Survey Shows Not All Frequent Flier Programs Are Created Equal

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For travelers looking for free seats using frequent flier miles, it may come as no surprise that not all airline reward programs are created equal.

At least that's what a new study has found. According to a survey conducted by IdeaWorks, a consulting firm for the airline industry, Southwest Airlines had the best record, and US Airways had the worst.

Based on 6,000 booking queries on 22 different frequent flier program websites during February and March of this year, the firm used searches to check travel dates for seat availability spanning from June through October. The searches included a mix of long-haul routes and shorter trips.

Southwest, Air Berlin, Air Canada and Virgin Blue topped the list with seat availability at ninety percent or above. Delta Air Lines and US Airways were at the bottom of the rankings, with less than 15 percent seat availability, according to the report.

Jay Sorensen, president of IdeaWorks, said the company conducted the survey because many consumers have opinions about which airline loyalty programs are best, but there was little quantitative data available.

Sorensen said some airlines operate to benefit their members and make a big effort to accommodate them regardless, while others treat awards as gifts based on demand and only provide free seats if seats go unsold.

Henry H. Harteveldt, travel analyst for Forrester Research, said "seat availability is clearly a fundamental element of why people belong to any loyalty program. If there is not a seat, there is a great degree of frustration."

Harteveldt said he was not familiar with the recent survey, but that one of the challenges of such a study may have been that not all air lines have equally efficient frequent flier availably on the web, and sometimes booking free seats over the phone works best. He said he personally often had much better luck finding desired flights when airline agents assisted over the phone.

"Airlines need to pay attention to the award travel redemption process," Mr. Harteveldt said.

Mr. Sorensen said as the economy recovers, he thinks there will continue to be less flight capacity through the summer. "It may be good for some airlines but may be tougher for consumers." But he said he hopes the report will provide a blue print for consumers, as the airlines with good records most likely will continue their track record.

"The report provides a data point to help consumers know which airlines deserve their loyalty if reward seat availability is an important factor. They have proven that they place an importance on reward seats regardless of what is happening economically."
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