Best and worst airlines for spending frequent-flier points
Airlines have loosened their grip on free seats, but the biggest US carriers trail their international rivals.
This post comes from Scott McCartney at partner site The Wall Street Journal.
It may not help you score a free ticket to Paris in July, but many airlines have started making it a bit easier for consumers to use frequent-flier miles for trips.
An annual survey found greater availability of award tickets at the lowest "saver" levels at more than half of the 25 airlines surveyed around the world.
"There's been a meaningful lift," said Jay Sorensen, president of Wisconsin-based consulting firm IdeaWorks, which conducts the annual survey. "Traditionally airlines cut back on award seats as they enter [financial] recovery because they can sell more seats for cash. But that's not happening this time."
Delta Air Lines had one of the biggest changes. Delta has perennially ranked at the bottom of the five-year-old ranking.
The data show Delta has started to make small improvements. In this year's survey, Delta had two tickets available at the saver level on 55 percent of the 280 queries made, up from 36 percent last year. That put Delta on par with American Airlines. Both still trail Alaska, United, JetBlue and Southwest among U.S. carriers.
Delta says on Jan. 1 it started to slowly change award seat allocations, telling inventory managers to be less tightfisted with saver-level seats. If flights aren't selling as well as planned, Delta says it now allocates more frequent-flier award seats rather than holding out longer for low-fare ticket purchases.
"We are taking a slightly less conservative approach in how we manage flights far out," said Delta Vice President Jeff Robertson, who said lack of award availability was Delta's top customer gripe. The airline has bigger changes coming for its program.
The survey, sponsored by technology company Switchfly Inc., checks online for two seats at the lowest possible mileage level on the busiest routes for each airline. That tends to be a coach ticket for 25,000 miles on U.S. domestic trips. The survey checked travel dates between June and October 2014 on 10 medium-length routes under 2,500 miles, plus 10 long-haul routes, a total of 280 queries for each airline.
By using each airline's busiest routes, the survey checks where airlines have the most seats to offer and where travelers most often fly. Savvy travelers know an experienced phone agent can help find award seats that might not show up on the airline's website, but this survey represents a more standard search.
Air Berlin and Southwest Airlines had seats available on every query made in the survey, ranking them at the top for the third year in a row. JetBlue improved its availability a bit and had seats available for 93 percent of the requests.
Southwest has some natural advantages. Its short-haul, high-frequency network means that on its busiest routes, it may have a dozen flights a day or more. "If they can't find two seats, something is wrong," Mr. Sorensen said.
In addition, Southwest moved to a point-based system several years ago. Every flight is shown with a cash price and a point-based price. Since Southwest's credit card offers one point for every dollar spent, just like other airlines, IdeaWorks looks for trips on Southwest at 25,000 points or lower.
At the bottom of the rankings were US Airways and Avianca Taca of Latin America. US Airways, with seats available on only 35 percent of queries, has consistently found itself around the bottom of the rankings, showing "a management philosophy toward stinginess" on frequent-flier awards, Mr. Sorensen said.
Now those US Airways executives comprise most of the senior management team after the carrier's merger with American Airlines. Regular travelers on the airline may wonder if American will make it more difficult to get seats at saver-mileage levels after the US Airways and American frequent-flier programs merge.
A spokesman for American said as the two airlines merge frequent-flier programs, "we will offer a loyalty program that supports and reflects our industry-leading position."
Airlines have been under intense pressure from customers, accountants and banks to make more seats available for awards so consumers can use their miles. It's the accounting rule changes and pressure from banks that seem to be driving the most change now.
The majority of airline miles and points are sold to banks, which give them out as credit card rewards. When customers have a difficult time cashing in the miles, they may switch to other cards. In addition, accounting rules adopted by many airlines now let carriers record only a portion of revenue when miles are sold to banks and defer the rest until miles are redeemed.
Airline executives admit that Mr. Sorensen's five-year-old availability survey has also had an impact, quantifying seats available for the first time and comparing airlines head-to-head. United began advertising its strong showing last year; Delta says its low ranking prompted internal debate that pushed changes.
Many customers still aren't happy. Bob Anderson of Minneapolis boosted his mileage by getting a new American Express credit card that offered a sign-up bonus in Delta miles. In January, he shopped for two seats to Acapulco, Mexico, telling Delta he'd take any flight any day in January, February or March. Nothing was available. When he complained in writing, Delta responded by urging him to be more flexible.
"I can't redeem them," Mr. Anderson said.
Delta announced a dramatic change in its SkyMiles program in February. Beginning in 2015, miles will be awarded based on the fare paid, not distance traveled, with hefty bonuses for elite-level status. As part of the changes, Delta promised to make more award seats available. Mr. Robertson said the airline wanted to ramp up availability over the course of 2014. Delta also plans to roll out enhanced search capabilities for awards on its website.
"I think customers will really see us start walking the talk over the next six to eight months," Mr. Robertson said. Most of the improvement at Delta came on domestic trips, IdeaWorks noted, rather than long-haul international flights.
Turkish Airlines saw the biggest turnaround. The carrier is pushing hard to expand, including new flights from North America. Turkish has employed star athletes Kobe Bryant and Lionel Messi in its advertising and promised more award seats after acknowledging in a news release that its frequent-flier program needed an upgrade. The airline plans to make more award seats available starting June 1.
Mr. Sorensen notes that airlines like United and Air France, both of which are trailing competitors' profitability and both of which had declines in reward availability this year, sometimes reduce availability of reward seats to get more paying customers instead.
A spokesman for United said the airline's strategy on frequent-flier awards this year is consistent with past years. The decline in 2014 "may simply be the result of the change in booking demand in March of this year versus March of 2013." Air France didn't answer a request for comment.
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