Frequent fliers are often flying blind when it comes to knowing which airline consistently offers free seats in exchange for their hard-earned miles.
Even though around 100 million Americans participate in one or more airline loyalty programs, carriers are not required to divulge how often they provide seats to frequent fliers -- leaving little ability for consumers to gauge these programs' worth.
"I think there's much too little transparency in this area," said Tim Winship, editor-at-large for smartertravel.com. "Consumers do their part in adding to the financial well-being of these airlines without having any idea whatsoever about how their airline does when it comes to the promise of redeeming a free seat with their miles."
Well, that's about to change. A new study by IdeaWorks and ezRez Software seeks to quantify for the first time all that anecdotal information flying around about which frequent flier programs are the most effective.
The winner? Southwest Airlines, which fulfilled 99.3% of requests for award seats that required standard mileage levels. Other American carriers, on the other hand, fared poorly when compared with their international counterparts. Air Berlin ranked second, redeeming seats on 98.6% of requests, and Air Canada third, with a 93.6% rate.
The survey didn't mention another U.S. carrier until almost one third of the way down the list, with Alaska Airlines fulfilling 75% of requests for free seats. Continental and United were further down the page still, finding seats for 71.4% and 68.6% of travelers, respectively.
Bringing up the rear were Delta Air Lines, with a 12.9% redemption rate and US Airways, which only found a free seat 10.7% of the time.
The study's authors hope that passengers use the results when deciding which frequent flier program is best for them.
"I think consumers can use the results as a factor when considering which airline to choose," said Jay Sorensen, IdeaWorks president.
IdeaWorks and ezRez Software compiled the results after making 6,160 booking queries at the web sites of 22 frequent flier programs during February and March. Travel dates spanned from June through October 2010. Researchers checked 10 long-haul routes and 10 city pairs under 2,500 miles to assess reward seat availability.
Winship, the author of Mileage Pro -- the Insider's Guide to Frequent Flier Programs, said that while he thinks the survey's methodology is sound, the one caveat he would offer is that it was conducted entirely online and that travelers may have more luck at booking free seats using airlines' telephone reservations systems.
Even so, if they are able to book a seat over the phone they may find themselves paying a fee to do so.
He also questioned American's ranking on the list, saying that, "American generally does a better job when compared with other airlines in terms of award availability." Researchers found that the airlines' popular AAdvantage program was only able to fulfill requests for free seats 57.9% of the time.
Even though we now have a window into which airline may be most efficient at redeeming frequent flier miles, that information does little to help travelers combat the fact that the market is still literally flooded with awards.
This is coupled with the fact that a sagging economy forced airlines to cut routes and pull airplanes from the sky, leaving fewer seats for all travelers, much less for those looking to redeem their miles.
And since selling miles to hotels, car rental agencies, major banks and others to use as incentives with customers is a billion-dollar a year business for airlines, chasing free seats is likely to be a challenge for months to come.
"There are trillions of frequent flier miles sitting in peoples' accounts," Winship said. "And every year the number of outstanding miles increases rather than decreases."
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