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Grim Outlook for Free Flights This Fall

It used to be an axiom of frequent flyer strategy that fall was a great time to redeem airline miles for free flights. Fewer paying passengers meant more available award seats.

But with the falloff in travel demand during the recent recession, airlines have cut flights significantly. In fact, in many cases they’ve reduced flights even more than travelers have cut back on flying. Which means the remaining flights are flying fuller.

Take the example of Southwest, which just reported its operating results for October.

For the month, Southwest flew 2.5 percent more total passengers, and 1.9 percent more revenue passenger miles (a common industry performance metric), than it did a year ago. But the airline also reduced capacity by 9.4 percent.

When all the wonky data is sliced and diced, the net result of the traffic increases and capacity decreases is a higher load factor, the percentage of seats sold. The average Southwest B737 was 79.2 percent full during October, compared to 70.4 percent for the same period last year.

Similar forces are in play elsewhere. American’s October load factor was 83.1 percent, up 4.1 points over last year. United’s was also 83.1 percent, versus 80.8 percent in 2008.

US Airways flew 82.6 percent full, the airline’s best-ever October.

These are high load factors for any month. But they’re especially high for a month that historically has been among the year’s weakest. Summer travel has long since abated. And there’s no major holiday to spike demand.

It’s too soon to categorically declare that fall no longer represents a window of opportunity for award travelers. But the evidence suggests that the old rule at least needs to be reexamined, if not jettisoned altogether.

Reality Check

A question for readers: Have you tried to book award travel for this fall and winter? If so, how difficult was it to find seats on your preferred flights?

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