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The Most (and Least) Generous Frequent Flyer Programs

The Most (and Least) Generous Frequent Flyer 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’ own 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./Canadian airline programs included, the results are as follows:

Award Booking Success Rate (change from 2011)

1. Southwest – 100% (+0.7 points)
2 (tie). AirTran – 87.1% (+40.0 points)
2 (tie). United – 87.1% (+15.7 points)
3. JetBlue – 86.4% (+7.1 points)
4. Air Canada – 78.6 (-3.5 points)
5. Alaska – 59.3% (-5 points)
6. American – 45.7% (-17.2 points)
7. US Airways – 33.6% (+7.9 points)
8. Delta – 27.1% (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% for 2012, which is much improved from five airlines above 80% 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 subpar 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 in booking airline awards?

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  • pua kealoha

    The problem as I see it is this: I am not interested in a free ticket on Southwest’s routings. What I focus on is, “how do I get a free ticket to Paris or Vienna?” The legacy carriers and their alliances have a far-wider international reach. I”d rather plan a vacation around availability to a favorite international destination than be satisfied with Washington, DC, to Seattle or wherever.

  • Bruce McKay

    I don’t know the methodology of the testing, but I find that tickets for 25,000 miles are more and more restricted. And when they are available, they are often at 6 am, involve two or more connections or lately, even including connections that require an overnight stay,in an airport. The value of these programs are methodically deteriorating.

  • Jack

    The Southwest 100% rating is a bit skewed. For what it would cost me in airfare to get a round trip Southwest ticket I could fly enough to get 40-50k AA or UA miles, which essentially lets you buy an unrestricted ticket. If you’re mid-elite or higher you get 60-100k AA or UA miles for the same cost as 1 SW ticket. Almost all of the airlines would have 100% levels if you counted their miles the same way. The old SW Rewards program was almost too good, the new one is too bad.

  • Flying Texan

    Leaving early July: AAdvantage award with BA partner, IAH to WAW (Warsaw via London), return, Budapest-London (4 day stopover), then LHR-IAH. Open-jaw, traveling on our own from Warsaw to Krakow, then Budapest. 70,000 aadvantage miles X4. It still works, for now anyway.

  • transomrider

    This article is interesting and timely, I just booked my first Delta reward trip to Europe (MSY to FCO) for Feb 2013. I haven’t had issues with finding seats for US rewards. As well haven’t had issues finding seats for the Rome trip either…what has been interesting is watching the miles values for those seats go up and down. Used the Delta awards calendar since my dates are flexible. Even when it shows a date with “Low price” in miles there are none; conversely, dates with “Medium price” had a mix of low, medium and high. At bit frustrating with this system is how I find seats at different value points each time I searched…many times within a minute of my last search. Guess the learning here is to try multiple times until you hit your price point.

    Ended up with two first/business seats at 150K each. So far, I am happy with that as well as with Delta. Looking forward to Delta improving in their systems and resulting ratings…or at least not getting worse.

  • muck

    Have a flight from CLT to LGW this July/August for 70K. Got it last Sept when I found out I had Olympic tickets. This only worked at 70K as I am able to stay in UK for around 3 weeks, but there were shorter options for 90K.

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