An annual survey of frequent flyer programs finds miles are easier to use, but the top airlines that offer free seats have drastically changed. The ninth edition of the CarTrawler Reward Seat Availability Survey puts low-cost carriers in the lead for award flight options, while legacy carriers are struggling against foreign counterparts.
The good news is that it’s easier for frequent flyers to use their miles towards cheap flights – but it’s getting harder to find them on domestic carriers. The ninth annual CarTrawler Reward Seat Availability Survey discovered despite more programs moving towards revenue-based models, awards are getting easier to find on major airlines.
For total award seat availability for medium- and long-haul flights, Southwest Airlines remained the top airline for rewards because Rapid Rewards points were valid for all flights. Air Canada and Turkish Airlines were second and third, respectively, with both carriers making significant jumps in the number of award seats available. Air Canada made 96.4 percent of seats available on miles, while 95 percent of Turkish flights could be booked with Miles and Smiles points.
Among domestic carriers, JetBlue ranked fourth overall, with 94.3 percent award availability. American Airlines ranked ninth, the highest among legacy carriers. United jumped to 12th place overall, beating both Delta Air Lines and Alaska Airlines in award seat availability.
When comparing long-haul flights alone, Turkish and Air Canada took the top two spots. Awards on the two international carriers were found on over 94 percent of flights. Surprisingly, Norwegian’s reward program tied with Air Canada for long-haul award availability, tying for second place.
Once again, America’s legacy carriers lagged behind their international counterparts. United offered the most long-haul award flights, with a total availability under 73 percent, ranking seventh in long-haul flights. American was one position lower, offering a total award flight availability of 71.4 percent – up over 25 percent from last year. Both Alaska and Delta ranked outside the top ten, offering award availability on just over half of all long-haul flights.
The study credits these changes to shifting frequent flyer programs. Of the 25 airlines surveyed, 11 moved to a revenue-based system where flyers earn miles based on how much they spend. Coincidentally, 11 total airlines offered more reward seats during the survey period.
“Member expectations and satisfaction are important for airlines seeking success,” an abstract of the study noted. “Happy members buy more tickets and use their co-branded credit cards more often.”
Flyers’ habits and attitudes towards award flights are changing as well. With more carriers giving up award charts in favor of cost-based awards, more flyers are demanding pricing that correlates with the cash value of a flight.
“Global network airlines are realizing the old binary method of using reward tables based on distance creates unreliable reward value,” the abstract explains. “Members increasingly believe low fares should correspond to lower reward prices.”
To determine the rankings, IdeaWorks looked at hypothetical bookings for 280 specific dates between June and October 2018. The searches ran throughout the month of March, focusing on capacity controlled seats.