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Test-Driving American’s New Award-Booking Tool

Airline mileage schemes have different names in different quarters, aptly reflecting their dual personalities as revenue generators for the airlines and frustration generators for travelers. Airline executives generally refer to them as loyalty programs, with the emphasis on travelers’ desired behavior. Consumers, however, talk about travel rewards programs, with the emphasis on the carrot used to encourage travelers’ loyalty.

That carrot—free seats—has proved maddeningly elusive to many flyers. The low-priced awards, starting in most programs at 25,000 miles for a round-trip flight in coach class, are capacity-controlled and in very limited supply. On more popular flights, there may be no award seats at all.

As if spotty award availability weren’t enough of an impediment, the airlines added to the difficulty of securing a free seat by steering their customers away from phone bookings. Most carriers now charge a “service fee” to consumers who wish to speak to a live person. The surcharge serves to encourage use of Web-based reservations applications.

This do-it-yourself approach works fine for paid reservations, but the airlines’ online-booking systems were never designed to navigate the tortuous ins and outs of reserving award seats. To find an available seat, mileage program members must attempt to make reservations flight by flight, day by day, until finally, maybe, the computer shows an available seat. Then they have to repeat the process to find a seat for the return flight.

Airlines warn that restricted award tickets are limited and that consumers might have to be flexible in their travel plans. But they’ve failed—or refused—to provide members of their programs with booking tools that support and encourage such flexibility.

Specifically, what has been conspicuously missing from the airlines’ booking applications is a calendar view of available award seats. Continental offers a primitive tool that approximates this ideal, but falls short.

The good news for consumers today is that American’s new online award-booking application has staked a legitimate claim to being the realization of every mile-collector’s dream. It sets the standard to which other airlines must now aspire.

Test-driving American’s new award-booking tool

To book award flights, travelers begin by entering origin and destination information and travel dates into the familiar online reservations form, prominently positioned on the homepage. They can shift into award mode by clicking “Redeem AAdvantage miles,” and check the “Dates Flexible” option to get the maximum benefit from the search.

After looking for available seats on the desired itinerary, the application displays two side-by-side calendars, one for the outbound flight and one for the return. The requested dates are highlighted in the centers of both calendars, with the two weeks before and after also displayed. Each day is color-coded to indicate what types of awards are available.

While in calendar mode, users can switch views to show different awards, comparing availability between restricted and unrestricted coach, for example, or between unrestricted coach and restricted first class.

Once a date is selected, the application responds by displaying a list of available flights on that day. Available nonstops are listed first, followed by direct and connecting flights. Customers can use the large arrow icons to check alternate days, moving forward or backward one day at a time.

At all points in the process, the straightforward page navigation makes it simple to move backward or forward, to review and modify any of the reservation’s elements. The member’s account balance is visible throughout the process, displayed in the upper-right corner as a reality check on redemption options.

American seems to have taken a lesson from Google, whose search functionality is delivered via a decidedly plain interface. The new AAdvantage booking feature is similarly modest in appearance, but deceptively robust and refreshingly user-friendly.

American has been an industry leader in both loyalty programs and in Web-based travel applications. It’s fitting that it would be at the forefront of the airlines’ drive to get award booking right.

The president of American’s AAdvantage Marketing Programs, Kurt Stache, claims the new application provides “full transparency.” That’s not quite true: Full transparency would show not only whether award seats were available for a particular day and flight, but how many. Still, for most program members, whose priority is securing one or two free tickets, this will be all the transparency they need.

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