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Frequent-Flyer Seats: Getting Better (Sort Of)

Your best chances of scoring a “free” frequent-flyer domestic seat are on Southwest and JetBlue, a repeat of last year’s performance. That’s from the latest Switchfly Reward Seat Availability Survey, produced by IdeaWorks. US Airways replaced perennial loser Delta at the bottom of the list.

IdeaWorks Company, a customer research organization, just released its fifth annual survey of frequent-flyer seat availability, covering eight North American lines—Alaska and larger—plus 17 big airlines in the rest of the world. During March, the researchers made 7,640 booking inquiries for two seats at the lowest-mileage-level “saver” award or equivalent, in economy class, for travel during a specified set of outbound and return travel dates during June through 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 again were Southwest, scoring a perfect 100 percent, and JetBlue, at 93 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 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 pay-with-points, would also score well if included.

Success rates were 81 percent for Air Canada, 71 percent for United, 58 percent for Alaska, 55 percent for American and Delta, and 35 percent for US Airways.

Overseas-based airlines with scores of 80 percent or more included Air Berlin, Virgin Australia, Air Asia, GOL, Singapore, Turkish, China Southern, the Lufthansa group, and Cathay Pacific.

Overall rates include quite a few short-haul trips. But lots of frequent flyers prefer to use their miles/points toward long-haul trips, such as transcontinental or intercontinental hops. And as in earlier tests, the average overall success rate among the big airlines was far lower for long trips.

The best North American line for long-haul trips was Air Canada, at 85 percent, a rate actually a bit higher than its overall rate.

United, at 64 percent, was only a bit below its overall rate, but long-haul rate for American (37 percent) fell sharply below the line’s overall figures.

Delta (21 percent) and Alaska (17 percent) success rates fell to “lotsa luck” levels, and US Airways remained in the “fuggedaboutit” category, with a dismal rate of 3 percent.

Top international lines for long-haul trips included Singapore, Turkish, China Southern, and Cathay Pacific, all with success rates better than 70 percent.

Unfortunately, IdeaWorks does not measure success rates for premium travel. Although the most popular frequent-flyer trips are in economy-class trips within the U.S. and Canada and to nearby warm-weather destinations, lots of travelers believe that the greatest value of frequent-flyer credit is for premium cabin travel. And here, in my experience, success tends to be far more elusive than for seats in the cattle car. And I’ve long been puzzled why, on Delta’s website, even on days when the seat award calendar shows “saver seats” available, the points required always come up to more than Delta’s award chart says they should.

The IdeaWorks study focused on routes with nonstop service. Although the design permitted connecting flights, as long as connecting delays were reasonable, it did not cover itineraries requiring a connection, especially connections using regional affiliates. And for this sort of trip, my experience has been dismal. Once, when I searched for an award trip to Europe, the airline offered an itinerary requiring two successive overnight red-eye trips plus an all-day connecting time at an East Coast hub.

IdeaWorks recommends that travelers frustrated by seat scarcity consider using their credit for other travel services or even purchases. Although you can certainly do that, miles or points have a much lower value as cash equivalents rather than award trips. If you really want to use cash value, get a credit card with a high cash return.

You can download a PDF summary of the report here.

Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2014 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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