FREQUENT FLYING: Actually using those frequent flier miles

You’ve been judicious about using one or two frequent flier programs. You try to travel on partner airlines when you can’t fly the primary carrier, and you carry the airline’s affinity card, too, in an effort to accrue as many miles as possible.

But when it comes time to actually use those miles, what are your chances of scoring a seat?

A new survey says chances can be pretty good ... IF you’ve chosen the right airline.

The survey, conducted in March by a company called IdeaWorks, tried to book seats using saver-style awards for parties of two travelers on the top routes of 27 carriers. It looked at 280 specific dates between June and October, and recorded whether reward seats were available for both outbound and return travel on the dates specified.

The results

The survey showed that value-based carrier Southwest ranked No. 1 among U.S.-based carriers with reward seats available on 100 percent of the flights queried.

AirTran (recently acquired by Southwest) and United tied for the No. 2 U.S. carriers, with 87.1 percent availability. JetBlue was next at 86.4 percent followed by Alaska Airlines at 59.3 percent, American Airlines at 45.7 percent, U.S. Airways at 33.6 percent, and Delta at just 27.1 percent.

The third annual survey shows airlines are slowly improving. Nine airlines scored above 80 percent for 2012 compared to five airlines above 80 percent in 2010, the first year of the survey.

Five of the top U.S. carriers showed improved availability from the 2011 survey. AirTran was up 40 percentage points, U.S. Airways increased 7.9 points, JetBlue bettered last year’s numbers by 7.1 points, United grew 5.7 points, and Southwest went up 0.7 points. Delta remained unchanged while both Alaska and American dropped, five points and 17.2 points respectively.

The survey also looked at seat availability on short notice and found that it actually improved in some cases. The company tested larger US-based carriers using a much shorter 5- to 15-day booking window and found that United Airlines offered seats on 87.5 percent of its flights, while American’s availability was 65 percent, U.S. Airways had seats on 42.5 percent of its flights, while Delta dropped to 25 percent.

Three of four showed improved availability for short-notice booking over the results from the previous year. United was up 22.5 points, American and U.S. Airways were both up 17.5 points, while Delta dropped 17.5 points.

 Part of the reason for the improvement centers on competition from other sectors.

“Consumers can expect the good times to continue as airlines face increased competition from cash-back and rewards-style cards issued by banks,” the company said in its news release.

The results of the survey, especially in view of year-over-year improvements, are encouraging.

“The results ... indicate many airlines have quietly acknowledged a basic member expectation - - the right of reasonable access to capacity controlled reward seats,” the company said.

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