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The Airline with the Best Award-Seat Availability Is…

Although the proliferation of revenue-based programs and dynamic award pricing is changing the game somewhat, the availability of award seats remains one of the key factors in determining the real-world value of any loyalty program. It would seem, then, that a definitive comparison of award-seat availability among the various airline programs would be a natural.

Easier said than done.

IdeaWorks has published its Reward Seat Availability Survey for five consecutive years. It strives to attain legitimacy by test-booking award flights on a multitude of routes, on 25 airlines. The results are always worth considering, but there have been persistent quibbles with the methodology.

Throwing its hat into the ring for the first time, Consumer Reports this week published its “Ultimate Frequent-Flyer Guide,” a study of award availability from the five largest U.S. airlines, on the 25 most popular domestic U.S. routes. Rather than conduct its own test bookings, the report relies on information from the DOT ticket database.

Overall, the study ranked the five airlines as follows, from best to worst award-seat availability:

  • Southwest
  • Delta
  • United
  • American
  • JetBlue

It’s no surprise that Southwest fares well. When redeeming points, Rapid Rewards members have access to the same seats available to paying customers. The same, however, is true for members of JetBlue’s program. So why isn’t JetBlue ranked higher? The report alludes to JetBlue’s previous harsh points-expiration policy, but that seems insufficient to explain the disparity. Something appears amiss with the survey methodology.

Other take-aways from the report:

  • Among all routes reviewed, Southwest had the most available award seats.
  • Southwest issued 11.5 percent of its tickets to award travelers; JetBlue, 4.5 percent.
  • On average, around 10 percent of of travelers flew on award tickets.
  • With the exception of United, all major airlines issued more award ticket in 2014 than in 2013.
  • United is worst for add-on fees — as much as $450, all in. Southwest was best.

Consumer Reports’ bottom-line advice is to “do your own calculations.” To determine whether it’s worthwhile booking a trip with miles, versus buying a ticket, “divide each ticket’s one-way or round-trip dollar price by its mileage cost. If you get a value of less than 1 cent per mile, pay in cash. The greater the value above that, the better off you are paying in miles.”

No argument with doing the calculation. That’s an approach we’ve always advocated. But 1 cent per mile as the breakpoint between using miles or cash? No way! Many travelers earn the majority of their miles from program-linked credit cards, at a typical rate of one mile per $1 spent. Redeeming those miles at a value of 1 cent apiece amounts to a 1 percent rebate — a paltry return when there are readily available cards that return 1.5 or 2 percent.

Our advice: Set your sights higher.

Reader Reality Check

The report found that, overall, “the airlines were less tightwadish than you might expect.” Agree, or disagree?

This article originally appeared on

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