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Frequent Flyer Seats Are Getting Easier to Find

Scoring a frequent flyer award seat is getting easier, says a new report from Ideaworks. Its most recent annual “Switchfly Reward Seat Availability Survey” found that the overall average first-try availability rose five percentage points over last year to well over 50 percent. The survey’s methodology was rock solid, so I don’t doubt the accuracy of the findings. But they certainly don’t jibe with my own experience—and maybe I can explore some reasons why.

The survey measured the frequency with which test bookings were successful for two coach/economy seats on at least one flight for the specified dates at the lowest “saver” mileage award requirement level for some of each airline’s most popular routes. Dates covered spanned availability on searches conducted in March for travel on various dates in June through October of this year. And the results are surprisingly positive:

  • Among the big North American network lines, United scored an astounding 87 percent success rate, followed by Air Canada at 77 percent, Alaska at 59 percent, American at 46 percent, US Airways at 34 percent, and Delta at 27 percent. Most of these rates were up substantially over last year’s survey results.
  • Rates for the North American “value oriented” airlines were even better: 100 percent for Southwest, 87 percent for AirTran, and 86 percent for JetBlue. These findings are not quite comparable with those for the big lines, however; mileage requirements are generally based on the prices for available tickets rather than a set value of 25,000 miles for an award.
  • Most giant international airlines also scored incredibly well, with GOL at 97 percent, Lufthansa at 92 percent, Singapore at 90 percent, Virgin Australia at 90 percent, British Airways, LAN, and Qantas at 79 percent, Cathay Pacific at 71 percent, Iberia at 64 percent, SAS at 60 percent, and Air France/KLM at 56 percent. Only Turkish, at 39 percent and Emirates at 33 percent, scored poor numbers. But these results aren’t quite comparable to those for the big North American lines, either, because most big international lines add a hefty “fuel surcharge” to the supposedly “free” award flights.

The survey also tackled the question about whether airlines offered up more seats close to departure time. The answer was generally “yes,” with one-week availabilities up sharply for American and US Airways, about the same on United, and down only on Delta.

I really have no ready explanation for why the big North American lines scored so well. Those results certainly don’t agree with my own experience, nor do they agree with the general consensus among either my readers or those of us who regularly follow frequent-flyer matters. As noted, I can’t fault the survey in any way; the results will have to remain a mystery.

In the future, I would love to see the survey extended into two different kinds of award travel where scoring seats is tougher:

  1. Connecting flights. In my experience, finding reasonable award travel schedules at the “saver” award level is very difficult on connecting mainline flights and virtually impossible if one of the connections is on a regional partner airline. As my friend Don put it to me after a recent search, “You never find lowest-level seats that involve a Delta connection itinerary.” My experience certainly supports his conclusion.
  2. Premium seats. Many travelers—and I’m one of them—prefer to use miles to escape the cattle car and move up front to first class on domestic flights or business class on intercontinental trips. Here, my success rate has been pretty dismal. And on Alaska, for example, despite many tries and wide date ranges, I have never seen a single available “saver” level first-class award on any of its transcontinental flights.

All in all, the survey results paint what I find to be an incredibly rosy picture about award availability. I hope for your sake that you can do as well as the Ideaworks testers did. And good or bad, I’m interested in any reports from readers.

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

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