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Frequent-Flyer Seats: Big Differences Among Lines

Your best chances of scoring a “free” frequent-flyer domestic seat are on Southwest and JetBlue, concludes the latest Switchfly Reward Seat Availability Survey; you’ll have the toughest time on Delta and US Airways.

IdeaWorks just released its fourth annual survey of frequent-flyer seat availability, now covering 25 “global” airlines. As before, during March, the researchers made 7,560 booking inquiries for two lowest-reward-level seats in economy class for travel sometime during a specified set of outbound and return travel dates from June to October on several of each airline’s “top routes.” Key findings for the North American airlines conform to what most of us suspected:

  • The overall winners were Southwest, scoring a perfect 100 percent, and JetBlue, scoring 87 percent. It’s no surprise that these two lines top the list: Both use pay-with-points systems that base credit required for a “free” seat on relative prices for available seats, rather than on fixed mileage or point numbers. IdeaWorks also found that the average equivalent “price” in miles or points for an award trip was much lower on Southwest and JetBlue than on the traditional airlines. Presumably, Virgin America, which also uses a pay-with-points system, would also score well if included.
  • The success rate was surprisingly good for United, at 80 percent, moderately good for Air Canada (66 percent), and fair for Alaska (56 percent) and American (47 percent).
  • Success rates for Delta and US Airways were dismal—both at 36 percent—but we already knew this about Delta, notorious for its stinginess.
  • The results showed that, on average, the last-minute success rates—booking within 5 to 15 days—increased substantially to 58 percent on American and US Airways and to 60 percent on Delta. But late-booking rates dropped a bit for United and Alaska.

Overseas-based airlines with scores of 80 percent or more included Air Berlin, GOL, Virgin Australia, Air Asia, Singapore Airlines, Qantas, and Lufthansa. Air China, Air France/KLM, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, LAN Airlines, AviancaTaca, and SAS Scandinavian Airlines all scored better than 50 percent. Only Emirates and Turkish Airlines dropped into the 40s.

The average overall success rate among the “traditional” airlines, including the overseas lines, was 62 percent. But like all averages, those overall rates reflect a wide range of routes. Success on flights of 250 to 2,500 miles averaged a healthy 85 percent. But many travelers like to use their miles primarily for long-haul domestic and intercontinental trips where the value per mile is greatest, and the overall average success rate for flights longer than 2,500 miles dropped to 43 percent. The rate at US Airways dropped to an appalling 4 percent for those long trips.

Unfortunately, IdeaWorks does not measure success rates for premium travel. Even though the last data I saw showed that economy-class trips within the United States, Canada, and nearby warm-weather destinations are the most popular awards, substantial minorities believe that the greatest value of frequent-flyer credit is used for premium-cabin travel. And here, in my experience, success tends to be far more elusive than for seats in the cattle car.

The IdeaWorks research focused on point-to-point routes. Even though the study design permitted connecting flights, as long as connecting delays were reasonable, it did not cover itineraries requiring a connection and especially connections using regional affiliates. Here, experience at my home airport has been dismal. Going anywhere beyond Seattle, Denver, or Los Angeles without at least one connection is impossible. And once, when searching for award trips to Europe, the airline search returned an itinerary requiring two successive overnight red-eye trips plus an all-day connecting time at an East Coast hub. No, thank you. I’ll just stay home.

IdeaWorks recommends that travelers frustrated by seat scarcity “think outside the cabin,” using credit for other travel services or even purchases. Although you can certainly do that, everything I’ve seen shows that you get a much lower value per mile in any use other than award trips.

For more detail, download a summary of the report from IdeaWorks. You can see the numbers, but unfortunately you can’t do anything to improve the situation. We’re all stuck with what the airlines decide we can get—and no more.

Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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