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The Most (and Least) Generous Mileage Programs

For the past three years, industry consulting company IdeaWorks has conducted a study of the availability of award seats from the world’s top airline frequent-flyer programs.

The findings of this year’s study have just been released. As in their previous studies, the researchers attempted to make award bookings on the airlines’ websites, for two travelers, on 280 different dates, at the restricted award levels. Specifically, the results reflect “6,680 booking queries made by the IdeaWorks Company at the websites of 23 frequent-flyer programs during March 2012. Travel dates spanned June through October 2012, with top routes for each carrier checked to assess reward seat availability.”

For the U.S. and Canadian airline programs included, the results are as follows:

Award Booking Success Rate (change from 2011)

1. Southwest – 100 percent (+0.7 points)
2. A tie: AirTran – 87.1 percent (+40.0 points) and United – 87.1% (+15.7 points)
3. JetBlue – 86.4 percent (+7.1 points)
4. Air Canada – 78.6 percent (-3.5 points)
5. Alaska – 59.3 percent (-5 points)
6. American – 45.7 percent (-17.2 points)
7. US Airways – 33.6 percent (+7.9 points)
8. Delta – 27.1 percent (no change)

Last-Minute Bookings

In addition to the above, the researchers reality-tested the conventional wisdom that airlines make more award seats available close to a flight’s departure date. They test-booked awards for travel within 14 days of departure on American, Delta, United, and US Airways.

Compared to booking further in advance, the success rates for booking closer to the departure date changed as follows:

  • American improved from 45.7 percent to 65.0 percent.
  • Delta fell from 27.1 percent to 25.0 percent.
  • United improved from 87.1 percent to 87.5 percent.
  • US Airways improved from 33.6 percent to 42.5 percent.

So, unless you’re trying to redeem Delta miles, there may indeed be an advantage in booking within 14 days.

Has the Elephant Left the Room?

Looking at the results for all 30 programs represented, the researchers were heartened by the findings:

“Frequent-flyer programs have been slowly but surely improving member rewards. Nine airlines scored above 80 percent for 2012, which is much improved from five airlines above 80 percent in 2010, the first year of the survey. Airlines are also improving alternate reward options. More and more now provide the ability to redeem miles or points for hotel stays, car rentals, and a growing array of merchandise and unique travel experiences. This trend is clearly good for everybody—frequent fliers, airlines, and their stockholders.”

Members of U.S. programs are likely to be less impressed with the industry’s progress.

Although there has been some improvement in the results, it’s been modest at best. Of the top four U.S. airline programs, three still show award-booking success rates below 50 percent. And while some airlines do indeed offer alternatives to flight awards, they tend to be of sub-par value.

Award availability remains the elephant in the room of frequent-flyer programs.

Reader Reality Check

How do IdeaWorks’ results compare with your personal experience booking airline awards?

This article originally appeared on

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