come by.

Now you may be asking: How much harder?

Since American started the madness, let’s consider its case as a proxy for the group.

American is a participant in two of the free-ticket offers. And if you read the fine print, you will discover that there’s an overlap between the periods during which the free tickets must be used: September 1, 2004, to April 15, 2005. It’s reasonable to expect that demand for free seats will be especially intense during that seven-and-a-half-month period.

Will that demand crunch rise to the level of a consumer disaster?

The honest answer is that no one knows, or can know.

According to American, participants in the “Fly Two to the Sun” promotion had qualified for 20,000 free tickets as of March 20, the latest date for which figures were available. Let’s assume that flyers qualified for another 10,000 freebies by the offer’s April 15 end date, bringing the total to 30,000, or an average of 2,500 free tickets per month over 12 months.

During 2003, American gave away more than four million AAdvantage awards, or an average of 333,333 per month. In that context, the number of additional free tickets barely registers statistically.

And in any case, based on anecdotal evidence—the number of complaints that I hear concerning AAdvantage award availability—my best guess is that American will do a creditable job of fulfilling the promise implicit in the free-ticket promotions, and indeed in frequent flyer programs generally, namely that a free ticket can actually be had with a minimum of hassle and compromise.

But that’s an educated guess, nothing more.

Applying that same combination of industry expertise and consumer feedback to other programs, I would expect consumers to have a rather less satisfactory experience with Delta and Continental, just to name two.

But again, there’s no certainty to be had except in hindsight, at which point it will be too late to un-participate in the promotions.

So given the uncertainty surrounding award-seat availability, there’s only one sensible strategy for would-be award travelers: book your free trip as soon as possible, while seats are still available. And if at first no seats are available on the flights you want, try, try, try again.

Because if you snooze, you just might lose.

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