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Frequent-Flyer Seats: Better Than Last Year, but…

Your chance of scoring a “free” frequent-flyer domestic seat in economy class on Southwest is 100 percent, 91 percent on Air Canada, and 87 percent on JetBlue. Those are really good numbers that should encourage you to keep working on your miles or points. Overall, average percentages for all 25 large lines worldwide are up for 2015. These data are from the recently released sixth annual Switchfly Reward Seat Availability Survey, produced by IdeaWorks. Delta regained its traditional last-place finish, at 58 percent, when US Airways merged into American.

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This year’s report covers seven North American lines—Alaska and larger—plus 18 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:

  • Two overall winners, Southwest and JetBlue, should come as no surprise: 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, so, in theory, every seat is in play. 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.
  • Long-haul trips give your miles the most “bang for the buck,” and the best North American lines for long-haul trips were Air Canada, at 90 percent; with runner-up United well behind at 67 percent; while Delta scored an abysmal 31 percent.
  • Top lines based outside North America for long-haul trips included Singapore and China Southern, both over 81 percent, followed by Lufthansa group, Emirates, Turkish, China Southern, Emirates, British Airways, and Air France/KLM at over 60 percent. Avianca, LAN, and SAS joined Delta at the bottom. But keep in mind that many foreign lines add hefty surcharges to supposedly “free” award travel.

Unfortunately, IdeaWorks does not measure success rates for two important kinds of award travel:

  • Many frequent flyers (I’m one of them) believe that the best use 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.
  • Many fliers can’t get to their destination without a connection, and the data do not cover itineraries requiring a connection—especially with regional affiliates. For this sort of trip, my experience has been dismal. A recent search for a transcontinental trip returned only itineraries that included red-eye flights—for me, a complete nonstarter.

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The current results are a pretty good guide for those of you who have a pile of miles. But 2015 results will not necessarily be a good guide for next year: The frequent-flyer focus will turn more toward the earning side. Delta and United have already adopted earnings formulas based on how much you pay rather than how many miles you fly, and I expect American to copy before the end of the year, and other lines have to be at least thinking about it. Given those changes, leisure travelers might want to refocus their frequent-flyer interests:

  • Air Canada, Alaska, and Hawaiian still base earnings on miles flown; they operate extensive routes themselves and they have useful partnerships for places they don’t serve.
  • If you earn most of your miles through a credit card and generally fly in economy class, you’re better off with a bank program that provides a big payout in cash or points than with a card that earns airline miles.
  • But if you like to use miles for premium travel, stick with the airline miles.

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Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2015 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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